With the boom of self-publishing and blog content, there are nearly infinite stories and personal information to be found on the web. How should we use these data ethically in a research context?
A few years ago, a national funding agency in Japan sent me an invitation to participate in a survey, asking researchers in social sciences and humanities disciplines about the management of research data, such as data collection methods, archiving, and the sharing of research data with other researchers. According to the report on the survey results,1 I was among those majority respondents who supported the idea of open science and open data, but would be hesitant to make her own research data publicly accessible to other researchers. My hesitancy reflected my past experience of using blogs for a qualitative analysis of school teachers’ identity formation.
The idea of sharing qualitative data with other researchers seemed to me complicated practically, intellectually and ethically as the internet-mediated aspects of data affected the context of my doing research. At least, a systematic documentation would be needed in order to make an archive of qualitative data accessible to other researchers,2 explaining what is and is not included in the data and how they are presented. And yet, when data are ‘found’ from user-generated online materials, and are not necessarily designed or explored according to research questions,3 a researcher may have little control over such data, whereby data are sourced first, and types of analysis are then selected according to what is available in the data. Subsequently, the context and conditions of a researcher’s data generation provide important information about what is produced as data. Moreover, such contextual information is complicated by conditions under which a researcher tries to do research ethically.
In this essay, I introduce my account of using blogs for qualitative research as a comparative perspective to the discussion of equitable and accessible data generation in the context of research using online media. I use the idea of data sources as gifts to illuminate how online users may want to share their experiences with others, bringing the social relations in which data are produced into focus. Back in 2005, I started reading blogs written by self-identified school teachers in Japan as part of my data for my PhD study at the University of Melbourne, Australia. To me, such blogs seemed like what may be termed today as digital gifts,4 that is, internet materials and services being exchanged by online users in a relation of obligation to give. The idea of gift does not just describe what is exchanged, but explains what it produces, that is, obligations to give and give back.5 The blogs that I examined were not just available for public views and free of charge—they were given to those who could give back to a blogger. Namely, there were mutual elements in the way such blogs were presented. The bloggers seemed to enjoy sharing their experiences of being a teacher in online media, suggesting that they were both givers of personal stories and receivers of online experience, and also that the benefits of writing and sharing a blog were given by others.
Below, I discuss how I negotiated the absence of clear-cut ethical protocols and analytical procedures in accessing and analyzing teachers’ inner worlds represented in online blogs. Attending to the context of exchange among bloggers and blog readers highlights that the researcher’s perceived challenges tell as much about his or her research assumptions as about online users’ crafting and enacting their social worlds in given environments. This not only suggests a need for reimagining and reconstituting ways of doing research to reflect the messiness of social realities that is not contained in standard research practices,6 but also suggests that such imagination and reconstitution are critical for producing online-sourced, qualitative data that are equitable and accessible.
In my research project, it was the rise of user-generated blogs that provided me with a digital infrastructure for accessing a massive amount of information about individuals’ subjective experiences, and interactions occurring among users online. But this also gave me a sense of explicit procedures and protocols absent in my research, as I was no longer facing a structured body of research, but a range of ethical and analytical challenges.
First, with a hand-coding of textual materials being my primary method of data analysis, I faced multiple practical issues, such as handling a large amount of blog content; recognizing different types of data other than texts; and capturing the live nature of digital data such as comments, likes, and tags. In response to the complexity in digital media, ethnography became my approach to engaging with this constantly unfolding communication. Starting with popular blogs, I incorporated themes emanating from the dynamics of online communication into the thematic analysis of blog content, and the sampling and selection of blogs. This way of data collection was to reflect key characteristics of qualitative data. That is, qualitative data does not speak for itself, but is produced and is made sense of in the context of a researcher’s interaction with research participants, although it was I who participated in their blogs, rather than research subjects participating in my research.
Second and relatedly, I faced multiple ethical challenges in interpreting the mediated expressions of human agency. At the beginning of data collection, my ethical concerns were informed by ethics guidelines given by my university. However, as the research progressed, I grappled with my ethical positions, as indicated in some of the notes that I produced and photographed for record, shown in the figures below.
Each figure has “alt text”
As the blogs I examined were all in the public domain and did not contain the identifying information of individual bloggers, such as names or email addresses, this did not necessitate applying for ethics clearance at my university at that time. However, not having a clear context of private information about the writers of blogs, I found no obvious way to ensure that my research was ethical to the bloggers I followed. For instance, I was not sure if I should refer to the names of the blogs and bloggers and their URLs in presenting my research findings. On the one hand, I wanted to protect their privacy by minimizing potential consequences of my research, such as the abuse of personal information by a third person. On the other hand, I wanted to credit bloggers’ work. To this dilemma, I simply followed the Copyright Act in Australia where my research was conducted. As online contents are regarded as copyrighted materials in the country, I included the details of the blogs in my research findings. But this did not close the gap I perceived between the legal protection of the rights of creators, and concerns I had over the privacy and the agency of online users.
One key concern was the absence of informed consent from bloggers. Without any means to obtain consent from anonymous online users, I found myself in a giving–receiving relationship with them as providers of open, free information. The bloggers were not simply giving their personal stories online. They were also getting various forms of return by writing blogs, some being symbolic, such as popularity and gratitude, and others social, such as like-minded friendship. As I was writing about bloggers’ self-engagement without them necessarily being aware, I considered how my reading of a blog could benefit the development of that blog.
Recognizing the relational dimension in the bloggers’ self-presentation, I attempted to have some interaction with them by contributing my comments to their blogs, and, when it seemed appropriate, introducing my research to them. The resulting interactions with bloggers brought my attention to particular exchange contexts, whereby readers were expected to respect the bloggers’ intentions of creating and presenting a blog. This was indicated by the bloggers’ response or non-response to my comments, and other readers’ comments when they were found irrelevant or not anticipated by the bloggers. For instance, in a popular blog, some readers or students identified by the writer of the blog tried to disclose the blogger’s offline name, to which a message was posted, asking readers not to mix the private and the public lives of the blogger, or to expect the blog to be stopped.
Bloggers may or may not have the original intention of presenting the self in online media beyond my knowledge. Regardless, what makes such inaccessible information available to a researcher’s interpretation is a giving‒receiving relationship between readers and blogger. Part of the realization of a blogger’s intention is suspended or kept invisible until the receivers of blog contents respond to that blogger accordingly. It was such a relational work that created a context in which the sharing of a personal story became necessary for a blogger to receive readers’ empathy and respect towards his or her intentions.
Subsequently my data, describing teachers’ engagement with the self represented in blogs, reflected elicitation of the bloggers’ intentions, which emerged in my relationship with my research subjects. This was ironically illustrated by the data which could not be contained in my PhD thesis, but were explored in another piece of my research work.7 I located data whereby some bloggers were personally engaging with cases of sexual harassment between a teacher and a student with a sense of subjective ambiguity. In the blogs, they were not criticizing the occurrence of such cases or expressing deviant thoughts, but were writing of a personal sense of vulnerability, such as the fear of becoming close to a student, together with an expressed awareness of their sexuality. I did not include this part of data in my thesis not only because the topic was sensitive and unconventional in an analysis of teacher identity formation, but also because I found it difficult to clarify what was meant by the bloggers. But unlike my analysis practice, the bloggers were negotiating the ambiguity in their self-reflection by presenting a comical or crumsy self in a blog, which I called strangeness. In the end, the data about the bloggers’ strategic negotiation of their vulnerability reflected how they wanted to be represented in online media. Such data were all sourced from popular blogs which were inviting and enjoying insightful discussions among blog users about teachers’ work and self-care, a key theme that emerged in this research.
Practical difficulties of gaining informed consent from anonymous online users have been addressed by researchers who are concerned about protecting their privacy and autonomy.8,9 However, what is at stake here is that researchers may only be paying narrow attention to what is ethical in research, making some realities invisible. My perceived absence of ethical procedures and observations of bloggers’ interaction with others suggest that the concerns and interests of a researcher and those of the researched are not always symmetrical.
This does not mean that adopting the idea of gift can substitute for the standard practice of informed consent in response to respecting research participants’ agency. On the contrary, without a clear endpoint to ethical practices, a giving–receiving relationship invites a researcher to sustain her engagement with data generation in an equitable relationship with the researched. Even if standard ethical practices are adopted, the research use of user-generated online data is never without ethical issues, especially when it is assumed that a researcher’s concerns are always shared by her research subjects.
Many researchers suggest that different ways of doing research need to be imagined and created in the context of the rise of social media as data sources. In relationships between researchers and researched, such different ways are not always justified: conventional research practices, convenience, and the status quo must dominate, obscuring what is workable and makes sense to online users in their given circumstances.
A similar relationship between researchers and the researched is also found in the way ethical issues are framed by research itself. These issues are largely understood from the perspective of researchers trained in a mainstream research tradition. This does not mean that researchers should throw out their ethical concerns. Rather, the situation invites us to learn about how researchers could miscomprehend such concerns, given that they cannot necessarily expect to find justification for their research conduct in the worlds their research subjects must inhabit.
By sharing the author’s account of using online blogs for research, this essay attempts to show how a researcher produces data in dual relation—that is, respective relations with her research subjects, her research community, and the compound relations that exist between them. Understanding the influence of such sociological relations in terms of research knowledge, and incorporating that understanding into frameworks for the management of research data, should be recognized as one of the key challenges for generating and sharing equitable data.
Thank you Sarah Kearns for giving useful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.