NET NEWS: Ethics of Studying Cybernauts

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Science  25 Jun 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5423, pp. 2051c
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5423.2051c

About your e-mail to an Internet discussion group griping how you were unjustly denied tenure: Well, it could wind up in some sociologist's dissertation. Just how freely researchers can make use of Web postings is one of a thicket of cyberspace issues that a group of federal officials, scientists, and ethicists is now trying to hammer out.

From educators using the Net for teaching to clinicians recruiting subjects for trials, scholarship involving the Internet is exploding. And this boom, in turn, is raising serious questions. “It gets very easy to be voyeuristic,” notes Stephen Sherblom, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. For instance, should a researcher have to get informed consent to use material posted to a Usenet group, or to eavesdrop on a chat room? Questions such as these from university research oversight committees “are starting to balloon,” says Jeffrey Cohen of the federal Office for Protection from Research Risks (OPRR).

To gather input on what to do, AAAS (Science's publisher) and OPRR invited two dozen experts to a workshop in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. “In my opinion, we don't need new ethical principles,” says Sherblom, a participant. However, he says, rules must be worked out to determine whether, for example, it's fair to take clandestine notes during an online discussion, or to quote from a posting word for word. Amy Bruckman, a computer scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, thinks it would make sense to craft guidelines “for each genre”—anonymity might be more important for a private e-mail list than for a public chat room, she says.

AAAS has set up a Web site featuring a discussion paper on “human subjects research in cyberspace”; it plans to issue a longer report this fall. Cohen says OPRR hopes to have guidelines ready for research review boards by the end of the year.

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