Ethical approval for research undertaken by undergraduate and postgraduate students is managed by the School Ethics Committee.
All queries regarding ethics should be sent to Ms Anne Fitzpatrick (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chairperson: Dr David O'Sullivan (email@example.com)
Dr. Mike Murphy
Dr Rob King
Ms Inge Nieuwstraten
Ms Anna O'Reilly-Trace
Dr Christian Ryan
Dr Annalisa Setti
Dr Marcin Szczerbinski
Dr Angela Veale
Notes on Ethics on the Internet
The distinction between the professional and personal image is difficult to maintain on the internet. The researcher should keep this distinction in mind both for themselves, and for any participants who may be tempted by the relative anonymity of the internet to divulge information about themselves that can be revealing, or damaging.
At the same time, because of the anonymity of the internet, the researcher should take care to ensure that critical data provided by a subject is in fact true; or be able to draw a boundary of uncertainty about the data on the principle of "triangulation." A particular problem is posed by individuals who may be under age or at risk in some way posing as of competent age, or as not at risk. The researcher should not absolve themselves of the responsibility of seeking out the real identity of their subjects if this is a danger. For instance, talking about sexual behaviour with a person who may not be ready for such a discussion.
Since it is easy to disappear on the internet, the researcher must take care to be able to be able to contact a subject for debriefing or damage mitigation should a break in the communication channel happen.
Screen names and logon names are by definition unique, certainly within a system of chatrooms. The researcher must take care to disguise such names so that individuals cannot be traced back, or that others may not read your conclusions about the person behind the screen name.
Items of information such as ISP numbers, session codes, and URIs can be used to discover the identity of the person sending you the information; much information may be conveyed involuntarily. So be careful to permanently delete as much of such information as you can.
On the internet, all activity is by its very nature recorded somewhere; perhaps in many locations. If a subject provides you with confidential information about themselves, you should be aware that this information may reside on a number of servers for an indefinite period of time; not just on your own computer. Some users are more informed about the internet than others. The researcher must endeavour to ascertain whether their subject knows the risks they are facing when transmitting information, and to ensure the subject realises how great is the likelihood that the information the subject provides may be received by others. One way to avoid this happening is to encode information being passed between the experimenter and the subject using some sort of scheme like PGP. This may increase the complexity of participation on your subject of course, or raise all sorts of other security worries in your subject's mind about the kind of research you are doing.
Your own computer is most probably unsafe, as there exist many ways in which a computer connected to the internet can be attacked and its information stolen. If you keep information on a laptop, then there is always the risk that your laptop may be stolen or lost, and someone else will have access to confidential information. What is more, information which resides on your computer may be used by experts in ways in which you cannot imagine, to draw correlations and to extract inferences about the people who have provided the data. So even innocuous-looking data may compromise your subject when used in conjunction with other data an attacker may have. How will you guard against this kind of possibility? You must ensure that for every item of personal data about other people you store on your computers, you have a system of encryption that is relatively secure. The onus is on the researcher to establish this.
The researcher should become familiar with the process of deleting information on a computer. On most operating systems, the 'delete' function does not actually make information unusable; it simply marks a portion of a hard disk or memory key as being usable for more information storage some other time. Thus if a researcher relies on the deletion of sensitive information in order to remain ethical they must also consider how to effectively wipe out such deleted information, by using some kind of over-writing function. Such utilities are freely available on the internet. Some computer programs (eg word processors) may use an un-encrypted part of computer memory to store partially-completed documents, and most browsers will have a 'history' trace. The researcher should become familiar with this kind of unseen storage of information if privacy of information is an ethical concern of theirs.
Information passed in a public chatroom or some such forum is being recorded on many computers already. Do you need to ask for permission to record this data? On the other hand, most people engage in public fora on the assumption that their words etc. will not be analysed. Many people are more open and revealing about themselves on the internet. So a researcher using this kind of data must take care to consider their ethical position with regard to public information provided by individuals, who may not be aware that what they write may tell someone alse much more about them than they imagine, and that it may be subjected to some kind of psychological analysis.
List of useful URLs
Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research in Cyberspace from the AAAS.
Ethics in Cyberspace Research: Consent, Privacy and Contribution from John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
Ethics in the age of the Internet from the APA's Monitor on Psychology Volume 39, No. 7 July/August 2008
PGP Corporation Web Site
Other Ethics Bodies in UCC
From the booklet entitled An Introduction to Research Ethics at UCC (1st July, 2007) the ethics bodies in UCC are as follows:
- The Clinical Research Ethics Committee of the Cork Teaching Hospitals
- Note that the remit of this committee comprises [sic] the granting or refusing of permission on ethical grounds for research projects...
- The Animal Experimentation Ethics Committee
- Note that AEEC approval is required for animal experiments carried out by UCC staff.
- The Social Research Ethics Committee
- Note that this committee has ethical oversight of non-clinical research involving human participants.
In addition, the University has published a Code of Good Conduct in Research (July, 2007).
If you are proposing to conduct research with people who are under 18, then you need to incorporate the National Guidance for Developing Ethical Research Projects Involving Children