Online Research & Week 11 Readings

     The readings for Week 11 offer useful insight into the ethical underpinnings of online research as well as the ethical considerations relevant to our final assignment. The Zimmer (2010) article in particular is quite applicable to an Information Science degree, considering the critical analysis of data management and privacy & surveillance that informs much of the content. For my final assignment I am researching data literacy standards at U of T Libraries and part of my research involves interviewing human subjects and considering aspects of their online presence. The research project that Zimmer (2010) uses as a case study is an excellent example of the contentious nature of researching data specific to online identities. The implications of using unique datasets, such as those found on social networking sites, will absolutely need to be considered when developing a concept of data literacy standards.

     Indeed, the School of Graduate Studies Student Guide on Ethical Conduct  states that “obtaining data about a living individual through intervention or interaction with the individual, or the obtaining of private personal information about the individual” (p.3) must be reviewed by the ethics board. But what does it mean when an ethics board approves misuse of data, even if unintentionally? The case study describes a group of researchers who “released data collected from the Facebook accounts of an entire cohort of college students” (2010, p. 313) and despite efforts to protect their privacy, “the identity of the source of the dataset was quickly discovered.” (2010, p.313) This example is a blatant dismissal of ethical research standards. Zimmer (2010) also notes that institutional approval was given for the research and he asks “just as we can question whether the T3 researchers fully understood the privacy implications of the research, we must critically examine whether Harvard’s IRB – a panel of experts in research ethics – also sufficiently understood how the privacy of subjects in the dataset could be compromised.” (2010, p. 320) Zimmer offers great insight into the need for ensuring ethical standards, especially when entering new domains of social science.

     Further to this, I am reminded of a recent article I read in the Critical Making workshop about research related to Pervasive Recording Technologies.  In “Understanding Recording Technologies in Everyday Life,” the authors note that  “electronic records of our daily activ­ities are now common, with both corporations and government agen­cies regularly amassing financial transactions, healthcare records, Internet browsing habits, and more as ‘digital dossiers’.”(2010, p. 64) The article studies recording technologies as a means to examine the issues surrounding technology and online identities. They conclude that “people must develop new understandings and create new explanations for what is being recorded and how it might be used;” (2010, p. 71) a conclusion that absolutely extends to those who research personal data and the ethics boards that approve them.

Wishing you all the very best with the final assignment,

Vanessa K.



Massimi, M., Truong, K.N., Dearman, D., and Hayes, G.R. Understanding Recording Technologies in Everyday Life. IEEE Pervasive Computing. Volume 9(3), July‐September 2010. 64‐71.

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