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Internet data collection allows psychologists to conduct both traditional and unique research inexpensively, but requires them to be sensitive to new concerns about ethics and scientific quality, says a recent report from an APA Board of Scientific Affairs (BSA) working group. The report, titled "Psychological Research Online," identifies these concerns and provides tips for using the Internet to conduct ethically and scientifically sound research.

The group, made up of psychologists, computer scientists and sociologists and chaired by psychologist Robert Kraut, PhD, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, set out to consider emerging ethical and scientific questions related to Web-based research, including:

* Can researchers adequately control the context in which data are procured when subjects participate online?

* Can researchers sufficiently provide informed consent, explanation of instruction and effective debriefings over the Internet?

* Does observing interactions in chat rooms and bulletin boards violate participants' privacy or right to informed consent?

The group's report was presented to BSA and approved last year. A shortened version appears in the February issue of the American Psychologist (Vol. 59, No. 2), Kraut says.

Overall, the group concluded that Internet research is on par ethically with traditional observational, survey or experimental methods, says Kraut, who teaches computer-human interaction and social psychology.

"Using the Internet is no more ethical or unethical than other research forms," Kraut says. "But there are a number of key concepts one needs to be aware of, like public behavior, expectations of privacy and minimal risk, which take on different meanings online and need to be carefully attended to."

Unseen participants

Caveats aside, the group maintains that the Internet has some significant benefits. Among these are the visibility of new psychological phenomena, reduced costs in recruiting large, diverse or specialized samples of research participants and ready-made, transcribed archives of social interactions on bulletin boards and in chat rooms.

However, there can be pitfalls, the report notes. For one, the anonymous nature of Internet submissions allows people to participate frivolously or with malicious intent through, for example, multiple submissions or behaviors meant to undermine research integrity, such as creating responses intended to skew statistics.

So, Kraut says, researchers should use exploratory data analysis and systematic data mining to identify and eliminate bad data or to determine the need for statistics robust to outliers.

Ensuring consent

Another challenge of virtual media is securing informed consent for research participants without using paper-based forms: It's difficult to find a legally binding replacement for a signature, Kraut says. However, most online research on adults meets the requirements for "minimal-risk research," meaning official consent can be waived, Kraut says.

But he notes that online researchers should take extra measures to pretest informed consent statements to ensure the broad online population will understand them. Researchers can also require feedback; for example, requiring a "click to accept" for each element in an informed consent statement or even giving short quizzes to establish understanding.

Of course, vulnerable groups, such as children, pose unique informed consent considerations. When they participate, parents or guardians must be involved in testing and registration.

Considering privacy

In addition, the report says, researchers, institutions and bodies that fund them need to know about the different privacy concerns raised when information is collected online.

For example, Kraut says, researchers need to consider whether observing behavior in chat rooms is like watching people interact in a public place like a park, or if it is more like overhearing a private conversation in a restaurant, where a certain level of confidentiality is assumed.

"The Internet provides an interesting place to observe groups getting to know each other and develop norms, so that you can actually watch it happen," he says. "But what are the ethics of watching people do that?"

He says, for example, that the membership makeup of an online group is an important consideration. Researchers should think about the group's function in participants' lives--for example, whether it's generally available to people online or password protected.

And, he adds, the institutional review boards that review research proposals need to have available to them the technical expertise to decide if a study's parameters are ethically and scientifically valid.

Further Reading

The report is available at www.apa.org/science/bsaweb-agcri.html.