Studying the Amateur Artist: A Perspective on Disguising Data Collected in Human Subjects Research on the Internet

In the mid-1990s, the Internet rapidly changed from a venue used by a small number of scientists to a popular phenomenum affecting all aspects of life in industrialized nations. Scholars from diverse disciplines have taken an interest in trying to understand the Internet and Internet users. However, as a variety of researchers have noted, guidelines for ethical research on human subjects written before the Internet's growth can be difficult to extend to research on Internet users (Eysenback & Till, 2001; Frankel & Siang, 1999; Reid, 1996; Thomas, 1996; Waskul & Douglass, 1996). In this paper, I focus on one ethical issue: whether and to what extent to disguise material collected online in published accounts. While some people argue that vulnerable human subjects must always be made anonymous in publications for their own protection, others argue that Internet users deserve credit for their creative and intellectual work. Still others argue that much material available online should be treated as "published." To attempt to resolve these issues, I first review my own experiences of disguising material in research accounts from 1992 to 2002. Some of the thorniest issues emerge at the boundaries between research disciplines. Furthermore, many humanities disciplines have not historically viewed what they do as human subjects research. Next, I explore what it means to do human subjects research in the humanities. Inspired by issues raised by colleagues in the humanities, I argue that the traditional notion of a "human subject" does not adequately characterize Internet users. A useful alternate mental model is proposed: Internet users are amateur artists. The Internet can be seen as a playground for amateur artists creating semi-published work. I argue that this approach helps make some ethical dilemmas easier to reason about, because it highlights key novel aspects of the situation, particularly with regard to disguising material. Finally, I conclude by proposing a set of practical guidelines regarding disguising material gathered on the Internet in published accounts, on a continuum from no disguise, light disguise, moderate disguise, to heavy disguise.


Amy Bruckman


Bruckman, Amy (2002). "Studying the Amateur Artist: A Perspective on Disguising Data Collected in Human Subjects Research on the Internet." Ethics and Information Technology 4:3 (217-231).

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