Is it ethical to use info from the internet for research use?

Sunday, February 5th, 2012
As the joyous Facebook slowly takes over and ruins everyone’s life, forums overflow with discussion and just about everyone has a blog, the internet suddenly has a wealth of information on just about anything. People divulge their fears, opinions, views, and feelings on all kinds of subjects for all to see and do so behind the anonymity of their computer. What we must ask ourselves therefore is this; if someone posts a viewpoint, or opinion, or interesting conversation in a public domain where anyone can access it, is it okay for a researcher to simply come and take that data and use it in their own study?? I feel on many levels that yes, it is okay to use this information. If you put something in a public place then you are giving your consent for people to use that information. If a researcher quoted a discussion in a qualitative paper is it any worse than someone quoting that discussion in a blog? If anonymity is held then the ethical principle of privacy has been upheld. I do however see where there may be issues. If someone was posting on a support group discussion about an illness they have, this may contain some very personal and sensitive information and it could be suggested that it is morally wrong to almost expose that to people who would not normally read that information. Yes, the website is public but perhaps people go on there under the assumption that the only people who will read it are people who understand them and share similar personal experiences, not someone who is out to take their words apart and analyse them for scientific use. This is a subject matter which is difficult to answer. Perhaps if information is taken as a whole rather than individual quotes and examples then privacy won’t be invaded as much and less harm is being done because the research only talks about general themes around what they have read. A way around this problem is to open up specific forums where the researcher could ask people if they will willingly talk about what they want to know. This way the person knows exactly what their words are being used for. The internet is an amazing tool, with a wealth of free and easy to get to information, and this can be so beneficial for research as suddenly we are reaching people we probably wouldn’t be able to, and how amazing is that! It is important to discuss issues such as this though so that we have the freedom to use the internet without fear of our privacy being abused and our information being misused. I do however feel that public internet data, if used in an appropriate manner then it could really revolutionise how efficiently we can collect data.

6 comments on “Is it ethical to use info from the internet for research use?

  1. psuc9d says:


    I found your blog very interesting to read, and I personally find this topic very intriguing 🙂

    I agree with you that if people are putting information on the internet, into the public then they are kind of saying ‘yes, I content for you to use my data/information etc’ as people do know the costs and consequences of putting personal information online. However, in order for a researcher to find information of the internet and then use it for different purposes in their experiment or studies is wrong as they may be manipulating the information they have found.

    Personally I think that the internet is a growing help to researchers and psychological research and it could benefit research significantly as researchers could find large samples efficiently and specific participants with rare characteristics in which they would want to test. Also it is much easier not only to find the samples you want efficiently and fast but to collect the data using online questionnaires and surveys, but however there has been evidence of high drop-out rates when collecting research online and of participants re-doing studies in which they have already participated in.

    Overall, good blog with good points, happy blogging 🙂

  2. psychmja1 says:

    I too find this subject interesting, however it almost impossible to come to a conclusion on whether researchers should be allowed to use information out there on the internet or not. I like how you said that we should possibly avoid information posted on support sites as it may be too personal or a sensitive subject. However, if we then start putting limits on what we can and can’t use from the internet the whole thing starts to get very confusing.
    However I do agree that the internet is a vast and powerful tool that is helpful to researchers of all sorts, including psychologists. A recent United Nations Human Rights Council* report studied whether access to the internet is a human right or not, concluding that restricting access completely will always violate the right to freedom of speech. So if we have freedom of speech on the internet does that mean that we have the freedom to take whatever we want from it? Well it’s a difficult question. If someone posts something online they know it’s there for everyone to see, but maybe not everyone thinks that they may end up being part of a research study. This of course brings the issue of informed consent, right to withdraw etc. If someone doesn’t know they are being studied then how can they withdraw their data?
    It’s a difficult question, and one that really doesn’t have a definite answer

  3. psyalo says:

    This is a very grey area in psychology at the moment because the internet is a fairly new area for collecting data. Rodham and Gavin (2006), said that the practice of conducting research online is in its infancy.
    Yes, the internet is a good place for collecting lots of data all at once, with people from different cultures having their say. However, non-verbal cues, tone ad facial expression are just some of the things we lose when conducting this research. Up to 2/3 of communication is done using non-verbal cues. Birdwhistell (1970), found that individuals can recognize around 250,000 facial expressions.
    The Internet Mediated Research (IMR) can be used with the British Psychological Society to allow additional ethical and practical issues. However, due to the high rate of development in technology, the IMR can not keep up. So it is hard to tell what it right and wrong.
    There are some individuals on the internet who make comments just for an effect. These individuals call their actions ‘trolling’. They may not believe the words they are typing. This week the BBC have been trying to raise awareness to the harms of using the internet, . There is a chance psychologist may take what these individuals say truthfully, which would not be good.

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