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Keywords:

  • electronic mail;
  • ethics;
  • Internet;
  • nursing;
  • qualitative research

Aim.  The aim of this paper is to identify and discuss the ethical considerations that have confronted and challenged the research team when researchers facilitate conversations using private electronic mail discussion lists.

Background.  The use of electronic mail group conversations, as a collaborative data generation method, remains underdeveloped in nursing. Ethical challenges associated with this approach to data generation have only begun to be considered. As receipt of ethics approval for a study titled; ‘Describing transition with people who live with chronic illness’ we have been challenged by many ethical dilemmas, hence we believe it is timely to share the issues that have confronted the research team. These discussions are essential so we can understand the possibilities for research interaction, communication, and collaboration made possible by advanced information technologies.

Discussion.  Our experiences in this study have increased our awareness for ongoing ethical discussions about privacy, confidentiality, consent, accountability and openness underpinning research with human participants when generating data using an electronic mail discussion group. We describe how we work at upholding these ethical principles focusing on informed consent, participant confidentiality and privacy, the participants as threats to themselves and one another, public–private confusion, employees with access, hackers and threats from the researchers.

Conclusion.  A variety of complex issues arise during cyberspace research that can make the application of traditional ethical standards troublesome. Communication in cyberspace alters the temporal, spatial and sensory components of human interaction, thereby challenging traditional ethical definitions and calling to question some basic assumptions about identity and ones right to keep aspects of it confidential. Nurse researchers are bound by human research ethics protocols; however, the nature of research by electronic mail generates moral issues as well as ethical concerns. Vigilance by researchers is required to ensure that data are viewed within the scope of the enabling ethics approval.