internet forum research causing a riot!

Avatar for sneaks

I like to spend my days wasting time on forums - as we all do here. And I spend a lot of my time on 'you and your wedding' comparing shoes/dresses and the like rather than do any work. ANYWAY, recently some 'phd' student has come on saying she has done research on the forum - but has actually posted on it herself for quite some time under a pseudonym. Here is the thread where she has revealed all, its hilarious!

What do we all think? real or genuine? what are the ethical implications?


I think it is terrible - surely it is ethically dubious? Actually I did use material for my MA taken from an internet forum I used - BUT I was looking at linguistic details rather than what people had actually said and it was all in the public domain and anonymous. I think this is acceptable but there is a big difference between this and creating a persona and telling a load of lies. A few months ago a woman on a parenting forum I use was "outed" as a fake and admitted it. I felt pretty stupid as we had chatted loads (she had a fictional son the same age as mine). I know people say that's the nature of the internet but I'm not surprised that people get angry about it - especially on parenting forums where people often reveal things of a particularly sensitive nature.

Avatar for sneaks

I know I come from a different field, I just can't understand how she can interfere with her observations so dramatically as to constantly post. In my research area that would be considered a 'rooky mistake' lol. and my sup would laugh me out of the room before I even got any funding.


This is what my research tutor would do also.

I've already had to resubmit my masters assignment due to the nature of my research, so I am fully aware she probably hasn't done her work appropriately.

P.s. I'm also on YAYW, and the TES.


That is so strange! She has certainly kicked up quite a stink - what on earth did she think she was doing? Surely she can't be genuine - would any supervisor agree to her doing that and interfering with the direction of the 'study' by her constant posting? There are some big ethical issues here - stupid girl!


I come from a very different field too, so I'm just having problems comprehending the fact that this type of thing is 'research'.

But...I wonder if her exposure is part of her research, to see how people will react to her deception. I does make laugh how the initial page is polite, and then is descends into mud slinging and bullying (it looks like a few posters on there need the services of a psychologist).


the use of the internet as a source of information is increasing, and the dubious way some people go about this is certainly cause for concern, and even has a name 'lurking'. However there are legitimate ways of using these sites, I say this because part of my research is using stuff from the internet... but there is a difference, its from a website of which I have been a member for quite a few years, about 10 or so, I contribute regularly as it is our 'helpline' where we try to answer queries from other members - its the usual sort of stuff, 'my experiment won't work, what do you do to make it work,' or 'we are thinking of buying this bit of equipment, has anyone tried it/used it/gor any advice?' kind of thing, (they are specific websites for our profession and provide our only real link to each other as we often work alone or with maybe one or two other people and have nobody around to help us, it is a closed membership you can't just sign on, there are strict criteria to be met ) plus they all know I am doing this research, are very supportive of the work (as they were when I was doing my MA) because I have told them so. -I had several well done etc. and we had a bit of a cyber celebration when I told them I had had my proposal accepted -and they have offered to help in any way they can. I will be sending out my questionnaire using these sites, because basically it is probably the only way many people would actually get it for a variety of reasons, and people obviously have the opportunity to contribute or not, if anyone has put anything that I would like to use on the forum, I can email them direct and ask them if I can use it, -although it would never be a direct quote - it would adhere to all the usual ethical considerations. and there would be no way of identifying any individual as all results are aggregated or otherwise rendered anonymous. Everyone I have asked has always said yes, and noted that they would be willing to help further if I needed it. Its an equal partnership

The problem comes from unregulated/moderated sites, but if they are in the public domain then anyone can look at them without joining, and if they are in this domain then all the info is available anyway, so how anyone can be stopped from using this is difficult to see - would consent be assumed by some people I wonder, it is as open as someone writing to a newspaper letters page and someone analysing those. The problem arises when people infiltrate a site and ask leading questions without anyone knowing what they are doing THEN it becomes a problem as the power base shifts. The use of the internet in this way has been the subject of several papers, (Madge,c. and O'Connor H. (2002) on-line with e-mums is one)which I thinks considers the pros and cons) and I think the consensus of opinion is that the ethics need to be considered very carefully and that the researcher should identify themselves as such if it is at all possible (some have argued that the nature of the research makes this difficult) - and if they have said they have revealed the purpose of the question after collecting the data, is this good enough? How many people will a) still be on the forum as it is often the use of a specific forum may be transient or time-limited and b) would reply 'take me out of your research'? Of course there is always the possibility that others may also be monitoring the site and the question asked may also become part of the research of someone who is looking at the type of question asked on forums ! :$

Its a difficult one really, maybe the answer is that it is one method of collecting data, but as with all other methods the ethics really need careful scrutiny and the pros and cons, including- is this just a lazy way of collecting data considered.

'Scuse spelling mistakes daren't use the spell checker is usually destroys my post and tihs is quite a long one :$


======= Date Modified 06 Jun 2009 16:22:46 =======
That's a really interesting post Joyce - I can see how these sites could be extremely useful in some ways to a researcher (my BA is joint honours with sociology) but the problems are vast aren't they! In your case it is so very different, but to use a forum as this girl has done as a means of collecting data seems incredible! I have been on one forum for the last 6 years (a birth board for Oct 2003 that I joined when pregnant and we are still all together) and we were well aware that we could be being watched, we had regular circulars onto the board from people wanting us to fill in questionnaires with the blessing of the mods, and quite a number would participate, myself included as I was a student and appreciated the need for data. Now we have a private board that only those of us who have been involved for the last few years belong to so we feel safer about discussing stuff, lurkers and trolls are the curse of the internet. To lurk for a long while, add info to the chat, potentially lead the questions and the direction of threads seems to be impossible to submit without major ethical and research bias claims. IF she has the blessing of her supervisor then questions need to be asked - I wonder if rather he/she suggested she view other boards to analyse the content, I can't believe she'd have been advised to participate undercover and not be up-front! They are understandably hurt and annoyed and you can view the dawning realisation that someone they considered 'one of them' had told lie after lie and was observing them.


I notice that she says she won't be using material, names nor mentioning the website, but surely if someone is drawing data from internet sources, you at least have to name those sources otherwise the data could be fabricated?


Reading that forum drama makes my head hurt.


I think she is definitely making this up. I am a Social Science PhD and I am pretty much 100% sure a project like this would be laughed out before it even made it to the ethics committee. Doing research about online behaviour is legitimate research, but actively deceiving people and then exposing them to that is just not acceptable. Given that a priority is to minimise harm to participants, this sort of thing would be absolutely out of the question. I am not sure what is wrong with this girl, but I think the whole thing is a fantasy to be honest with you. If you google her name she doesn't come up as having any credentials at all. Unless she actually is doing a "PhD" from one of those online schools where you basically buy it and it means nothing. Overall it is pretty amusing, but embarrassing given that most people have a pretty dim view of PhD studies already.


There has been a whole bunch of stuff written about the ethics of internet research. A lot of people view the internet as an empirical freebie store- just pop in an pick up what you want. Clearly the people who are genuine posters on the sites do not appreciate that feeling. Yet they do know that what they post is not private- anyone can see it. So what is the real issue here, if not privacy, per se? Bakardjieva and Feenberg wrote a paper in which they said that it is not so much privacy that is at the root of ethical issues, but alienation. Posters do not want to be quoted out of context, and do not want their content to be used for anything other than what they originally intended it for. So where does that leave researchers? Well B and F say that the best way to get around it is to design the research such that the participants are collaborators, who contribute to discussions about emerging methodology, analysis and theory. May not be everyone's cup of tea, but certainly something to think about!


It certainly is a very interesting concept - however we know that if a subject knows that they are being 'used' for want of a better word, certainly in a forum setting, then they will adapt their conversation and the way in which they answer to mirror that. I do think that when discussing issues on a forum that people do tend to forget that they aren't simply sharing their thoughts, hopes, fears, their lives really, with like minded people, and that in reality the whole world can see exactly what they are saying. I don't think that this is helped by the majority of live-style forums placing in their user agreements that any researchers must seek the approval of the mods first - a legal necessity of course, but it does give a false sense of privacy. It then makes me quite cross that there are those who will use that sense of safety to their own purposes for academic research! The area in which I work is not one that has a need for the ethics board so I am not fully aware of the rules and regs, but I cannot believe that this kind of 'research' would be acceptable as anything other than purely observational and resulting in generalised comments. Returning to my own experience with forums of this nature, the kind of information that has been shared within the group has contained everything from the highest highs, to the lowest lows, including tragically the loss of babies. That some PhD student out there may have read those posts, then discussed how the group responded to something to incredibly personal and painful is an intrusion, in my mind at any rate, of the highest order. Worse still that possibly someone on the board was a covert researcher and possibly even made up such a story to study responses quite frankly makes my head spin! (I know that that is not the case, we've all met up in RL on numerous occasions and I'm the only one mad enough to be doing anything like this - but even still....) This is certainly an area that is going to need a lot more study and far stricter ethical guidelines than at present as the world shifts further and further towards these kind of cyber groups.

Just a thought.... I wonder if anyone is reading all these posts and is doing a study into the problems and anxieties research students face ;-)