Ethical Aspects of Employing a Weblog in Research

AUTHOR
M.J.Phythian, Dr N.B.Fairweather and Dr R.G Howley

ABSTRACT

As an instrument in an action research (AR) project to reveal the most suitable way of measuring delivery of e-government, Mick Phythian initiated and maintained a weblog. Employing an electronic medium chimed well with e-government research. The weblog in this instance also provided a ‘golden thread’ of continuity through the research, from establishment towards the end of the initial literature review, to being a promotional tool for the research, promoting best practice from academic and practitioner literature, along with hosting two questionnaires, and drawing comments from practitioners on relevant topics. The limited literature around using weblogs as research instruments focuses on describing their use in general or as research diaries. However, sufficient was found to encourage inclusion of the weblog within the ‘toolbox’ of research instruments employed. The weblog could be said to be a whole toolbox itself, acting as repository for questionnaires, feedback to the questionnaires, ethical information and information about future and past feedback sessions. The weblog shaped thinking about the proposed model, matters around metrics and e-government in general, without directing responses to questionnaires or interviews, a key issue when employing a weblog for research, as opposed to journalistic or personal reasons Some ethical issues around weblogs were raised by Rogerson (2006) but he focused on journalistic and personal weblogs, not weblogs focused on research. This paper explores ethical issues involved with weblogs that are research focused, and in particuar AR focused.

As with any tool, practice at posting on the weblog made using it easier. The main concern was then to provide interesting content. Sources of material came from reading a range of publications but setting up an automated newsfeed search brought up content both for the weblog and the research. The blogger, having an IT background and being responsible for a number of official websites, had experience in the technology but had not previously constructed a weblog. Implementation required consideration of design options to develop a site structure to deliver a relatively attractive but easy to maintain research tool. Also needed was provision for future questionnaires and other documents. A title of the “Great E-mancipator” for the research theme and weblog assisted focusing and styling the weblog.

The weblog was a launch pad for surveys, enabling the ethical preamble to be read, with supporting materials, and then the survey reached by those wanting to complete it. This follows Denscombe’s (2005, p.8) advice:

“research project Home Pages offer a voluntary, self-initiated means for dealing with the requirements of research ethics. They provide an eminently practical tool for ‘self-governance’ that addresses a public audience of a) potential participants, b) actual participants, c) other researchers.”

This added ethical value to the weblog from the outset. In addition, the weblog was convenient when encouraging responses, since postings promoted the survey, with later posts reporting initial feedback and thus prompting additional responses.

Being relatively novel, and one of a set of instruments, writing original posts and relevant responses was a challenge, whilst operating within standard research ethical guidelines to support successful research. This meant not breaking confidences revealed in meetings and maintaining neutrality when discussing different suppliers’ products.

In September 2008, the Municipal Journal online version, www.localgov.co.uk, took the weblog as an automatic RSS feed into their own list of bloggers, which included known commentators and a Member of Parliament. Mick Phythian was interviewed by localgov for their special regular section on citizen engagement, with links back to the weblog. The weblog homepage was updated on a regular basis and further links added, along with the ability to subscribe being used by a slowly increasing audience.

The weblog had been consistently monitoring news around the new national indicator, NI14, on “avoidable contact” and announcing the latest government papers about it as they appeared. Establishing a role as a “critical friend” of metrics attracted a small, regular audience of practitioners, academics and consultants with an interest in the field. Whilst not discovering direct answers to research questions by itself, it drew out the limited range of solutions on the market to recording both service user satisfaction and NI14. Weblog comments confirmed we were correct to determine a common and composite metric for use across multiple channels and services, along with the general difficulties presented by channel shift and costing, when channels are seen in isolation. Encouraging feedback, whilst providing either anonymity or protection of social capital could also be seen as an ethical challenge when collecting data, either directly through the weblog, or via the questionnaires and interviews.

This paper describes in more detail:

  • The process of developing the weblog, describing the ethical framework for this
  • The ongoing experience of writing a weblog for research and for promoting research and discussion of ethical issues faced and how these were reconciled within the live/ongoing research process.
  • Lessons learnt from employing the weblog that inform research ethics.
  • Ethical Implications for researchers using blogs and a consideration of how these may be addressed
  • Conclusions on the use of weblogs as research instruments and their ethical issues

REFERENCES

Denscombe (2005)

de Vries (2007)

Elo & Kyngas (2007)

Hookway (2008)

Krippendorff (1980)

Mayring (2000)

Murthy (2008)

Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998)

Research Information Network (2010)

Rogerson (2006)

Weare & Lin (2000)

Wiles, Pain & Crow (2010)

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