Stories on the Internet: Challenges for Qualitative Research and the Example of Ethics

  • Judith Lapadat
Keywords: Qualitative Research, Internet Research, Research Ethics.


The Internet is a huge repository of personal stories and ethnographic data. Why, as qualitative researchers in the social sciences, have we been so slow to study the global social database that is the Internet? Our procedural and ethical guidelines for web research are in their infancy. Topics often are narrow in scope and stale-dated by the time they are published. Speaking as a qualitative researcher, early-adopting Internet user, and online researcher studying the blogosphere, I outline challenges that contribute to the gap between the potential and current state of qualitative cyber research, in particular, research ethics.

The Internet shapes contemporary life for people around the world and therefore there is a need for social science research examining the impact of this massive change in our lives. Yet most researchers in any given discipline still are doing studies rooted in concerns, methodologies, and field sites from the pre-Internet era. Challenges that impede scholarly research on online environments include the scope of the Internet, the complex ways our lives are intertwined with digital media, the rapidity of technological change versus the slow pace of change in academia, and the loss of respect for formal expertise with the advent of mass access. But rather than avoiding digital research, researchers need to change how we conduct research.

Historically, research methodologies evolve to address theoretical and ethical dilemmas that arise. The changing way we have conceptualized research ethics over time provides a model that researchers can learn from in resolving conceptual and methodological issues in online research.

The Internet is a resource shared across geographic, cultural, political, and legal domains. That the Internet is heterogeneous, diffuse, and in flux poses a challenge for establishing top-down lists of ethical or procedural guidelines. Different procedures are needed depending on what the data is used for. For example, social marketing research may require more stringent consent guidelines than descriptive research.

Markham and Buchanan (2012) recommend process-oriented ethical guidelines for digital research. Six ethical guiding principles to consider are: (a) participant vulnerability; (b) risk of harm; (c) whether human subject research principles apply; (d) balance participants’ rights with social benefits of the research; (e) address ethical issues as they arise; and, (f) consultative and deliberative decision-making.

While qualitative researchers struggle with the challenges of conducting online research, big corporations are mining our social data from the Internet. As qualitative researchers in the social sciences, we have a moral obligation to use our research skills to help humanity understand the profound implications of the Internet in our lives. If we do otherwise and defer to commercial interests, we remove an important knowledge source from society and risk making ourselves irrelevant.