Ideally the use of digital technologies in teaching, learning and research would be accommodated in a general research framework and best practice. This is not always the case and therefore this ethical framework for Interactive Essays will specifically focus on using digital tools and social media platforms for research activity, recruitment and communication with research participants and networking and dissemination of work for feedback. The British Educational Research Association (BERA) resource on ‘Ethical issues in online research’ (Jones, 2011) provide some clear distinctions:

  • The Internet as a tool for research
  • The Internet as a means to conduct research
  • The Internet as a medium for research
  • The Internet as a locale for research
  • The Internet as a means to distribute research

Current debate:

There are a number of challenges facing both the researcher, ethics committees and participants. In part, it is our own lack of knowledge about our own digital footprints: what data we create, how it is stored, how securely it is stored and who can access it, ‘Digital data can be analysed and reanalysed in ways that may not be anticipated or expected by individuals whose personal information is part of the large data sets that are being produced’ (Clark et al, 2015:4). This lack of knowledge we might have with our own data may lead to a complacency of how we might use others’ data. It is therefore critical that researchers (staff and students) apply an ethical framework to digital environments and virtual world, especially as useful data may just be there in the public domain. This, Davies et al (2016) describe as the ‘messy and often confusing definitions of the private and the public’, they ask us to rethink concepts of informed consent and confidentiality and work with this messiness. The British Sociological Associations position in their ‘Ethics Guidelines and Collated Resources for Digital Research’ asks for ‘discretion, flexibility and innovation’ (Davies et al (2015:3)


There are challenges with participants being Identifiable with their online information and how their online identity might link across platforms as well as the difficulty in authenticating online identities (Clark et al 2015) The security and privacy of data is not in the control of the researcher and what might be an advantage to be able to recruit participants globally becomes an issue with variance in geographic laws. The National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia updated their National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research in 2014 and identified five key categories pertinent to research that uses digital data in Clark et al (2015:7):

  • Consent (‘How easy is it to get informed consent from the participants in the community being researched?’ The ESRC framework for research ethics in Davies et al (2015))
  • Privacy and confidentiality (How are issues of identifiability addressed? as well as data storage identified in Davies et al (2015))
  • Ownership and authorship (authorship, the obligation to credit authorship and copyright in Davies et al, 2015)
  • Governance and custodianship (Identified as ‘legal and cultural differences across jurisdictions, online rules of conduct and the blurring of boundaries between public and private domains’ from the The British Psychological Society (BPS) and the British Society of Criminology (BSC) in Davies et al (2015)).
  • Data sharing: assessing the social benefits of research

‘How certain is the researcher that they can establish the ‘real’ identity of the participants?’ was also raised as an issue by the ESRC framework for research ethics in Davies et al (2015:5)


Shaping an Ethical Framework for Interactive Essays

A discussion of the issues around ethical practices and the Interactive Essay were discussed with students:

Using digital platforms and the internet for research:


  • Importance of developing skills for effective research practice online
  • Developing skills for accurate citation and referencing of material found online
  • Making sure that sources are credible
  • Developing skills to retrieve, store and organise research materials


  • Support the development of online skills with opportunities throughout the curriculum
  • Ensure students have access to appropriate technologies and staff to support them
  • Have discussions around ‘digital wisdom’ throughout the curriculum through challenging notions of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’

  • Include CRAP detection as part of the curriculum: Howard Rheingold’s ‘Crap Detection 101: How to tell accurate information from inaccurate information, misinformation, and disinformation’


Conducting research with online participants:


  • In the recruitment of research participants signature documentation must be obtained as part of the ‘informed consent process’
  • Subjects of research are entitled to withdraw from participation at any time
  • How safe is the data collected
  • Identify a specified time-period within which you will ensure the safe and secure storage of the data
  • How to research in closed groups
  • Does the study involve participants who are children under the age of 16 or vulnerable young people or adults who are unable to give informed consent?
  • Problems with participants’ rights to remain anonymous, and/or ensuring that the information they provide is non-identifiable
  • If you are working in a cross cultural setting, will you need to gain additional knowledge about the setting to work effectively?
  • The researcher might not know the demographic of the online participants


  • Obtaining consent in online spaces might be difficult unless they are willing to sign documents and return them by post or scan and return online/email. Active participation is not consent
  • Participants contributions may be difficult to remove completely and remain online or been reproduced elsewhere. However the consent to use this data may be withdrawn and should be respected
  • It is important that consent is informed consent and this should include information about what can happen to data online. Familiarity with platform/tool data protection, privacy and security is essential and researchers have a responsibility to explain these. There may also be different regulations depending on the location of the participant or the location of the tool/platform
  • The research may have a particular timeframe but the data will exist online long term. It is important that researchers and participants are informed about their own ‘digital footprints’

  • If the information is on a public platform this may be accessed and used by others
  • Important to be aware of what closed and open systems are online, for example the course Moodle page and a private group on Facebook are closed networks where individuals understand their information is kept within that group. If research is undertaken in that setting then consent from all members of that group would be necessary.
  • It is difficult to ascertain in an online setting the identity and age of participants. They might be under 16 years and not able to give consent or vulnerable adults. Signed consent might provide some assurance but not necessarily. Particular care would need to be taken if the research is likely to cause distress.
  • Knowing who participants really are might cause some issues with the reliability of the data collected, however this is no different to other anonymous methods of data collection.
  • Anonymising participants identities might not be possible if participants can be identified by their social media tags/identities.Participants personal data might be accessible depending on their security settings

Sharing work online and networking:


  • Awareness of closed and open groups
  • Being comfortable with sharing work online
  • Managing critique in online spaces


The curriculum should include discussion and experience of working in closed and open networking and community spaces so that students can make informed decisions about what information they share

The networking element of the interactive essay is optional as students might not be comfortable sharing their work outside the programme. An awareness of their own ‘digital footprint’ or not feeling ready to share academic work publicly needs to be supported

If students do share their work online it is important for them to consider how they encourage participation and feedback from others. Students need to be aware that they may receive negative comments and ensure they have mastery over the settings on their sites. For example comments can be for moderation only and the student can choose what they publish.


Useful links to Digital Ethics Guidance:

Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR):

Twitter: @IEthics

The Internet Research Ethics Digital Library, Resource Center and Commons.

The Research Ethics Guidebook: A resource for social scientists.

E-Research ethics.

Social Science Research Ethics: Web-based research.



Clark, K. Duckham, M. Guillemin, M. Hunter, A. McVernon, J. O’Keefe, C. Pitkin, C. Prawer, S. Sinnott, R. Warr, D. Waycott, J. (2015) Guidelines for the Ethical use of Digital Data in Human Research, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.


Davies, H. Halford, S. Hine, C. Hotz, C. Martin, W. Sugiura. (2015) Ethics Guidelines and Collated Resources for Digital Research Statement of Ethical Practice Annexe, British Sociological Association


Jones, C. (2011) Ethical issues in online research, British Educational Research Association on-line resource.

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