SI 684/884 eCommunities:

Analysis and Design of Online Interaction Environments

Winter 2003

 

Information on Human Subjects Protection

 

In the class session on January 14, we will discuss the ethics of and procedures for analyzing an on-line community. For the class session on January 21, you will need to bring printouts of two documents, described below, that will be submitted to the Institutional Review Board, which must approve your research plans before you interact with people in the on-line community you study. You will also need to post these to the class ElseWare, 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 in more detail.

 

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. I have obtained blanket approval from the IRB for you to passively observe the public activity of the on-line community you pick.
  2. Gathering of data that is not personally identifiable (e.g., anonymous surveys) may be permitted without explicit, informed consent, even for minors.
  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). You will need approval from the IRB for your particular plans before carrying out any private communication.
  4. Posting a message to a public space is generally permitted, but you need to inform people about who you are and the fact that you are conducting research, so that they can make an informed decision about whether they want to interact with you or not. You will need approval from the IRB of your method of informing people before sending any public communication.

 

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:


Most 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.

 

For private conversations, students will include a section at the bottom of each message indicating the same information described above for the community introduction.

 

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. I strongly urge you to use the exact text from my samples, replacing the [square brackets] appropriately, and doing whatever other light editing is necessary to make it fit your community. The more you follow the template, the faster the IRB will process your application and the more likely they are to approve it.

 

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

 

For a class project, I am studying [name of eCommunity]. My term paper will describe [name of eCommunity]ís purpose, the 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/winter03/684/

 

I will make my findings available at [say how: either a reference to your personal profile site within the eCommunityís space, or write ďat <url-for-your-personal-page-on-this-project>Ē] Feedback would be welcome any time. I have also included information there about how your privacy will be protected.

 

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. For less structured interviews, indicate what kinds of questions youíll be asking (and if there are any sensitive topics that you are definitely not going to ask about, indicate that to the IRB as well).

What data youíll be collecting and saving

In your 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, or the contents of a personal profile page if the eCommunity has that feature. 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. As before, follow this template as closely as possible to streamline processing. Obviously, in addition to the information listed below, you might also include other information about yourself, as appropriate to being a participant in the eCommunity you are studying.

 

----------sample text for personal profile page or your-personal-web-page-on-this-project

 

For a class project, I am studying [name of eCommunity]. My term paper will describe [name of eCommunity]ís purpose, the 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/winter03/684/

 

Generally, I will participate in the community as any other member would and will simply make notes about interesting things that I observe. I will retain copies of interesting text that people have written and shared in public places. 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.

 

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. 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

 

[Links to drafts of papers you write about the community would go here.]