Ethics of weblog research

Lilia asks about the ethics of protecting your “subjects” when studying blogs. I’ve thought a bit about this. In my opinion, when we study blogs, we are largely studying a publication, and not a person, at least for aggregated data or quotations that are not personally identifiable. But it does raise an interesting ethical dilemma.

I recognize the ambiguity, and that not every weblog publisher realizes just how public their work is, but I consider weblogs to be quite firmly in the public sphere. Anyone can find and read the content. I consider them to be the equivalent of public printed matter like newspaper articles, brochures, and books.

Anonymizing, as Sylvie notes in Lilia’s comments, would require that you change the words so that they are not searchable, and this quickly becomes a losing game, I suspect. I would not use the author’s name unless it was made very clear on the blog, and would respect any effort to blog pseudonymously, but otherwise, I cite it.

The balance here is between two potential responsibilities to your subjects. The first potential responsibility is to protect their privacy. Although — as noted above — I don’t adhere to this potential responsibility, I do admit to it being a real possibility that those who blog are presenting private information without realizing that it may show up in other contexts. This is particularly true among children and young adults who are blogging, I think. You can still be mindful about this, and be careful about writing that seems as though it has the potential to harm the author when decontextualized, but generally, I think this is an exception.

The other responsibility is to recognize the authorship of the individual. Perhaps there is a difference between when you are citing a blog as prior art or part of the literature (how many times has Blood’s essay on the history of blogging been cited?) and when you are presenting a quote as a primary source of evidence for your investigation. Nonetheless, it seems to me that in either case, you owe the author attribution.

There is a way to overcome this problem: ask the author. I will note that I have not done this in most cases, but on reflection it seems like a very reasonable approach when the quotations or stories that you are using are few. I have not done this in the past, but on reflection it seems like the best way to go.

But then, how about when you publish academic work about blogs on your blog? Does that mean that because of the nature of the work, you are held to a higher standard than other bloggers? I guess the answer to that question is almost certainly yes. Researchers have for some time now been held to ethical standards higher than, for example, journalists when it comes to protecting their subjects. Why should the venue in which you publish that work remove that responsibility?

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One Comment

  1. Posted 6/17/2004 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    hi, your post is very important for me, thanks

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Bloggrelaterat on 4/29/2004 at 4:05 am

    Bloggforskning och etik
    Alex Halavais om etiska problem i bloggforskningen….

  2. By Mathemagenic on 4/29/2004 at 12:42 pm

    Weblog research ethics (2)
    This is what I love about blogoshere: you post a question and keep being busy with other things while many smart people provide you with answers.

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