Tag Archives: Informed consent

Here’s the Problem with Social Media Research Ethics #MRX

Immanuel Kant developed his own version of the...

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Wherever I may wander, wherever I may roam, I always come across a divide in the interpretation of market research ethics. Some people think all market research must be permission based. Other people think anything in the public eye is fair game. The gap therein is wide, rife with arguments, and seemingly unsolveable. But I think I’ve figured out what the problem is.

Many people playing in the market research sandbox have no training in market research. They did NOT take an undergraduate degree in market research. They did NOT take statistics and research methods and research ethics courses in school. They did NOT take philosophy or medical or psychology or sociology courses in ethics. They have NOT taken certification courses offered by market research institutions. In fact, many people playing in the market research sandbox come from computer science, database management, and many other non-social science research spaces. They don’t have the same understanding of people as market researchers do.

Our industry is suffering from a massive influx of workers with insufficient or no training in important market research skills and knowledge. Sure, you can pick up things on the job, from your colleagues, from mentors, from conferences, from webinars, and from many other places. But you can’t pick up everything and you can’t pick up everything correctly. And you certainly can’t pick up research ethics without the careful guidance of someone who has spent decades debating that issue with trained and respected colleagues.

It is only with appropriate training that we will be able to reduce the gap. The gap will always be there but as more of us better understood the human condition and the rules that go along with using humans as data points, there will be more points of agreement. So raise your voice. Raise your voice every time it’s needed.

Ethical Framework for SMR, Panel #SoMeMR #MRX #li

10.15 PANEL: Establishing an ethical framework for social media research

  • Tracking developments towards new standards for social media research in Europe and the US
  • Dealing with privacy issues: Assessing attitudes towards privacy in online environments
  • Evaluating ethical guidelines for blog and buzz mining
  • When is engagement with commenters necessary?
  • Evaluating appropriate codes of conduct for qualitative approaches to harvesting data via social media channels

Barry Ryan, Standards & Policy Manager, MRS
Jillian Williams, External Relations Team Leader, Highways Agency
Pete Comley, Chairman, Join the Dots (formerly Virtual Surveys)
Simon McDonald, Business Director, Insites Consulting

  • Barry – Data protection, there is identifiable data that must be protected. Copyright – blogposts, photos, videos, all covered under copyright act. Terms and service – of individual sites must be respected. Internal issue – how MR codes are constructed – participation is based on voluntary informed consent, that is our heritage.  (I’m waiting to hear about the stance on observational research, and qualitative researchers abilities to summarize text.)
  • Simon – Does research industry need rules?  We know it’s a work in progress. We don’t want to be restricted from doing things that other companies are able to do. (e.g., buzz companies don’t have to listen to MR ethics)
  • Pete – Believes in guidelines. Was part of ESOMAR guidelines committee.  Not happy with MRS stance. Bodies should be forward looking and represent us. Tone of consultation document does not do that. Document is like Pope and Catholic church. Applying to the letter. MRS won’t stop us from doing SMR. Seriously risks splitting entire MR industry in the UK. It is that serious. Solutions? We must be more inclusive and representative. Must be provisions for MR to do SMR. Long term, MRS code of conduct is the problem. Informed consent is the problem. We are NOT interviewing people here. This is analyzing public data. Concept of informed consent does not apply. We need to relook at code of conduct.
  • Jillian – As a research client, anonymity is important. Masking isn’t satisfactory.  Client does not want to be on the front page of the Daily Mail. Client will take the flack, not the industry. Clients want to comply with guidelines. Clients pay the bill.
  • Barry – Data Protection Act is the problem. Informed Consent is the first thing in it. There is no distinction between public and private. The MRS Code reflects rules of legislation. MRS made it easy for researchers to comply with data protection act. “This data is accessible” is not sufficient but you can work with the data provider directly and then it’s ok. “Subject to data protection rules” is important. If MRS interpeted law incorrectly, please tell them. [Call to MR company internal legal counsel – does anyone see if there have been misinterpretations of Data Protection Act?]
  • Pete – Data Protection Act is pre-internet. How do we survive as industry until and if there are changes?
  • Barry – Whatever comes next will not be better. “The legislator knows best.”  People want the right to be forgotten (drunken photos should be deleted if the person wants them deleted).
  • Simon – Self-regulation is important. Dialogue with respondents means better qulaity data. Consent is important but best research is also important. Their company had a problem where they friended people for research purposes, with multiple layers of consent, but then of course Facebook lets you see friends of friends, and those friends hadn’t given consent.
  • Jillian – SMR is not necessarily representative.
  • Annie – I asked a question about whether observational research is not research since it’s not informed consent and whether masking is an assault on qualitative researchers who mask for a living.
  • Barry – This is not an assault on qualitative research. There is a separate guidelines for qual research. Maybe the MRS heard nothing back from qualitative researchers and it’s not reflected in the paper. In the online space, everything is data, video, photo. Under the data Proection Act, processing data is engagement. Masking is good for privacy, but it doesn’t rectify the potential unlawfullness of the act of taking the data.
  • Pete – Does everything really need to be masked? “I love McDonalds” maybe not.  Anything Pete says here, he risks it being written down and shared. (Hmmmm….. watch out!) Going out of your way to NOT quote something written in the online public space seems odd. What do you do with gray area of semi-private. Inconsequential “This hotel is lovely” doesn’t need masking but someone’s sexual preference does need masking. It is a minefield.
  • Jillian – Doesn’t like masking at all. We want the insight from the quote as opposed to masked verbatims that aren’t exactly correct and could be misunderstood.
  • Question – why are companies doing this if it’s all illegal under data protection act? [Great question – are we waiting for someone to get sued and go to court before we get an update to the legislation?]

Qualitative Market Research is Bunk #MRX

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I have the greatest of respect for psychologists. My original training was as an experimental psychologist, and as such, I obtained permission to take a graduate level class in ethics alongside students training to become clinical psychologists. I learned the ins and outs of the ethics involved with working with people in the most fragile state of their lives, and trust me it’s very complicated. What I learned there has come with me through my entire career. Any time ethical issues arise in the field of market research, I always look back on what I learned in my training to become a psychologist to guide me down the right path. It’s a good place to start because academic Psychologists have some of the strictest ethical codes out there. People’s lives are on the line.

Psychology ethics codes sound very much like a medical doctor’s code. Do no harm. Respect the individual. Care for people in situations where they may be unable to care for themselves. This is what I seek in market research even when some people say that I am being naive and idealistic.  But I’m OK with that. I’d rather be too careful than risk someone being hurt. I sleep well because of this.

Is it an issue of informed consent?

So when I saw the MRS paper on proposed privacy guidelines, I was very concerned. My interpretation of it suggests that it disregards the legitimacy of naturalistic observation research (i.e., practice of scientifically observing people in their natural environment without interfering with them or drawing attention to yourself). Here is one quote (all the quotes in this post are out of context) from the MRS paper:

“That is why as the real and virtual worlds converge further, MRSB believes that researchers must apply the same ethical standards to research online as they do in real life. That is: Obtaining the informed consent of all persons from or about whom data is collected”

To me, this flies in the face of traditional ethical research methods that have been practiced by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and market researchers for decades. All of these codes permit naturalistic observation and recognize it as a valid and ethical practice. Here are just a few excerpts from various ethics codes of psychology organizations.

Canadian Psychological Association Code of Ethics
“Obtain informed consent for all research activities that involve
obtrusive measures, invasion of privacy, more than minimal risk of
harm, or any attempt to change the behaviour of research
participants.”

American Psychological Association Online Research Ethics
When conducting research online, researchers need to contend with changes in the technology, the ways the technology is typically used, and the norms surrounding this use, because this context is integral to assessing anonymity, privacy, risk and the like. For example, the concept of minimal risk depends upon a comparison of the risk associated with research participation to risk in everyday life. The concept of privacy depends upon participants’ reasonable expectations about whether others will be allowed access to information about them. As online behavior and norms change, the nature of minimal risk and the very concept of privacy themselves change.

American Psychological Association Code of Ethics
“8.05 Dispensing with Informed Consent for Research
Psychologists may dispense with informed consent only (1) where research would not reasonably be assumed to create distress or harm and involves (a) the study of normal educational practices, curricula, or classroom management methods conducted in educational settings; (b) only anonymous questionnaires, naturalistic observations, or archival research for which disclosure of responses would not place participants at risk of criminal or civil liability or damage their financial standing, employability, or reputation, and confidentiality is protected; or (c) the study of factors related to job or organization effectiveness conducted in organizational settings for which there is no risk to participants’ employability, and confidentiality is protected or (2) where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations”

British Psychological Society Code of Ethics
“Unless informed consent has been obtained, restrict research based  upon observations of public behaviour to those situations in which  persons being studied would reasonably expect to be observed by  strangers, with reference to local cultural values and to the privacy of  persons who, even while in a public space, may believe they are unobserved.”

Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield
9. Observational Research
9.1 Studies based upon observation must respect the privacy and psychological well-being of the individuals studied. Unless those observed give their consent to being observed, observational research is only acceptable in situations where those observed would expect to be observed by strangers. Additionally, particular account should be taken of local cultural values and of the possibility of intruding upon the privacy of individuals who, even while in a normally public space, may believe they are unobserved.

Is it an issue of permissions?
 
This for sure is a no. Ethical monitoring and measuring and research platforms would not exist if it was an issue of permissions. Websites have two very simple ways of ensuring their data remains private. First, they can insert code into their website that essentially says “please don’t gather our data.” This code is readily respected by ethical companies. Second, websites can choose to NOT create APIs that permit the sharing of data with external companies. Since Facebook and Twitter and most other major websites provide APIs to give data to third parties, they are the ones who determine what can be shared within their privacy policy. Ethical companies won’t, and physically can NOT, take data that isn’t permitted.
 
Is it an issue of masking verbatims?

On a separate note, the MRS paper indicates this about the cloaking of data: “While data masking or cloaking may be offered as a privacy solution, from a methodological point of view it is rather unsatisfactory. This approach could distort results if the original wording was materially altered (and even a single word change can do this).”

This, I believe to be an affront to the skills, expertise, and training of most qualitative researchers who perform this task on a daily basis with the utmost of quality in workmanship. Are we to disregard qualitative researchers? Push them outside of the market research world? Ignore the contributions of people whose skills are qualitative because they are incapable of properly summarizing or describing opinions? I can only hope that this was an unintended side effect. Masking is truly such a minor issue that I immediately begin picturing babies and bathwater. Masking is a widely used process that can be taught and learned. So let’s teach it and learn it.

Whether you agree or disagree with me, whether my opinion is in the extreme minority, I implore you to share your opinions with the MRS. Our industry is being shaped right now and your voice matters. Please speak up.

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