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Online experiments may be helping researchers gather more data faster than ever before, but those advantages are coming with greater ethical challenges--threats to participant confidentiality, questions over whether the participants really understand what they're getting into and the possibility that less scrupulous researchers could steal your ideas.

Of course, the same ethical principles that bind researchers in the real world apply in cyberspace. Psychologists must adhere to APA's ethical principles when conducting research with humans, and every human study must be reviewed for ethical compliance by an institutional review board (IRB).

But conducting research on the Internet is raising unique concerns and technological glitches that make it more difficult for researchers to ensure they're complying with these guidelines and principles. For example, how do researchers obtain valid informed consent from online participants? They can ask prospective participants to read an informed consent form and click a button if they agree, but there's no way to check that they truly understand.

Debriefing study participants can be even more challenging, researchers say. In some studies, psychologists deceive participants about the study's premise or provide false feedback to see how it might affect a person's performance, but once the study is over, they are ethically required to reveal the true nature of the study. Is there any way to do this properly when people can click away from your site and disappear for good in an instant?

There are no definitive answers to such questions yet, although several organizations have begun to consider the issues. APA's Board of Scientific Affairs (BSA), for example, has been discussing the ethics of Web research. And last winter, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released the report, "Ethical and legal aspects of human subjects research on the Internet," based on a June 1999 workshop and sponsored by AAAS's Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program and the National Institutes of Health's Office for Protection from Research Risks (OPRR). Based on the report, OPRR has prepared guidelines for IRBs that review studies conducted on the Internet (see its Web site at grants.nih.gov/grants/oprr/oprr.htm).

Still, the area remains ethically murky for researchers.

"It's not so much that there are new issues, but we have to address old issues in a different way," says Juli Espinoza, coordinator of the nonmedical IRB at Stanford University. "That's the challenge--coming up with solutions that are appropriate in the new environment of the Internet."

Ethical conundrums

Of major concern to BSA and the AAAS is protecting participants in online behavioral and social science research. As with research in the real world, ethical concerns for participants depend on the type of research conducted. Usually, Internet research falls into two categories:

  •  Studies that examine the psychology of people who use Web resources and that analyze Web-based interactions by monitoring usage patterns or assessing people's overall experience of some Web-related resource.

  • Web sites that solicit people--actively or passively--to fill out surveys or participate in experimental tasks that measure psychological constructs such as memory, decision-making and reaction time.

Both types of research must adhere to the same basic ethical principles--protecting the privacy and autonomy of participants without inflicting harm--but the former probably poses the greater risk to participants if not handled correctly. A main concern of this type of research, detailed in the AAAS report, focuses on researchers' ability to monitor Web-based interactions in chat rooms or support groups without informing participants, says Jeffery Cohen, PhD, associate director for education in OPRR's Division of Human Subject Protections. Some researchers believe that the information within such forums is in the public domain because the forums are open to the public. Other researchers maintain that people online expect--and deserve--privacy. The issue remains an ethical question that needs answering, the AAAS report concludes.

Web-based general psychological surveys and experiments are likely of less risk to participants' privacy (depending, of course, on the type of personal information collected), say researchers. Not only are many Web studies benign, they say, but they are voluntary and participants can drop out any time they want to. In fact, researchers consider these studies so innocuous that, for many, they use a passive informed consent, with words to the effect that if people complete the study and submit their data, they've agreed to participate. Some go a bit further, asking people to click on a box that says, "I consent" or having them type "Yes," or "I agree" into a response box.

Of course, researchers have no way to know whether participants truly understand what they're agreeing to. That's hard enough with lab-based or face-to-face studies where researchers have one-on-one contact with participants. And to date there is no standardized method for collecting and validating informed consent online. That's something psychologists should be developing, says psychologist Kent Norman, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University, one of the pioneers of Web-based research.

Debriefing participants about the study and any deception that might have occurred is even trickier and may not be conducive to Web-based studies, say some researchers. Researchers normally conduct debriefing face-to-face with participants so they can handle any questions or concerns. And, although they can easily provide a written debriefing statement at the end of a study or through e-mail, there is no way to guarantee that participants will actually read it. In addition, if participants become distressed or emotional over some aspect of the study, researchers will never know.

"You can set up careful debriefing, but participants might not receive it," says Wesleyan University's Scott Plous, PhD. "So, if you wanted to do active deception in an open experiment, you'll lose control over whether people receive the correction afterwards. It raises serious ethical concerns."

It's also difficult to control who participates in your study, says the University of Pennsylvania's Jonathan Baron, PhD, who conducts online judgment and decision-making studies. That means researchers need to design studies knowing that children may be exposed. Baron found this particularly challenging when he designed a study of contraception use. He seeks to make his studies appropriate for all ages, then asks people for their ages. They may still lie, but it's less likely, he says, and for his research, age isn't of great importance.

But the issue of valid data is something that may skew, and thereby invalidate, other types of data sets, says OPRR's Cohen. That, in itself, may put the ethics of a study at risk, according to the AAAS report.

"Research that is invalid has no benefit," says Cohen. "And if there's no benefit at all, any inconvenience to subjects isn't worth it."

These are issues that IRBs are struggling with as they begin tackling more and more applications for Web-based research. And, although OPRR's guidelines will help, questions on how to address the technical issues remain to be answered. At the moment, Stanford's nonmedical research IRB is examining every case of Web-based research carefully, says its coordinator Espinoza. Of concern to its members is the need to ensure adequate informed consent and confidentiality of personal information sent over the Internet. If the IRB deems a study's content as "sensitive," it calls in the university's computer experts to work with the researchers and guarantee secure transfer of data from participants to researchers.

Indeed, having technical expertise on IRBs will be key to ensuring that study applications get reviewed adequately, says Cohen. But currently, such expertise is the exception, not the rule. And, in the end, there will likely be some types of research that IRBs deem inappropriate for the Web, says Cohen. For example, those that deal with extremely sensitive and emotional topics, such as rape or war experience, or those that use heavy-duty deception.

Researchers' rights

Protecting researchers' intellectual property has also become a more pressing concern for those conducting Web-based experiments. Researchers who collect data on the Web expose their methods and protocols to their colleagues long before they publish a completed research project. They can prevent people from accessing their data, but they can't rule out the possibility that someone might copy their ideas.

"Right now, you post an experiment to the Web long before any paper will be written," says psychologist Michael Birnbaum, PhD, of California State University, Fullerton. "Someone else can just copy it and do the whole experiment."

But, although many researchers agree that losing control over your ideas is a greater risk with Web-based research, the Web can also facilitate science at its best, opening up to scrutiny the entire scientific process, from beginning to end.

"Once you decide to do a Web experiment," says Birnbaum, "you either restrict it by password--which would basically be like doing the experiment in the lab without the benefits of access to the larger Web community--or you accept that other people can learn from it."

Further Reading

Copies of the AAAS report "Ethical and legal aspects of human subjects research on the Internet" can be viewed at www.aaas.org/spp/dspp/sfrl/projects/intres/main.htm. Researchers can access a copy of APA's ethical principles (which do not yet specifically address Internet research) at www.apa.org/ethics/homepage.html.