I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ethics of conducting research on open data. I know that some folk take the view that because Twitter is in the public domain, that means that researchers are welcome to help themselves to any of it and do what they want with it without asking, or seeking ethical approval from an institution, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
A couple of years ago, either during rhizo14 or soon after, some of us started to share our participant experiences in an open Google Doc.* The document was open because we did not want to exclude anybody who had taken part and wanted to contribute, and our implicit understanding was that it was for all and only those who identified as being a part of the experience to participate in. But then a funny thing happened. Except it wasn’t funny – it was upsetting – and I don’t think I will ever forget how I felt at the time.
One of our rhizo tribe was attending a conference – I forget which one – and to her surprise there was a presentation by two people who we did not know which contained text copied and pasted out of our Google Doc and into their slides. Just to be clear – this was not text that they had written, and it was not used with the permission of the people who had written it. These “researchers” had chanced upon our open Google Doc and decided to use it without asking the writers if they minded. Now, we’re a fairly open bunch of folk and we are very easy to find. Had we been asked if we minded these “researchers” using some of our text we’d probably have said yes – but they didn’t even bother to ask us. They didn’t comment in the Google Doc, or reach out to any of us on Twitter, or … make any attempt to check that it was ok to use our words.
I remember feeling shocked, and hurt – and that feeling has stayed with me. So now, when I am looking at using some of the tweets from #CLMooc, I want to make sure I don’t unwittingly hurt my friends. So this week, when I met with my supervisors Fiona and Vic, I told them that the question of how I conducted my research was of fundamental importance to me. We had a long talk about how my methodology was emerging from my ethical intuitions, and how I felt that it was vital to include the CLMoocers as much as possible in what I was doing. Vic asked if that meant that I’d be taking my analyses back to the community for their comments – and I said that yes, I thought I should be asking for the community’s opinions about my interpretations.
So I am very happy that I was able to have his conversation with my supervisors, and that they agree with me that there’s a lot more to conducting ethical research than just gaining ethical approval from my University. I’m also excited that they are encouraging me to make my research open, and to write about the ethical implications of doing open research and make this writing an integral part of my thesis. For me, issues of trust and authenticity need to underpin my writing, and that’s what I’ll be thinking and writing about next.
* That Google Doc eventually ended up as this: WRITING THE UNREADABLE UNTEXT: A COLLABORATIVE AUTOETHNOGRAPHY OF #RHIZO14
“Ask Me” flickr photo by misterbisson shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license