Research Ethics in Social Sciences: Online Data Gathering and Big Data Analysis

Thanks to kelseyannvere (

The widespread use of the Internet, mobile devices, and social media represents a significant opportunity for researchers, known as the trend of computational social science as named by Popov, Gosling, Kosinski, Matz, and Stillwell (2015), but also comes with ethical challenges (Drotar, 2011).

Researchers and Human Research Ethics Committees alike need to evaluate ethical risk in the use of social media in research (Lunnay, Borlagdan, McNaughton, & Ward, 2015) based on traditional ethics principles, with the researcher being obliged to provide evidence for appropriate privacy, anonymity, and beneficence. With a potentially more open exposure and sharing of data in the online world, psychologists have to be sensible about how to handle privacy in specific research situations (Kolmes, 2012). This may involve new technological skills, but the principles of privacy protection may remain the same. On the other side, the topic of anonymity seems to pose some inherent new challenges. The British Psychological Society (2010) is stating that “observational research is only acceptable in situations where those observed would expect to be observed by strangers (p. 25)” to ethically avoid deception. According to Jowett (2015) argues that for example, online forums’ characteristic is to be open for anonymous participation in writing and reading by design. Similarly, Stevens, O’Donnell, and Williams (2015) found that taking the public nature of an Online space may relativize the expectation of privacy and that in their case disclosure of the lurking of researchers would have caused a risk of greater harm to the Online community.

Although data gathering, storage, and analysis are involving increasingly data and IT scientists in the research process, psychologists remain accountable for bringing the scientific field of psychology forward in an ethical manner. Harlow and Oswald (2016) propose the joint elaboration of ethical standards for the data collection on the World Wide Web between the American Psychological Association and the Data Science Association to ensure the validity of research findings based on these data. New Big Data analytics procedures should be evaluated according to existing basic research ethic principles and stay subject to peer review to ensure continued professionalism (Rothstein, 2015); as Fiske and Hauser (2014) state human research participant protection is a permanent concern. Saunders, Kitzinger, and Kitzinger (2015) emphasize their recommendation to work closely together with research participants and make clear what data will be used in what way, helping to get consent when information is available.

In summary, the vast and rich population found on the Internet and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter may offer more opportunities to progress research on contemporary human behavior than risks related to some new challenges in Online research methodology and ethics (Gosling & Mason, 2015).



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Fiske, S. T., & Hauser, R. M. (2014). Protecting human research participants in the age of big data. PNAS Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 111(38), 13675-13676. doi:10.1073/pnas.1414626111

Gosling, S., & Mason, W. (2015). Internet Research in Psychology. Annual Review Of Psychology, Vol 66, 66877-902.

Harlow, L. L., & Oswald, F. L. (2016). Big data in psychology: Introduction to the special issue. Psychological Methods, 21(4), 447-457. doi:10.1037/met0000120

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Lunnay, B., Borlagdan, J., McNaughton, D., & Ward, P. (2015). Ethical use of social media to facilitate qualitative research. Qualitative Health Research, 25(1), 99-109. doi:10.1177/1049732314549031

Popov, V., Gosling, S. D., Kosinski, M., Matz, S. C., & Stillwell, D. (2015). Facebook as a Research Tool for the Social Sciences. American Psychologist, 70(6), 543-556. doi:10.1037/a0039210

Rothstein, M. A. (2015). Ethical Issues in Big Data Health Research: Currents in Contemporary Bioethics. Journal Of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 43(2), 425-429.

Saunders, B., Kitzinger, J., & Kitzinger, C. (2015). Participant Anonymity in the Internet Age: From Theory to Practice. Qualitative Research In Psychology, 12(2), 125-137.

Stevens, G., O’Donnell, V. L., & Williams, L. (2015). Public Domain or Private Data? Developing an Ethical Approach to Social Media Research in an Inter-Disciplinary Project. Educational Research And Evaluation, 21(2), 154-167.

  • Delicate topic; the importance of research versus the right to privacy. Maybe it is possible to implement a ‘field’ at the privacy settings, in which a person can agree or disagree, his/her information will be used in research?