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Resources for research Research Ethics Case Studies

Research Ethics Case Studies: 1. Twitter, data collection & informed consent

BERA’s Research Ethics Case Studies series begins by looking at the ethical issues that can arise when using social media as a means to recruit participants or gather data. To what extent are Twitter and other forums truly ‘public’, and what implications does this have for questions of consent, privacy and anonymity?

Nitika is a doctoral student conducting research into student perceptions of the support available to them through her university. Her tweets promoting her online survey – for which she has received ethical approval – inadvertently trigger a wider discussion on Twitter, in which students express more varied and critical views than those Nitika has thus far collected via her survey.

This forces her to consider whether and how she can include these participants’ views, as expressed on Twitter, in her research, in the interests of more fully understanding and potentially improving the student experience. How should she do this given that, firstly, her approved research design may not allow her to gather data in this way and, secondly, she is unsure whether it is ethical for her to reproduce and reuse these tweets without explicit permission from their authors?

Drawing on BERA’s Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research, this case study discusses key ethical issues, including:

  • particpants’ right to withdraw from research, and their ongoing awareness of that right
  • whether online communities perceive their data to be public or private, and how/when it is appropriate to contact them
  • balancing the rights of individuals against the potential social benefits of research in which they are involved or implicated
  • the anonymity of digital information and the privacy of those responsible for it.

About this series

BERA’s Research Ethics Case Studies series presents illustrative case studies designed to complement BERA’s Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research, fourth edition (2018) by giving concrete examples of how those guidelines can be applied during the research process.

For a full account of ethical best-practice as recommended by BERA we suggest that researchers refer to our Ethical Guidelines, which these case studies are intended to illustrate without themselves offering guidance or recommendations.

Annotations in the margins of each case study document in the series indicate where, among the numbered paragraphs of BERA’s Ethical Guidelines, readers can find our full advice on the issues raised (hyperlinks to the relevant passages are included).

Editor

Jodie Pennacchia, Dr

University of Birmingham

Dr Jodie Pennacchia is a researcher in the policy-sociology of education. She began her career working in learning support roles in mainstream and alternative schools, and has published work in the field of alternative education. Jodie has...