Sympathetic Hedonism: a new angle for ethical Internet research?

July 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

Given a recent Chronicle article (http://chronicle.com/article/Harvards-Privacy-Meltdown/128166/?sid=at&utm_s) on the secret collection of profiles in the now controversial Harvard Facebook Project and an ongoing AOIR (http://aoir.org/) mailing list discussion on Internet research ethics, I thought it might be interesting (if a little facetious) to produce a meta-narrative and conduct an analysis of this blog post in relation to the ethical issues surrounding the use of Internet materials in research.

Supposing a hypothetical researcher came across the OxEdTech blog and, for whatever reasons, decided to take this post and use it in his research.  He is faced with two main options.  Firstly, should he tell me that he his using my post, or should he simply take it?  Secondly, having used my post (whether he informed me or not), should he make it anonymous in his written work, or should he properly attribute it as one would a book or a paper?

A great deal has been written about these issues, discussing the concept of public space, the nature of publishing, the nature of textuality, whether a humanities ethical framework is more appropriate for online research than a human subjects model etc.  However, given the plethora of books and papers on this and the complexities inherent in the debate, I don’t want to discuss these issues from a theoretical point of view in any depth here.  Instead I want to treat the subject with some reflexivity and explore how I personally would feel as the author of the post in question if I were facing a grasping researcher.  The question of how I would feel to discover my post had been appropriated for research purposes without my knowledge is therefore a useful starting place.

This blog is an outward-looking representation of an official research group attached to a prestigious university.  As such, the purpose of its production is wide readership and, in many ways, research would be an appropriate use.  Furthermore, although the post has a personable tone, it is not imbued with my own identity.  It feels to me like a published document that has been placed in the public domain to illustrate the work of the Oxford University Department of Education Learning and New Technologies Research Group.  As such I would not be particularly concerned (though perhaps a little surprised) to find it had been used for academic/ research purposes without my knowledge.

However, if I were to view the issue from a slightly different perspective and ask myself how I would feel to be approached by a researcher interested in using my post, it’s likely I would receive such a request with pride and pleasure.  I imagine I would experience similar feelings if my authorship was duly acknowledged and the post properly cited.

Thus, the questions of whether a researcher should seek permission for use of online material and whether it should be cited or anonymized can perhaps be addressed from a different angle.  Aside from the considerations of not causing harm, informed consent etc., it is arguable that researchers of online works should consider the potential pleasure a request to use such materials can bring their creators by the simple act of showing interest in someone’s work.  Even with the most stringent ethical frameworks in place, researchers can have a tendency to simply take and take from participants.  Therefore giving due consideration to the potential happiness associated with a request for the use of someone’s online work is an excellent opportunity to give something back to one’s participants.

Of course, the importance of context must not be underestimated here.  This particular blog is necessarily outward looking and I might feel differently about my writing in other online contexts.  Similarly, I am implicitly hypothesizing a researcher using my work in a potentially flattering way.  I might feel a lot less pleased if my work was being used as an example of, say, faulty, lightweight logic in academic blogs.  However, there is an underlying serious point here.  Debates on research ethics have a habit of focusing on avoiding causing harm to participants while generating positive research outcomes on a macro level.  However, such an emphasis can fail to appropriately incorporate micro-level benefits into the theoretical ethical debate, although these might be discussed in terms of practicalities.  Perhaps this kind of sympathetic hedonism, when used in conjunction with other ethical standards, might provide a means of bridging the micro-macro benefits divide and provide a useful angle for researchers to discuss their approach to online materials.

James Robson

Kindling interest in e-book readers

September 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Like many people in the education world I’m addicted to my favourite bookshops. Of course I buy books online as well, and I’ve even been known to read Three Men in a Boat on my laptop, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Most of my own research work also involves using source material that has been digitised. Without such tools my life would be ten times harder than it is – thinking about the research process for graduate students in the 1970s makes me grateful for the searching, indexing, tagging, annotating and sharing that is now so easy to do.

I can’t get away however from the pleasure of browsing real books in a real bookstore, and so it frustrates me when discussion of digitising books turns into a battle between lovers of the book and those who have seen the future and are sure it Tweets. Books are a well understood, easy to replicate technology. The future lifespan of the book can be counted in decades in my opinion and possibly another few centuries.

Alongside this traditionally published material we can expect to use specialist devices to access the written word. I  recently borrowed an Amazon Kindle and a Sony E-book reader from the Bodleian library, in order to see how they function as research tools for students. I have also spent part of the summer playing with various members of Apple’s i-family of products, including the new i-Phone 4’s crystal clear Retina Display.

There are some great independent reviewers of these products and I’m not going to do that here. What I am going to do is use them to explain how education technology can change the landscape in which learning takes place, often in surprising ways. My own experience of using these products was that, in contrast to my pre-conceptions, e-book readers were not well suited to my needs as a researcher.  I could only use them to read and annotate – or share my notes or do a multitude of other really useful things. For me though, I can do all that on my laptop and also multi-task with other work. For pleasure reading though I found them really useful. This doesn’t mean I would never use one for research purposes but that for me, and I find this a somewhat odd thought, an e-book reader is not going to the top of my research tool wish-list. I’m sure there’s a place for the e-book reader; it’s in my beach bag as I go on holiday.

I’m not going to give up on thinking about how digitised written material can be accessed and used by students and teachers, but for me the idea of these devices being in widespread use in classrooms, in their current incarnation at least, seems unlikely. To my mind the iPad is the best current contender for a flexible mobile device on which research materials could be viewed,. This does nothing to alter my view that the impact of what is learned and how that knowledge is acquired will not be much affected by these technologies except in specific contexts. I’ll revisit the issue in a year’s time and see how silly I Iook by being foolish enough to predict the future.

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