Thursday, September 19, 2013

IRB and Social Media Research

This week I encountered an interesting situation regarding IRB and my data collection procedures.  My last participant, who I blogged about in the previous posts, published his online video response to my interview questions on YouTube.  Although I knew he would create online videos, I didn't expect him to post it online so quickly.  This route of collecting interview data was not approved by IRB, so I understand the ethical implications here.  I informed IRB that I would collect data via Qualtrics or Adobe Connect.

Back in January, I spent a few weeks through email discussions finding the best way to collect interview data from my participants who live abroad.  My first suggestions were email interviews and Skype interviews, which have been done many times in the literature I reviewed.  These were not acceptable methods for IRB because there is a confidentiality risk because the University of Iowa does not host my participant's email accounts (so they could approve my emails to them, but not their emails to me) and the university does not host Skype.  Because I had experience with Adobe Connect, the web conferencing alternative was easy to choose.  However, I had difficulty accepting Qualtrics as an alternative to email interviews because it's a survey software program, so the interview would flow more like a survey with 99% open-ended questions.  Nowhere in the literature did I find Qualtrics being used for interviews.  Even after collecting the data, it was more like a survey, but IRB approved that route.  And the university's IT advisor on data collection also agreed that Qualtrics was the best way to go.

So when my participant suggested submitting a video, I knew that IRB would not support it given the arguments for not permitting their email accounts or Skype.  It would have to be something that the university could provide.  In retrospect, perhaps IRB had a waiver for the participant to sign saying that he acknowledges that his data would not be confidential.  He didn't care as he willingly and knowingly made it public.  He didn't have the time for spending time on Qualtrics.  Perhaps though stronger persuasion, he may have done an Adobe Connect interview.  But I got the impression he wanted to be in control of the data, so perhaps where IRB drew the line.

IRB's conclusion was to order me to destroy the data, which is an order that informed me that IRB does not clearly understand social media research.  First of all, I do not own the data, so how can I destroy it?  They did not request me to ask/tell/order my participant to take the video off YouTube.  I'm sure that's another ethical complication there as he has the right to refuse the order.  Nonetheless, thousands of people have already viewed the video so the damage, if any, is done.

The damage is completely internal or procedural, but the main purpose of IRB is protect human subjects from physical and psychological harm.  It seems to me that I've been asked to "destroy" the data out of a technicality that had no threat of physical or psychological harm to my participant, especially given the fact that he has published over a thousand of YouTube videos with similar or even more personal/revealing narratives.

Finally, I'd like to analyze the term "destroy" a bit further.  Once something is published online, it is never destroyed.  It always exists in a server somewhere, so I cannot completely physically destroy the data.  One of my dissertation co-chairs used the term "remove," but she didn't specify from what.  I cannot remove it from the Internet, but I can remove it from my dissertation.  The data still exists for anyone to collect, analyze, and write about.  I am happy to have played a role in providing this data to those who find it useful.  Looking at the comments under the YouTube video, I found that some English language teachers have already found it helpful, so one of my goals for publishing my dissertation has been accomplished.  So I'm learning that this type of publication may affect more change than publishing through a peer-reviewed article, which very few practitioners read anyway.  I'm all for accessibility.

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