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Published April 28, 2008 | Multidisciplinary

Ethical Clicking: Research and the Internet

Emmanuelle Marceau teaches in the Philosophy Department at Cégep du Vieux Montréal and is Project Manager for ARC (Association pour la recherche au collégial) in the study of institutional policies linked to research as well as research ethics boards.

These days, all it takes is one click of the mouse to send a questionnaire to an impressive number of people. This ability can greatly facilitate work on a research project. But what should we consider before sending a questionnaire by e-mail? And, by the same token, what provisions should our students make before going ahead with that click? Do we need to be more aware of certain research ethics guidelines when the research is being done online? If so, what methods can we suggest for adhering to these guidelines? There are two guidelines in particular that merit special attention: maximizing benefits and respecting confidentiality.

Maximizing Benefits

The principle of maximizing benefits aims to balance the harms and benefits of research. This principle derives from another one: the principle of beneficence. This means ensuring that research involving human subjects advances knowledge on one hand and, on the other, produces benefits for the subjects themselves, for other individuals, or for society as a whole. How can we make sure that we are maximizing benefits when conducting research online? Two avenues seem fairly obvious. First, it is quite possible to inform participants beforehand about how the data is to be handled and how the results will be disseminated. Providing this kind of information allows the potential subjects to understand what the researcher hopes to accomplish, even before they decide if they want to be involved. Second, it is also possible to make a commitment to provide the results of the research or to provide more information about the issues raised by the questionnaire. Thus, the prospective subjects would be more likely to appreciate both the personal and social dimensions of their contribution to the research.

Respecting Confidentiality

The way research results are handled and disseminated touches on the area of respecting privacy and personal information, which leads us to the second guideline. Essential to the recognition of human dignity, this principle protects the mental and psychological integrity of participants by ensuring that data remains confidential and anonymous. Anyone doing research — regardless of their status — should be committed to respect their subjects’ privacy and personal information no matter what the research context, and as provided by law. Personal information is specific to an individual and makes it possible to establish that person’s identity. When we ask someone to return a questionnaire that was sent to them and filled out online, the respondents can be identified by their e-mail addresses. This being the case, it is best to use technological mechanisms to ensure that the information obtained in this way remains confidential.

When it comes to the supervision of student work done, for instance, as part of an introductory course on Methodology in Social Sciences, what do such principles suggest? Moreover, what do we need to do, from a technical standpoint, to apply these principles? How, on one hand, do we teach people to use advanced technology for doing research while, on the other, respecting confidentiality and maximizing benefits? We invite you to make suggestions below about simple, effective methods teachers can use in their courses or their own research.

For further information and to familiarize yourself with the ethical research guidelines, you may consult the Tri-Council Policy Statement which is linked through its title as well as the lefthand banner on our homepage.

We would like to thank Lynn Lapostolle, director general of ARC, for her contribution to this text.

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