The ethics of studying online communities: Challenges to research design and data collection



Web sites, like online newspapers, magazines, and blogs, have been providing their readers with online forums as ways to voice their perspectives. These Web sites are often seen as online communities and have recently gained much attention from researchers. Due to the nature of these online communities, however, and the dynamic nature of the Internet, we lack systematic methodologies for collecting and analyzing online information (Zhou, Qin, Lai, & Chen, 2007; FTC. 2008). One of the challenges to studying this phenomenon is how to carry out a research project in a timely manner. The nature of online communities is dynamic and, therefore, requires a dynamic research approach. Researchers interested in online communities, however, have to comply with Institutional Review Board (IRB) regulations at their institutions which do not support a dynamic research approach. IRB regulations were created to support the kinds of static research approaches that were common in the pre-Web era. Curry (2005) reported that she waited 18 months to get IRB approval for her project on gay and lesbian youth which involved unobtrusive observations of reference services. Curry's example indicates that the process of applying for IRB approval is rigorous and time-consuming. As such, it often slows down the progress of a proposed project, especially one interested in studying users participating in online communities. In order to capture the essence of the dynamic issues surrounding online users, researchers need to adopt new approaches to research design and data collection that support dynamic, fast-paced research. In addition, these new research approaches must meet IRB requirements and must be accepted by the research community.

To contextualize these issues, consider the following report from The New York Times (Glater, 2008). Glater reports that several universities are distributing Apple iPhones and iPod Touches to students in the hope that these devices will enhance students' learning. Glater received 54 comments to his article in two days. Such comments, for example, are very useful to researchers who are interested in researching the attitudes of university administrators, faculty, and students regarding the use of mobile devices. Readers' comments are a useful source for information behavior research. As many online publishers provide online forums for readers to react to new stories, this is a new territory for researchers to collect timely data. Several issues, however, concerning user privacy and ethics also arise (Grimes, Fleischmann, and Jaeger, in press; Preer, 2008; Robbins, Fleischmann and Wallace, 2009). In 2007, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a two-day town hall meeting addressing issues of user privacy and online behavioral advertising (FTC, 2007). The following two topics from the town hall meeting will inform this panel discussion on how to conduct online community studies:

  • What types of data are collected? Is the data personally identifiable or anonymous? Even when the data is anonymous, is it, or could it be, combined with personally identifiable data from other sources?

  • How is the data used, and by whom? Is it shared or sold? Is the data used for any purposes other than to target advertising?

In addition to the two topics discussed at the town hall meeting, the research procedure to be employed in the study of online communities must also be considered. Zhou et al (2007) used a Web mining approach to collect data from 110 U.S. domestic extremist forums containing more than 640,000 documents. The findings of the project identified the multimedia usage patterns, participant distribution, and posting activity distribution. The results demonstrated a better understanding of the extremists' movements. In sum, the purposes of the panel are: 1) to explore research opportunities from online communities, 2) to examine the current IRB procedures for online community studies, and 3) to discuss professional ethics for studies on online communities. The panelists will present their observations and research results and discuss future trends.

Issues to be addressed

  • Is it appropriate to use comments from online communities for research purposes?

  • How do we validate the reliability of those comments?

  • Who can grant researchers permission to use the comments?

  • Is the current IRB procedure suitable for online community studies?

  • How do researchers obtain IRB approval for projects that will take place in a dynamic research environment?

  • How can we address emerging professional ethics issues regarding online community studies?


Hsin-liang Chen: online communities as information sources

Sheila Denn: online users and data collection

Ken Fleischmann: ethical challenges of emerging technologies

Jean Preer: historical and legal perspective on online privacy

Barbara Wildemuth: IRB process and online user studies

Biographical Information on Participants

Hsin-liang Chen is an assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University, email:

Sheila Denn is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College, email:

Kenneth R. Fleischmann is an assistant professor at the College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, email:

Jean Preer is a professor at the School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University, email:

Barbara Wildemuth is a professor at the School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, email: