Shaping ethical research practice in social media research

As social media is becoming integral to so many people’s lives, how we conduct ethical research within social media is becoming a hot topic for social science researchers. Digital technologies including  social media are  increasingly being used in academic and commercial research and various interdisciplinary social science groups are grappling with the ethical implications of the opportunities and challenges these technologies present.  Indeed 5 general guiding ethics principles  for social science researchers from  the Academy of Social Sciences  were outlined in summer 2015 and those of us involved in social media research are now trying to suggest how  our type of research should incorporate those principles which are;

  1. Social science is fundamental to a democratic society and should be inclusive of different interests, values, funders, methods and perspectives.
  2. All social science should respect the privacy, autonomy, diversity, values, and dignity of individuals, groups and communities.
  3. All social science should be conducted with integrity throughout, employing the most appropriate methods for the research purpose.
  4. All social scientists should act with regard to their social responsibilities in conducting and disseminating their research.
  5.  All social science should aim to maximise benefit and minimise harm.

Whilst very few would argue with the general principles above, certain aspects such as privacy can create challenges for us as researchers. So this week I’ll be presenting some ideas around  re-focusing the blurred lines between researchers and participants in social media research at an interdisciplinary conference in London as part of the NSMNSS network with the aim of  suggesting good practice in order to move the ethical research debate forward.

blurring glasses

Along with my co-author, Nina Reynolds, I will be outlining ideas such as asking for incremental, ongoing consent rather than one-off informed consent and giving constructive suggestions on the recent IPSOS MORI  DEMOS report  on social media research ethics. I ‘ll let you know the outcomes of our discussions in the next blog.

‘Mirror mirror on the wall’- the quantified self

The recent upsurge in interest in self-tracking digital technologies, including apps has got me thinking about the quantified self and I am not alone in this. Deborah Lupton has a new book coming out in April 16 entitled The Quantified Self: a sociology of self-tracking cultures  which I look forward to reading.

What drives us to constantly monitor our health related activities, our blood pressure, the steps walked or our sleeping patterns. Why are so many people collecting and then sharing data on their goal setting , their achievements and their mental well being (or lack of it)? Whether it be via an app on our mobiles or a wearable device from the likes of Jawbone, Fitbit, Nike’s Fuel Band or the Chinese Xiaomi  personal data, like never before, is now being collected, stored and shared. Apparently if this data is called personal and not health data it gets round many legal issues across several countries, though of course it is health data. Have we become more narcissistic or is it just that the digital technologies make it so much easier for us to monitor ourselves in the quest to become the optimal human being (what ever that might be)? Shouldn’t  we  pause and reflect on this   datafication of  ourselves.

self tracking imageJohn Naughton  in The Observer recently highlighted the example of  a Christian focused American University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, now requiring new students to wear Fitbits apparently to monitor their fitness levels. Corporate encouragement of employees to wear self-tracking products is also in the increase, indeed my own university  has entered into this arena by holding an annual team competition for all staff using wearables. Incentivising the wearing and thus monitoring of those wearing these devices is also creeping in across sectors, executives are ‘given’ devices and HR functions may then  receive reports on activity or  stress levels.

Surely we should consider, before we download the app, or strap the device to our bodies, what data is being collected?, have I really given permission for the data to be collected?, how will the data be treated once collected? who owns the data?  and with whom might it be shared? Ownership of the data  is frequently blurred between the individual,  the brand owner of the tracking product, the analytical platform used  and also other third parties including government agencies, depending on which country you live in.


A very interesting study has just been completed in Canada, led by the University of Toronto, which investigated fitness tracker data privacy ( The study  found that certain leading brands of  fitness wearables did leak data. Many of the devices emitted a bluetooth unique identifier which  could be tracked by beacons. The study also found that data could be intercepted and tampered with, something the health insurance companies which use fitness wearables to offer lower premiums should recognise.

So mirror mirror on the wall – who is the fittest/fairest/smartest of them all? Oh wait you already know……

Isolating experiences in an age of sharing?

Crowded public transport during commuter time can be an isolating experience in an age of sharing. Airport departure lounges and all is hushed – where has the sound of people’s voices gone?

In an age of sharing life’s activities though digital and frequently social media, the art of talking not texting appears to be disappearing.  Our mobile devices allow us to plug in, tune in and isolate ourselves from those we sit next to, those we travel with and those in our physical communities.  We are still irritated by someone wearing a cheap set of headphones which allows their music to infiltrate our own bubble and  we are curious to know the outcome of an over loud conversation held by a suited  business man with an invisible participant regarding a currency exchange deal, but overall, there is little by way of conversation  between people in public places anymore.

So  whilst we are sharing aspects of our lives with those known and unknown to us across the  various digital platforms,those we pass everyday in the street are frequently  ignored. Our sharing behaviour is also isolating us. Our actual experience of sharing is an isolated one, we tweet,  like, post, stream etc whilst on the move but we do it as individuals, if we get a response – hurrah.

socil media sign stsockholm

The sign (left) used in Stockholm’s busy streets sums this up well. Figures with bowed heads focused on their screens. The figures are not looking up or at each other – they are looking down and inwardly directed in their activities.There is no looking up, no outward gaze, no sense of being part of the immediate physical environment or a sense of being connected to each other.

So whilst  the digital era may be the ‘sharing’ or even ‘over-sharing’ era it is also the  era of isolation – the use of digital to shield us from having to  interact with other people – at a human level that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I am going to try to look up and out a little more as a walk down the streets of Oxford, I might even to speak to a stranger.

Ethical dilemmas in digital research

As part of my university wide role as Chair of Research Ethics I am increasingly facing questions about ethical dilemmas in digital research, some of which I thought I’d share in my  next  2 or 3 blog posts. So to kick off I am starting with issues around participant recruitment platforms and crowd working.

Accessing research participants for any primary research is undoubtedly getting harder and response rates are falling fast!  Digital technologies can play a role in alleviating this but care needs to be taken. The first issue which I have been grappling with is participant recruitment and the use of third party platforms through which to either recruit participants and or  gather research data through, such as online research questionnaires. These are now plentiful across all subject disciplines and  are based on three business models.

1) A research institute or university platform designed to facilitate research, which may have open or closed access and usually requires an university email address (

2) A spin off from number one type which has been developed as a small business  such as the Oxford University Software incubator firm (

3) A purely commercial platform aimed at academic research which claim to be approved by university ethics committees or IRBs (Institution Research or Review Boards in the USA) (e.g.

These various models  become more complicated when you  unpick their various payment options. Some are entirely free, some are free to upload your questionnaire but each response costs the researcher money or the respondent benefits through a reward system, points for questionnaire completion which equals discount vouchers etc. Another type charges a fee to post your research and also charges per completion of questionnaire. A further variation is the fremium model, sign up for a basic free version but subscribe for the useful version such as Many use Paypal as the payment intermediary which, for some universities, causes concern in the finance department. Furthermore some UK universities are concerned about the storage of the research data on these platforms, their stability and the security of the data. Various other quality and ethical issues arise from these platforms. Very few are explicit about which, if any, research organisations ethics policy they comply with such as ESOMAR, MRS, AoIR etc. The pool of participants who sign up to participate on these platforms  are highly self-limiting, and are unlikely to be representative of the desired target sample – unless you are looking for students or retiree silver surfers. Additionally, some platforms offer significant cash  incentives to people who refer participants on to the site.

mechanical turk ad

At a whole other level is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk operation (Mturk). This ‘job completion’ platform works on the basis that activities which need completing are posted to this internet marketplace by organisations, people can then browse and complete these tasks for payment or Amazon gift vouchers (depending on which country the workers are located in). Third party organisations have become involved whereby workers are contracted to the third party to complete multiple different Mturk activities and the third party retains most of the payment for the completion. Mturk is being used by academic researchers for certain types of studies, including structured questionnaires. Academic journal editors have very differing views on the appropriateness of using this platform, some regard this as a legitimate tool in the digital economy, others see it as a flawed approach with the potential for becoming embroiled in digital sweatshops. Further discussion on  crowdworking and the broader ethical implications can be found at

Mturk raises multiple ethical issues in the research context which are worth highlighting.

  1. Can we establish that those completing the task have been informed about the context of the research?
  2. Do those completing the task have free choice in whether or not to participate?
  3. To what extent is it necessary to inform those participating about how the data will be used and also the outcome of the research?
  4. Can the level of anonymity required be guaranteed?
  5. How can researchers using Mturk as a data collection tool guard against fraud?
  6. Will there be fair payment to those completing the tasks, when will they be paid etc?
  7. Sampling frames may be very distorted and inaccurate or even unknown to the researchers.

I don’t profess to have the answers to these research focused ethical dilemmas regarding conducting research within a digitalised world but at least we should know what questions to ask of ourselves and what questions to share with our research students.

Christmas wine wish list

Recent tastings  have lead to the creation of my Christmas wine wish list.  In case you are looking for wine for Christmas here goes.

Owing to an influx of visitors and just because it’s dark and gloomy outside I have taken refuge in several bottles of Cuvee Royale Brut Cremant de Limoux NV (£11.99) – available at Waitrose and  a recent Decanter award winner. Very easily drinkable, reasonable mousse, light on the tongue but with good balance and a world away from the frequently terrible but more popular, now  produced on a truly industrial scale, prosecco.

For a fresh, jammy  and blackcurranty shiraz look no further than The Back Craft Shiraz, Barossa valley, Australia, 2014 (approx £15). This lacked the overwhelming punch of many Australian wines and was all the better for that. This shiraz would work well with game. This is distributed through Boutinot wines.

wine tasting glasses with pen

For laying down I have bought Charmes de Grand Corbin, St.Emilion Grand Cru, 2010 (approx £20). Rather closed at the moment but  has good tannins, length and  a roundness in the mouth. This will, I think, be something to look forward to in another 5 or so years.

Also the Oxford Wine Fair I ordered some delicious orange blossom infused Sauternes, The Reserve Dulong, France 2012  (approx £12) from the Oxford Wine Company which can  be drunk by itself or with Christmas cake or even some decent blue cheese. Incredibly good value sauternes  and I am now doubting that I bought enough!

On a different note all together  at  an Italian restaurant, Micatto’s, in Warwick I drank an excellent Sardinian wine – the simple Cannonau di Sardegna 2013. Cannonau is actually the grenache grape and widely planted across Sardinia. This wine was earthy  with cherry and packed with fruit. tells me you can find it  via for about  £9 a bottle.

wine joke

Innovations in Digital Research Methods

I was delighted when  Innovations in Digital Research Methods edited by Peter Halfpenny and Rob Proctor recently crossed my desk. Whilst many research students believe Research Methods to be a necessary but boring compulsory element of their studies I am doing my utmost to promote the exciting times we now live in  in terms of digital’s positive disruption to how and what we research.

innovations in digital  text book

A wide range of contributors from  British, Australian and American  based academics  have co-created the insight in this useful textbook published by Sage.    Like me,  the authors  believe that the landscape of research has fundamentally shifted with the advent of digital technologies  and they set about  outlining the new  e-social science landscape. Acknowledgement is made in chapter 2 of the increasing blurring of qualitative and quantitative data and the trend in treating qualitative data quantitatively in the analysis stage.   Warnings about a potential overreliance on computer driven analytical tools and algorithms that lack transparency  is an apposite reminder in chapter 3 with an interesting discussion on text mining in chapter 8. The new  sources and types of data are  outlined  in Chapter 4  with explicit consideration of the dangers of  the ubiquity  of data and its convenience in collection versus the need for rigor. There are sensible suggestions made for future directions,   such as an increase in use of mixed methods – which I am definitely seeing in my PhD students and in some conference presentations.

The nascent state of how we ‘show’ data through visualizations including real time geo-mapping of people’s movements in urban areas, citizen science creation of Open Street Map provides practical illustrations in chapter  11.  Unsurprisingly, ethical issues  within  digital research methods now have  greater complexity  than ever before  and the grey areas and abuses are presented through case studies in chapter 12  including the infamous Facebook experiment.

This text book is  a well balanced and considered response from active researchers grappling with the realities of researching and  justifying their research in the digital age.  The reference list and the online resources at the end of each chapter are valuable to the novice and experienced researcher alike.  This book will be marked as ‘essential’ on the reading lists for my  Research Methods and for Digital Marketing Strategy  courses.

Digital Citizenship research: the realities of default to digital

My trusty research colleagues and I are are approaching the end of a fascinating research project, Digital Citizenship and the realities of default to digital by the government.

The transformational impact of digital technologies across society is viewed as a strategic research priority by the UK Research Council ( and the UK government has a general strategy to ‘channel shift’ the provision of services to digital. Likewise, local government bodies are appraising the digital technologies through which to engage their communities as an approach to delivering resource efficient services. Yet, little is understood about  how citizens are using  digital technologies to interact with their  local councils, which segments councils should be engaging with and how, and what the priorities for engagement should be. Our pilot study currently being completed has worked with two local government authorities, Oxford City and West Oxfordshire District Council to elicit data and form a longer term research relationship. Both councils are in the process of re-evaluating their digital provision to citizens and this project aligns with the wider government strategy to ‘channel shift’ services.

digital citizenship

The initial stage of the project involved interviews with key council managers responsible for the implementation of the channel shift ‘default to digital’ initiative. The interview questions were derived from both academic and public sector specific literature, and the interview data were coded into NVivo analytical software. The second stage comprised the design and dissemination of a 20 question questionnaire, in both online and paper formats to the  citizens of Oxfordshire, the results of which are currently being analysed. Early stage findings include; a mismatch between a top-down approach to digital communication and service provision by the councils and the actual engagement and usage levels by citizens,  in addition to citizens prioritising ‘problem solving’  as a key online preference. The full findings will be complete and available by December 2015.

 We are keen to determine if citizens and councils in other UK regions are facing similar digital challenges and hope to extend this pilot study nationally once further funding is secured  – so the hunt for funding is on!

 We hope that this project will create economic and social impact and possibly even lead to policy changes at local level  in Oxfordshire. By  collaborating with the public in this research it is intended  that the results are more meaningful to local communities  and that they feel  empowered within their neighbourhoods and ‘listened to’.  Our research has the potential to improve the social welfare of citizens through gaining a better understanding of  citizen engagement with digital technologies and what is and is not valuable to them. In addition, the local authorities could become more effective in their interactions with the public  through more  efficient  deployment of digitalised resources as a result of our research project.

Drinking Bordeaux in September

Having an old friend and former colleague for dinner was a wonderful excuse to raid the cellar for a couple of  bottles of  similar but ohh so different Saint-Emilions and enjoy drinking Bordeaux on a September evening.

We enjoyed a glass of light  Crement de Limoux as a pleasurable alternative to the endless Prosecco  – much of which is overrated, gassy and unpleasant. We ate our slow cooked  Lebanese lamb with, first  Chateau Faizeau, 2005  and then  Chateau Faugeres, 2004.

So the Faizeau, is a St. Emilion  satellite within  Montagne St Emiliion area, and is made from 100% Merlot from 50 year old vines and aged in 50% new oak- according to the definitive Clive Coates MW.

I had high expectations of the Faizeau, but there was very little on the nose, although a reassuring deep dark red colour. On the palate  plums and cherries with a tiny bit of spice, a nice balance of tannins. A very smooth feel in the mouth, highly competent but not a lasting memory. This wine generally gets somewhere between 86-90 points depending on the reviewer. This was my last bottle, perhaps I should have waited another year  but actually  perhaps not.

On to the Faugeres 2004.  Chateaus Faugeres is one of the St. Emilion’s  grand cru, lying at the Eastern edge of the  appellation. The wine is a blend of 85% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. On the nose, a sweetness  with some blackberries. On the palate a delicious full mouth of sweet forest fruits with a little smoke, very well rounded, almost plump feel, balanced and a delight to drink. A fair amount of sediment so worth decanting if you are particular about such matters. Interestingly Jancis Robinson only gives this 13/20 for reasons I do not understand. if you come across this wine I suggest you buy it and enjoy it.

faugeres 2004

Having thought this was my only bottle I have discovered 4 more – how lucky I am!

A new year and the marshmallow challenge for students

Another academic year has started with a wonderful new  group of MSc students, so this year I have introduced the marshmallow challenge (which you can  watch via a Ted talk in the first  link), to get them all thinking about groups and team work.sept dawn

The principle involves a team competition to build the tallest freestanding structure out of 20 pieces of spaghetti, 90 cm of string, 90 cm of sticky tape and one marshmallow which must be placed  on the top of the creation, and the tower must be completed in 18 minutes. A tall order in many ways.

Anyway after some incredulous looks my new students got down to work.

A couple of groups drew and planned first before starting  to build.

planning the tower

Another group built and then adapted whilst a fourth group focused on the foundation of the structure.

helping each to build

tower team work

There were many exchanges of ideas,  much listening to each other and quite a lot of task allocation and a lot of hands on construction!

The winning structure, see below, measured approx  60 cm but started to lean rather alarmingly. When questioned about the design, the inspiration had come from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

winning marshmallow tower

A wonderful website, and community exist around the marshmallow challenge,  with a great gallery of various teams’ attempts including fantastic creations from kindergarten children who ,apparently , create the most imaginative and very robust towers as they constantly prototype ideas and adapt as they go along.

Technology on holiday and travelling robots

Getting away from it all takes on a new meaning with this hotel concept in Japan. Whilst we are all used to various forms of technology on holiday, this new venture is really fascinating. A hotel staffed (almost entirely) with robots near  Nagasaki. From the front desk check-in manned by a collection of speaking robots including a dinosaur, to the distribution of luggage to rooms by small slow moving carriers, down to individual room concierges comprising table top doll-like robots acting as alarm clocks and weather informants., this is a very different hotel experience.


A face scanner recognition system is used for room entry and a selection of the usual Japanese vending machines  are the options available for food.

The longer term  plan, according to the entrepreneurial owner, Hideo Sawada, is to have a chain of these hotels with humanoid robots offering customer service and increasingly sophisticated person-robot interactions. At approx £48 a night I would definitely seek it out on a trip to Japan – it’s now officially on my technology  bucket list.

On a rather more downcast note, though still robot connected, I was sad to read today of the demise of hitchBOT. HitchBOT was a wonderful experiment to test the kindness of strangers through designing a robot which relied on people giving it rides to destinations as it tried to make its way across America. HitchBOT successfully travelled across Canada where he originated from,  in 2014.  Largely powered by solar panels HitchbBOT took regular photos on his travels and posted them to social media platforms and earned  62,000 followers on Twitter for his efforts. @hitchBOT if you are interested.  People could track his progress via GPS. He was fairly distinct in real life  – made from a modified bucket, and had an LED-powered smiling face. The hitchhiking device was easily identifiable with its blue arms and legs, offset by yellow wellington boots and gloves.  He was a fairly quiet travelling companion although he did have some basic language skills.


Sadly it appears that he was attacked and de-capitated recently in Philadelphia, and his surviving parts have been returned to his creators at Ryerson University Toronto. Let’s hope he resumes his brave journey soon.