Why Don’t We Have Better Online Academic Ethics?

One of the splendid things about the internet is that it provides a wealth of publicly accessible research material for those interested in tracking evolving social norms, attitudes, and other things. For social scientists as well as people in some other aspects of academia, the internet is a fountain of data, coming with none of the restrictions and limitations of archives and other controlled media. All they have to do is log in and start searching, checking the blogs they’re reading, look at trending topics on Twitter.

Yet, even as the internet is a boon to academia, it’s also uncharted waters. Academics don’t really seem to know how to conduct themselves in online spaces, and it’s causing growing clashes.

People who are straight-up conducting research need to run it by IRBs for approval, to discuss the subjects they’re working with (the bloggers they follow, the people they Tweet with, etc.), but there are more abstract issues. What if you’re an academic doing research on Twitter environments but you have a Tumblr for non-academic purposes? What if there’s some bleed, there? What if you’re not necessarily required to disclose the fact that you’re an academic or to discuss your research in detail (to avoid problems with a population acting artificially because it knows it’s being observed), but you know the people you are studying would feel uncomfortable with that? When you’re working with sensitive communities, like women of colour, like trans people, like disabled people, how do you balance your desire for information and learning with the need to respect the communities you are, for better or for worse, exploiting for academic (and hopefully in the long term social) gain?

Recently, I was sent a book by a publisher on a subject I know fairly well, a subject with online communities that I am active in, and that I am in fact active enough in to have coined some of the language used in those communities, alone or jointly with other people. The book didn’t surprise me — public relations representatives send me all kinds of things and this book actually made sense as a publisher freebie, unlike some of the other books I get, given that it was directly related to the work that I do. I was also, I confess, intrigued — I was simultaneously excited to see someone writing about a minority community, and a little nervous because I was concerned about the exploitation of that community involved in the writing of the book.

There is, as we know, a politics of complexity around book deals in online communities, especially when someone who is seen as ‘one of us’ suddenly becomes ‘one of them’ because she is suddenly paid for her work. Not just paid, of course, but actively profiting (though, people should know, academic book deals are quite small), from the work of other people. She’s elevated to an authority on the community she’s writing about and she becomes the focus on everyone else’s attention; suddenly, the voices of other people drop to the background. Without careful sourcing and credit, a book can turn into a chaotic mass of unattributed material that isn’t exactly plagiarised, but does conceal its roots — and, at times, violates bonds of trust and confidence as people who thought that private or semi-private material would remain so are startled to see those materials suddenly released in public.

So I flipped through the pages of this book loosely to see what the author had written about. The author’s name wasn’t familiar to me, which made me edgy, as I wondered if this was an outsider writing about the community, but I finally connected the (fairly easily traced, the author didn’t make a secret of it) dots to an online identity I did, tangentially, recognise.

And then I was startled: A term that I had jointly coined with someone else was casually mentioned in passing with no context and no reference to the people who had developed it, despite the fact that this information was readily available online. The original appearance was in the first page of Google results, along with the ensuing conversation in comments that had refined the term, added depth and complexity, and started to cement it in the common lexicon. Then, pages and pages of references to the term, all discussing the original post, were also available. It was, in other words, very easy to determine both that the term wasn’t native to English (it was clearly invented and was relatively recent) and who had developed it — you don’t need OED-level researching capabilities to see when and how the term was first used, and by whom.

But this author had chosen to totally erase the history of the term and the people behind it. It appeared in a vacuum. And it troubled me. Perhaps the person who had written the book — who wasn’t precisely an academic, but wasn’t one of us either — hadn’t necessarily done anything wrong, but it sat wrong with me. It disturbed me to think both of my presence being erased, and of observers, stalking me, using the works within my communities to generate profits or develop theses or advance themselves. It’s an issue that comes up again and again, sometimes with particularly shocking and egregious examples and substantial fall out, as for example when a group of women of colour stumbled upon a thesis that had drawn substantially on their work for research, from a researcher who hadn’t contacted any of them or discussed the nature of the thesis with them, instead mining their communities for nuggets of information (I keep the details of this vague because I’m not interested in derailing the larger issues I’m bringing up here with the mention of a specific case, though I note that they are easily Googleable if you don’t know what I’m referring to).

Had she done wrong? Many people in the community she’d used felt, well, used, but also wronged and upset. Yet, her research was approved and the thesis accepted, illustrating that academia is behind the norms and standards of online communities, which presents ethical issues: Marginalised communities are at risk simply because no one wants to hold a plenary discussion about how to use the internet ethically, working directly with marginalised people to incorporate their views on the issue into any sort of coherent policy.

Image: Flickering, Alex, Flickr