Human Subjects and Digital Research

(even though will generally be exempt, ie not “research” by narrow IRB standards)

The need for institutional review of student digital research projects must be determined on a case-by-case basis according to ethical research standards. Because composition and rhetoric already attends to the relationship between writer and audience, the multimodal writing classroom is an ideal forum in which to analyze idiosyncratic ethical questions raised by human subjects in digital research. Even though the majority of student research conducted in multimodal courses is likely exempt from IRB review, research that is conducted online, makes use of online sources, and/or is published to the web always involves real people (aoir.org). In order for students to remain mindful of the complex self-other relationships instigated by research involving digital and human subjects, faculty may integrate themes such as obligation, vulnerability, and harm into all stages of research projects otherwise exempt from formal review. Digital research and publication complicates an easy distinctions between published/unpublished and public/private, so supplementing IRB instructions with guidelines designed specifically for digital research helps students bear in mind the details and connections their work might uncover.

The Emory Institutional Review Board guides all research practices involving human subjects. Many research activities students undertake in Domain courses may be exempt from IRB review and requirements. The following may be most helpful for faculty considering directing student work that involves online research and human subjects:

  • “Chart 3: Does Exemption 45 CFR 46.101 (b)(1) (for Educational Settings) Apply?”
  • “Chart 4: Does exemption 45 CFR 46.101(b)(2) or (b)(3) (for Tests, Surveys, Interviews, Public Behavior Observation) Apply?”

Bruckman, Amy. Ethical Guidelines for Research Online.

Though Bruckman's guidelines are directed at faculty researchers who plan to publish peer reviewed work, the guidelines may be of interest to Domain participants guiding students through research projects that are conducted online, make use of online sources, and/or will be published to personal websites. For example, Bruckman provides guidelines for instances in which obtaining consent to cite digital material as part of a project may "be perceived as disruptive by participants" in chatrooms or social media. She also usefully outlines the "levels of disguise" in online environments as it pertains to participants and researchers.

CCCC Guidelines for the Ethical Conduct of Research in Composition Studies

Informed Consent Templates, University of Michigan

Markum, Annett, Elizabeth Buchanan. “Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research 2.0: Recommendations from the AOIR Ethics Working Committee.” aoir.org (2012)

This document does not replace IRB guides, but provides supplemental guidelines specific to digital research. Even though the majority of student research conducted in multimodal courses may be exempt from IRB review, the AOIR recommendations can be integrated into multimodal research projects so students remain mindful of complex self-other relationships produced through research that involves digital and human subjects. Especially useful in the multimodal classroom are the definition of key terms such as "privacy, Date/Text persons, and human subjects." Further the questions the AOIR Recommendations presents on topics such as "context, venue, research goal, and data management" can be used to great effect in day-to-day class activity.

McKee, Heidi and James Porter. “The Ethics of Digital Writing Research: A Rhetorical Approach.” CCC 59.4 (2008): 711-749.

Both authors have served as IRB reviewers and published research in the discourse of Composition and Rhetoric and digital technology. In their article they a outline a procedure for "identifying ethical complexities and for helping researchers make sound ethical decisions" when conduction digital writing research that involves human subjects (713). They approach the question of research ethics in digital writing via composition studies for two reasons: "digital research is fundamentally composition research," and composition studies attention to writer-audience relations provides a stage for a "casuistic-heuristic" approach to cases (712-13). The authors advocate researchers collaborate with members from multiple audience communities (i.e. IRB, research participants, community of readers, etc.) to triangulate perspectives that respond ethically to complex questions such as,
  • "Are all sites and communications on the Web public? Does a researcher need individual permission to quote, paraphrase, or otherwise report such publically available communications?" (719)
  • "...in a public forum like a blog or public discussion forum is it unethical simply not to announce one's presence?" (721).
  • How will publication of research on a personal website or in a peer reviewed publication effect "third-party representation" (729)?

McKee, Heidi. “Ethical and Legal Issues for Writing Researchers in an Age of Media Convergence.” Computers and Composition 25.1 (2008): 104-122.

"With the convergence of digital media into ever-widening social and technological networks for creation and distribution, the contexts for writing and the study of writing and writers have certainly changed. Researchers must navigate a dense matrix of ethical and legal issues in all phases of research when studying the ever-changing processes and products of digital communications. In this article, I draw from numerous sources to articulate a few of the challenges facing digital writing researchers in this age of convergence, focusing on issues of representation (researcher, participant, third-party), issues of informed consent, and issues of copyright and fair use" (104).

MLA Guidelines for Authors of Digital Resources

Rose, Jeanne Marie. “When Human Subjects become Cyber Subjects: A Call for Collaborative Consent.” Computers and Composition 24.4 (2007): 462-477.

"This essay treats the proliferation of online collaboration as a rationale for rethinking human subjects ethics in composition. Specifically, I argue that the Conference on College Composition and Communication's research guidelines for the ethical treatment of students and student writing are grounded in an individualist ethos that is an inadequate frame for researching contemporary writing pedagogy. As a result, teacher-researchers who seek students' informed consent for participation in a research study may inadvertently encourage students to view their writing as individual property, a vision of authorship not representative of the field's discursive values. As a corrective, I propose that composition scholars develop a guideline for soliciting students' collaborative consent. In addition to addressing a practical concern regarding the study of collaborative production in virtual and print contexts, collaborative consent has the potential to do important ideological work by sanctioning collaboration and validating students' extracurricular digital literacies" (462).