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Stommel, W., & Rijk, L. de. (2021). Ethical approval: none sought. How discourse analysts report ethical issues around publicly available online data. Research Ethics, 17(3), 275–297. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016120988767


Although ethical guidelines for doing Internet research are available, most prominently those of the Association of Internet Researchers (www.aoir.org), ethical decision-making for research on publicly available, naturally-occurring data remains a major challenge. As researchers might also turn to others to inform their decisions, this article reviews recent research papers on publicly available, online data. Research involving forums such as Facebook pages, Twitter, YouTube, news comments, blogs, etc. is examined to see how authors report ethical considerations and how they quote these data. We included 132 articles published in discourse analysis-oriented journals between January 2017 and February 2020. Roughly one third of the articles (85 out of 132) did not discuss ethical issues, mostly claiming the data were publicly available. Quotations nevertheless tended to be anonymized, although retrievability of posts was generally not taken into account. In those articles in which ethical concerns were reported, related decisions appeared to vary substantially. In most cases it was argued that informed consent was not required. Similarly, approval from research ethics committees was mostly regarded unnecessary. Other ethical issues like consideration of users’ expectations and intentions, freedom of choice, possible harm, sensitive topics, and vulnerable groups were rarely discussed in the articles. We argue for increased attention to ethical issues and legal aspects in discourse analytic articles involving online data beyond mentioning general concerns. Instead, we argue for more involvement of users/participants in ethical decision-making, for consideration of retrievability of posts and for a role for journal editors.