Ethical Issues and Best Practice Considerations for Internet Research

Article excerpt

With rapidly increasing public use of the Internet and advances in Web technologies, family and consumer sciences researchers have the opportunity to conduct Internet-based research. However, online research raises critical ethical issues concerning human subjects that have an impact on research practices. This article provides a review of the literature on Internet research ethics and reviews the application of ethical principles for conducting online studies. Best practice considerations are offered to protect the confidentiality and rights of participants in Internet research and to ensure that the field remains viable for future research.

Internet-based research provides immense opportunity for family and consumer sciences (FCS) scholars. Given the widespread use of Internet communication tools, researchers have access to potential participants and to vast social and behavioral knowledge. According to the Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future (2004), approximately 75 % of Americans went online in 2003, representing an increase from 67% in 2000. Furthermore, Internet use has increased among all demographic groups, including women, ethnic populations, and families with modest incomes (Rainie & Packel, 2001) and throughout all geographic areas (Cooper & Victory, 2002).

Internet research is defined as the use of Internet technologies for online recruitment of subjects for survey research and the analysis of data gathered from Webbased communication forums such as chat rooms and discussion boards (Azar, 2000). Research via the Internet is attractive because of the ability to obtain large, heterogeneous, global samples, to target specific populations, and to access archival information and communication data (Birnbaum, 2004). In addition, Web pages provide a versatile format for data collection that is fast, low-cost, and efficient. Thus, the potential exists for increased use of the Internet as a research tool by family and consumer sciences (FCS) professionals.

The practice of Internet research raises critical ethical issues concerning human subjects and this has an impact on the technical and practical aspects of research design (Eysenbach & Till, 2001; King, 1996). Ethical practices in research are subject to Federal law as published by the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, Office of Protection from Research Risk (Eysenbach & Till, 2001). However, no policies specific to Internet research have been issued to guide Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) of universities and research organizations in approving and overseeing research. Thus, researchers must consider the ethical challenges of Internet research and identify best practice considerations in planning, conducting, and reporting research. Keller and Lee (2003) stressed that future researchers can benefit from discussion of the ethical dilemmas and decisions of today's researchers.

Therefore, the purposes of this article are to review the literature on Internet research ethics and to review the application of ethical principles while conducting online studies. Internet research ethics involves traditional ethical principles-protection of human subjects and social responsibility-within the evolving Internet environment. The Association of Internet Researchers (AIR) (Ess, 2002) as well as researchers worldwide have entered the discourse (Bassett & O'Riordan, 2002; Capurro & Pingel, 2002; Elgesem, 2002; Eysenbach & Till, 2001; Walther, 2002).


The basic tenets for protecting human subjects involved in research are codified by two professional organizations (American Psychological Association (APA), 2002; American Sociological Association (ASA), 1997). These principles include informed consent and protection from harm, including confidentiality and debriefing. In addition, social responsibility is an overarching ethical consideration; that is, research activities should contribute to the common good in a way that is inclusive, cognizant of cultural issues, and protective of the research field for future study (Keller & Lee, 2003). …