I am starting to work on my thesis on analyzing the social network. My question is about using ethical procedures to access data.

  1. Is it ethical to use Facebook messages as the source of my data if I have permission from the other users?

  2. Is it alright to create a chatroom to create a chat/web page to get the data, is it the right way to go?

  • 3
    Does your university have an Institutional Review Board? You really need to work out these questions with them, as the answers will depend critically on the fine details of what exactly you're trying to do with the data and the potential for it to cause harm to users.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 3:08
  • 1
    Your plan to obtain data sounds like it would introduce a ton of biases and other problems.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 7:59

2 Answers 2


In the United States, if you are funded by any government agency (NIH, NSF, etc.) and you do research involving human subjects, you are required by law to get approval from an IRB (institutional review board). Research involving messages on social networks can, in some cases, be considered human subject research under this law. Similar laws exist in many other countries.

Furthermore, many conferences and journals require prospective authors to have clearance from an IRB or similar ethics board if they submit a manuscript involving human subjects research. For example, ACM SIGMOBILE policy:

As part of the submission process, authors of papers that describe experiments on human subjects, or that analyze nonpublic data derived from human subjects (even anonymized data), will be asked to certify that their work was vetted by an ethics review (e.g., IRB approval). We expect authors to follow the rules of their host institutions around data collection and experiments with human subjects.

Note that IRB approval must be obtained before you start working with human subjects, not after the fact.

Legal requirements aside, when working with human subjects or their private information, you have an ethical responsibility to get clearance from an independent third party. There is an obvious conflict of interest associated with having the researcher decide whether the research is ethical. That is the function of the IRB.

For an example of what not to do, see the case of the OKCupid data release and some of the fallout from that.


You will need to refer to the Human Research Ethics Committee of your university as policies differ between institutes.

Is it ethical to use Facebook messages as the source of my data if I have permission from the other users?

Under our policy, we have designated a category of research called "Negligible Risk Research" (NRR) in which the foreseeable risk to participants is no more than inconvenience. One class of NRR projects includes research relying exclusively on publicly available information legally accessible to the public and/or publicly accessible with no reasonable expectation of privacy. In some settings, this may describe your use of Facebook data. Be aware, though, that this may not always be the case, especially in closed groups in Facebook.

Is it alright to create a chatroom to create a chat/web page to get the data?

You are confusing data collection with ethics. Creating a chatroom is a data collection technique. It says nothing about the information you wish to collect and the protections that you need to consider. For example, I used a chatroom to collect data for research into drug use in university students. This type of research was extremely sensitive and was particularly difficult to achieve ethical approval. We got it in the end, though. One of my students wanted to explore the use of emojis in everyday chat conversations and the university ethics committee deemed this relatively low risk.

is it the right way to go?

My advice is to work with your institution's human research ethics office. They are often happy to help. You do not want to proceed without ethical assessment. No no no.

  • Thanks, My idea was to use get the style of writing in people's conversations, rather than the content itself.
    – JKJ
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 3:41
  • 1
    @JustinJoshuva Unfortunately, you cannot separate the content from the style. My colleague studied the pauses in language (eg., the ummm... and ahhhh...) of suspects in custody undergoing interrogations. Another studied the pauses in conversations of students during a PhD viva. Both were studying style but context was important.
    – user65587
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 3:46
  • 2
    @JustinJoshuva Have you considered using an existing data set? The NPS chat corpus, the Microsoft Research Social Media Conversation Corpus, this Twitter set, ... and there are many more (depending on what, specifically, you are trying to do.)
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 3:48
  • @ff524, no I have not looked at those data sets. I will look into it, thank you, I can't use twitter because 140 characters will change the way we type, but I will look into those other sites
    – JKJ
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 14:20

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