SI 684/884 eCommunities:

Analysis and Design of Online Interaction Environments

Winter 2002

 

Information on Human Subjects Protection

 

For the class session on January 24, you will need to bring printouts of two documents that will be submitted to the Institutional Review Board, which must approve your research plans before you start gathering data about your on-line community. You will also need to post these to the class e-community space, so that students can comment on each otherís plans. These procedures are intended to insure that people you are studying are not harmed, that they are aware that you are studying them and that they have the option not to participate. The rest of this page describes what youíll need to do.

 

A few general principles are worth noting here, before we get into specifics. The most important principle is that the individual researcher does not decide what is permitted. The individual researcher makes a proposal to the IRB, which reviews and determines what is permitted. The individual researcher can and should be aware of the principles that govern the IRBís decisions, so as to make proposals and argue for their acceptability in ways that are likely to be accepted. Here are some of the principles and precedents that are relevant to us, as far as I understand them:

 

  1. Observation of public behavior is generally permitted, without explicit, informed consent.
  2. Gathering of data that is not personally identifiable (e.g., anonymous surveys) may be permitted without explicit, informed consent.
  3. For direct communication (e.g., email, phone), the respondent must be informed about what youíre doing and provide consent. In the case of an email message or a written survey, a response normally indicates consent, without a separate consent form. However, the respondent must be informed about whatís going on, and the response must be voluntary, not coerced (e.g., required in order to pass a course).
  4. Posting a message to a public space is generally permitted, but if youíre eliciting private responses, the same principles of informed consent apply.

 

There may be gray areas about what constitutes public versus private communication. Thatís part of the reason why thereís an independent review board (IRB) that makes the determination. Make your case and see what they say.

Document I: Your note to the IRB

This document should be as brief as possible, ideally less than one page. It should have your name and email address, plus the following four sections.

The Community you are studying

Describe briefly what the community is and who the participants are.

 

The IRB will be especially keen to make sure that you are not studying children under the age of 18, as there are special protections for that age group. Please pick an e-community that is geared towards adults (obviously, some children may participate, and may not identify themselves, so you should say what measures youíll take to try to contact only those who are over 18.) If you choose to study an e-community with under-18 participants, you can still ask the IRB to approve that. Observation of public behavior will generally be allowed, and gathering data that is not personally identifiable may also be allowed without explicit parental consent. Beyond that, you would need parental consent.

Identifying yourself as a researcher

From my umbrella proposal to the IRB:
ĒMost e-communities have some way that participants introduce themselves (e.g., a message to an email list, or a static ďprofileĒ that other members can inspect). Each student will include a message in their introduction stating that he or she is analyzing the e-community for a course, providing the URL for the course syllabus, and the URL for a page that the student will post their papers about the community so that the community members can see what is being written about them. Both the course site and the studentís site will contain information about what information will be used for, and the conditions under which screen names will be revealed.Ē

 

In your note to the IRB, please indicate how you propose to introduce yourself in the e-community you have chosen. Also include the exact text you will use.

 

-----------sample text for intro message

 

For a class project, I am studying this e-community [or email list, or whatever name the community calls itself by]. My term paper will describe the communityís purpose, technologies used, roles, identifiers and identities, intergroup relations, norms of behavior, and governance mechanisms. For more information about the course, see http://www.si.umich.edu/~presnick/courses/winter02/684/

 

I will make sections of my paper available for people to see as I write them, as well as the final paper, at the following URL: [URL for your private page here] Indeed, Iíd love to get feedback from members any time. That site also has information about what kind of information Iíll be gathering and whether peopleís names will be used in reporting the results.

 

If you have any concerns about how I am conducting this study, you may contact me by email at [studentís email address here] or contact Professor Resnick at presnick@umich.edu. Questions may also be directed to the Behavioral Sciences office which is located at 1040 Fleming Administration Building, 503 Thompson Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1340. Phone: (734) 936-0933. Fax: (734) 647-9084. Email:IRB-Behavsci-Health@umich.edu

Script for Interviews

For interviews of people, the IRB office needs to evaluate and approve the questions you plan to ask. Initially, youíll just be looking around and getting a feel for how you are supposed to participate in the community as a new member. Once you formulate research questions that you want to ask individuals (e.g., something about how the community handles conflicts), you will need to submit a script for those interviews.

In your initial note to the IRB, please write something indicating that you will submit in advance a script for any interviews (including email correspondence) that you plan to undertake, but that you cannot formulate the questions until after you have spent some time observing the community and learning some of the theoretical constructs that will be discussed in the classroom.

What data youíll be collecting and saving

In your initial note to the IRB, indicate what data youíll be collecting. One thing Iím sure youíll all be doing is making copies of text that you come across (e.g., email messages or chat room contents). Some of you may be taking notes about non-text behaviors (e.g., avatar movements). In an on-line trading community like eBay, you might be gathering data about the timing and value of transactions. Try to be as specific as possible about what data youíll be collecting.

 

Say how long youíll be saving this information. Hereís one possibility: ďI will save the information I have collected until I have completed all the analyses that I need for my class project and possibly for a published version of my term paper. In any case, I will not save the data for more than three years.Ē

Document II: A web page for members of your community to look at

The second document should be a printout of a web page, which should be served from the URL you mention in your introduction text mentioned above. This should be a user-friendly web page intended for members of your e-community to look at.

 

It should include sample text based on the following:

 

----------sample text

 

For a class project, I am studying this e-community [or email list, or whatever name the community calls itself by]. My term paper will describe the communityís purpose, technologies used, roles, identifiers and identities, intergroup relations, norms of behavior, and governance mechanisms. For more information about the course, see http://www.si.umich.edu/~presnick/courses/winter02/684/

 

As part of the study Iíll be gathering information about characteristics of the participants, how they think of themselves, what norms of etiquette have developed, and other matters as described in the course syllabus: http://www.si.umich.edu/~presnick/courses/winter02/684/

 

Generally, I will participate in the community as any other member would and will simply make notes about interesting things that I observe. My personal profile [or other way to refer to how this information is available within the e-community] will always indicate that I am an observer studying the community as part of a class.

 

I will retain copies of interesting text that people have written and shared in public places. [If different from this, say exactly what data youíll be collecting, matching what you said to the IRB above.]

 

I may also contact individuals directly, via email or telephone. I will always begin such contacts by announcing who I am and what Iím doing. I will respect the wishes of anyone who indicates they do not wish to interact with me.

 

I would need to get parental consent for any direct contact (e.g., private email) with anyone under 18 years old. When I have questions about how the e-community is working, I will make every effort to contact only people who are 18 or older. If you are under 18 and I mistakenly contact you, please ignore my message or tell me that you canít answer my questions.

 

I will save the information I have collected until I have completed all the analyses that I need for my class project and possibly for a published version of my term paper. In any case, I will not save the data for more than three years. [Or change this to match what you say to the IRB.]

 

The data that I gather will remain confidential to the extent allowable under local, state and federal law. If my paper refers to individuals or quotes what individuals have said or written, the paper will not refer to them by name or screename [or userid, or whatever the community calls its identifiers]. The only exception will be if I quote something that is available in an archive for all members to see. In that case, oneís words would not carry an expectation of privacy, and omitting the name would create a false sense of privacy since people would be able to discover the name by searching the archive.†††††††††††

 

If you have any concerns about how I am conducting this study, you may contact me by email at [studentís email address here] or contact Professor Resnick at presnick@umich.edu. You may also contact the Institutional Review Board at the University of Michigan. 1040 Fleming 1340, 734.936.0933 or IRB-Behavsci-Health@umich.edu.