Michael Zimmer has posted another ethical question this week:
While participating in the workshop on Revisiting Research Ethics in the Facebook Era: Challenges in Emerging CSCW Research, the question arose as to whether it was ethical for researchers to follow and systematically capture public Twitter streams without first obtaining specific, informed consent by the subjects. Many in the room felt that consent was not necessary since the tweets are public, a conscious choice made by the user to allow the whole world see her activity. In short, by not restricting access to one’s account, there is no expectation of privacy.
You can read the entire entry here. As Michael reiterates in a comment in the discussion section, “the issue isn’t about having individual tweets reposted, but whether it is ethical for researchers to systematically follow and scrape them, without undergoing IRB review or gaining informed consent.”
Many commenters on Michael’s blog seem to think this is a non-issue and that there is no expectation of privacy in public tweets. But researchers often have additional ethical obligations that the general public does not have. So, for example, a psychologist who wishes to conduct research that involves observing people on the street or under naturalistic conditions without their knowledge needs to take the proposal before an institutional review board (IRB) who will consider whether there is any risk posed to the unwitting participants in the study that needs to be addressed. When it comes to running things by an IRB, my position has always been that it’s pretty much always of value for uni-based researchers to seek IRB input and approval – not just for liability reasons but to gain others’ perspectives on the ethics of your design and methods.
Whether Tweeters have any right to control the use of their tweets is not the same question as asking whether researchers have an obligation to ask.