An Internet-Based Study Justification for Waiving Informed Consent
Faith, Identity and the Rhetoric of the Emerging Church Online
Justification for Waiving Informed Consent
(1) The research involves no more than minimal risk to the subjects
Because our study seeks to gather information on “identity, language, communication, cultural beliefs or practices, and social behavior,” we believe that our methods pose no more than minimal risk to the subjects. Our examination of existing texts and the rhetorical strategies employed by members of an online community is guided by ethical principles developed by the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR). AOIR suggests several guidelines by which to assess whether informed consent and confidentiality are issues of concern. When considering whether to utilize the texts of participants in online community sites, AOIR suggests asking, “Are participants in this environment best understood as “subjects” (in the senses common in human subjects research in medicine and the social sciences) – or as authors whose texts/artifacts are intended as public?” AOIR makes the distinction between subjects, who are interacting in “reasonably secure domains for private exchanges,” and those who “may be understood as authors intending for their work to be public.” The domain of the message board is a publicly accessible format, distinct from personal email or private chat rooms; therefore, as AOIR proposes, “fewer obligations to protect autonomy, privacy, confidentiality… follow” (AOIR, “Ethical decision-making and Internet research,” p. 7). Using these guidelines, message boards at www.theooze.com represent a public domain and users of the site may be understood to be authors. We see this study as analogous to reading a co-authored book.
(2) The waiver or alteration will not adversely affect the rights and welfare of the subjects
Comparing the policies of the site with the ethical guidelines suggested by AOIR, use of message board postings to www.theooze.com will not constitute a breach of privacy because the users of the site are aware of the privacy limitations in the internet context. Given that message boards constitute a public domain in which texts are intended for public view (and which differ from email or private chat rooms in that they are intentionally made available for public reading), we contend that use of texts from these sites will not adversely affect the rights of the participants involved.
(3) The research could not be practicably carried out without the waiver or alteration
As explained above, message boards constitute texts within the public domain, and, in such a context, as AOIR proposes, “fewer obligations to protect autonomy, privacy, confidentiality… follow.” Informed consent, then, is not necessary for use of this textual content. Finally, there is a precedent for waiving informed consent in the use of these kinds of online texts. Spencer Burke, the creator of www.theooze.com, has himself utilized online texts from the website as part of a book he has written, entitled Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community and Culture. In his book, Burke quotes and uses passages of text from writers who post at www.theooze.com; Burke treats those writers as one would treat a published author.
(4) When appropriate, the subjects will be provided with additional pertinent information after participation
In this situation, we do not feel it will be necessary or appropriate to inform subjects or provide additional information after participation in the study.