I am a third-year undergraduate student of public policy at Carleton University. As a term paper for my policy research class, I am conducting a content analysis of six Canadian political message boards, including this one.
A content analysis is a systematic assessment of the form and substance of a medium of communication. Ethical considerations play a very minor role in this type of research because researchers can imply consent from the fact that the material they are examining has been published. Also, there is no direct contact with the researcher and the authors of the content, so nothing that the researcher does can severely impact the authors' well-being. University ethics codes contain rules that reflect these assumptions, and they consider anything that is freely available on the internet to be "published material". For this reason, I began my study without asking for your consent.
My research looked only at messages that related to Afghanistan and were posted in September 2006 or December 2008. I looked for differing opinions about Canada's mission, how these were articulated, how the debate progressed, and how the medium of communication affects the conversation.
Over the course of my research, I got the feeling that I was eavesdropping. I learned in class to trust my intuition when it comes to ethics; uncomfortable feelings are often an indication of ethical issues that need to be discussed.
This message is a part of what sociologists call "debriefing". Once the observation phase of a study is complete, researchers conduct interviews with their subjects in order to better understand how the research affects the subjects personally. This helps to clarify ethical questions for future research.
I want to know what you think about my study, especially in regard to the following questions:
1) Do you consider your forum posts to be public information or a private conversation?
2) Do you feel that I violated your privacy in reading and/or studying your posts?
3) Should I have asked for permission first?
4) Would it violate your privacy if I quoted your post in my paper?
5) Would it violate your privacy if I referred to your username in my paper?
6) Would your opinion be different if my paper were to be published? (It won't.)
7) Would your opinion be different if I were working for the government? (I'm not.)
Feel free to offer anything that you think will help me with these ethical questions, and my research in general. I am also curious about who you all are in real life (e.g. age, occupation, etc.), though I understand if you want to preserve your anonymity. I will check back in a couple of days to address any concerns you might have. I am also happy to post the final version of my paper, once I am finished writing it.
3rd Year Public Affairs and Policy Management
Specializing in International Studies
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada