Friday, January 16, 2009

An ethics question

One of the things I have been planning to do for some time is have a look at a few blogs and Twitter accounts, and run an audit of what health professionals talk about. This is in connection to confidentiality and security, particularly in relation to patient information.

Aim of the project
This project would be in response to all the concern voiced about health professionals blogging etc in an open environment, which has led to a number of blogs and forums being closed or restricted to public access. I have wondered if we over react - that in reality people are very careful about what they say and write. On the other hand, if patient confidentiality is being compromised, maybe health professionals need formal guidelines about online behaviour and computer-mediated communication.

Research plan
What I want to do is look at a number of blogs and Twitter accounts of health professionals and work out the 'risk' to confidentiality to patients, colleagues and themselves. The score is based on a rubric that I have used in previous research.

Ethical issues
What I need to think about are the ethical issues. What do you think I would have to think about in relation to this research method? To help you in your consideration, here are a few points of clarification:
  • blogs and Twitter accounts are openly available for all to see
  • I would not identify the blog and Twitter accounts in research publications
  • accounts would be randomly selected via Google search
  • I will not be audit an account I personally know, or communicate with.
Do you think I would need to ask permission of the blogger or Tweeter? If I don't ask for permission, should I inform them anyway? If I informed them and they complained, should I continue with including them in the research? Is there anything else I would need to consider?

Image: 'That Way' justinbaeder


Rachel said...

Just a couple of thoughts... Even if you don't name the blog/account, if you plan to quote from them, they may be easily identifiable via a web search for the quoted phrase. It is also going to be difficult for you to categorize the risk to privacy, as it may not be apparent to what degree the author is obscuring the details of the case or of their own location/job. I'm thinking that there may be many instances of blog entries that seem like very specific descriptions of cases, but only the author knows how the details have been changed. You'll need a clear methodology in place making those determinations.

erika said...

I strongly recommend reading the aoir ethics guide ( But just off the top of my head, from what you've described there, the general consensus is publically accessible postings can be treated like newspaper articles or websites.

Anne Marie said...

Just watched this today. Near the start he discusses ethics of doing research on public pages on Facebook.

Hope it helps,

Pam said...

I believe it is certainly worthwhile looking into. I was shocked to hear of one blog being closed down. I believe researching the subject and considering guidelines would be useful for those who wish to close blogs down and for those writing them if they want to form a defense against being closed down.
It maybe that blogger/tweeter would be very interested to see the results I`d approach them not to ask permission but just to say this is what I intend to do would you be interested in seeing the results or interested in some sort of collaboration.

Claire Thompson said...

Sarah, this sounds like a great research project. My initial response is that information on publicly accessible sites should be fair game for your study, depending on how you use the information. You mentioned that you will not be identify the blog and Twitter accounts in research publications (or other public places I assume?). Rachel raises a good point about quoting from blogs or Twitter; will your paper be as strong without quotes? If you need some quotes, then this might be where permission is required. Not identifying the blogs and Twits and not quoting them, of course, are to protect the patients. If part of the goal of your research is to educate practitioners about appropriate behaviours for open blogging, then it may be worthwhile contacting the bloggers and Twits in your study to inform them of your work. I'm not sure at what point in the study it would make sense to do this--perhaps once you have all your data so that your message does not influence their actions? Best of luck with it all.

Sarah Stewart said...

@Rachel, thanks for those thoughts - very useful. I haven't got past the stage of this being an idea, but when I do, I'll blog my ideas about methodology for critique and feedback.

@erika Thanks for reminding me about the AOIR guidelines. I did a lot of work/study in this area a couple of years ago and was really up to date with thinking, so it will be good to re-visit these issues & see what the latest thinking is about ethics of online research.

@AM Thanks for that-will have a look. I know there is a lot written about ethics & Internet research-just need to get out and have a look at the latest opinions.

@Pam I agree-even if I don't have to ask permision, I think it is poloite to tell people what I'm doing. Lets face it, if you are a health professional and blog about your clinical practice, you have to be prepared for scrutany.

@Claire Some more great points for me to consider. Thanks.

Helen said...

Hi Sarah - an interesting idea and I think it would make fascinating research. One thing that really resonates for me is that health professionals that blog about their practice have to be prepared for the scrutiny. I think this is a really important point and one we should keep reminding ourselves about.