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In a range of fields (I have in mind gender and sexuality) users make Internet comments revealing personal details about themselves. Some sites even automatically link to their personal Facebook page. While this data may be useful for research, there are ethical issues as to how to use this data.

On one hand, they have voluntarily published this material online, and made it accessible to the world.

On the other hand, presumably the audience they had in mind for their post is likely to be limited a handful of users. It is personal information that could potentially be used against the user.

Question: What are sensible measures to ethically use freely available, but personal web-based comments in research?

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    What do you have in mind when you say "sensible measures"? For example, in U.S. universities, this would be considered human subjects research and would be subject to review by an institutional review board. Are you interested in what sorts of approaches might meet with official approval (by an IRB or the equivalent in other systems)? Or is this more of an informal question about what the issues are and how one might address them? – Anonymous Mathematician Mar 25 '15 at 5:54
  • At this stage, I guess "informal question about what the issues are and how one might address them" would be a good description. I'm largely unfamiliar with the process, as I have a mathematical and computer science background, and have yet to require such a review of my work. I'm considering writing a paper on this topic (since I can make use of my computer science background), and (a) I'm concerned that some kind of ethics approval issues might arise, and (b) I also have my own conscience to consider. – Rebecca J. Stones Mar 25 '15 at 6:03
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    You must not consider writing a paper without IRB approval. You will get yourself in trouble if you do. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 25 '15 at 12:28
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Talk to your Institutional Review Board (IRB). You will not be allowed to use any of the information you are collecting unless your research plan has been approved by your IRB, and they will likely require you to deidentify or anonymize data. What exactly is sensible or not, we cannot advise you here -- it's not a question of common sense but of what you can get approved by your IRB, and approval by the IRB is the single important factor in what you can and cannot do.

  • I guess that's what I'll have to do if I want to proceed: good thing I asked. (It might be tricky though, since I'm at a Chinese university.) – Rebecca J. Stones Mar 25 '15 at 12:50
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Deidentification or anonymity would be required. For example general statistics are ok, quotes that can be traced back to the original post are not ok.

Basically, you can apply the same rules as would be applicable for medical data.

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    Those ethics regarding medical data would require you to get approval for how you are going to collect the data. Web scraping public information, while possibly ethical, is going to meet a bunch of questions. – StrongBad Mar 25 '15 at 9:32

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