Every researcher working with human subjects strives to ensure the highest ethical standards. Regardless of whether the research is quantitative or qualitative in nature – or in the field of health, communications, education, psychology, marketing, anthropology, or sociology – researchers care about protecting the confidentiality, anonymity, and basic “rights” (such as privacy and freedom of thought) of the people who agree to be part of their studies. It is with this in mind that, in addition to gaining IRB approval (as required), researchers openly discuss the goals and intended use of their research with participants, as well as asking them to carefully read and agree to the appropriate consent forms. Online group discussions (focus groups) present a particularly delicate matter. Unlike any other overt form of research – unlike an online survey dominated by closed-end questions, or an online in-depth interview with one person at any moment in time – the online group discussion – with its amalgamation of many people (typically, strangers to each other) responding at length to many open-ended questions over the course of multiple (possibly, many) days – potentially raises important security and identity concerns among participants. Even with a signed consent form, online group participants may still have serious doubts about the containment of their input to the discussion and, hence, their willingness to contribute openly and honestly with the other participants. It is the researcher’s responsibility to address these concerns by proactively giving direct attention to questions such as:
- Where and for how long will participants’ comments and uploaded material (e.g., images, videos) linger in “data storage”?
- What are the security measures that are in place and who will have access to the research data (i.e., participants’ comments and uploaded material)?
- Who, other than the moderator, will be observing the discussion in the virtual back room?
- How much of a participant’s identity is actually known by the moderator, the observers, and the other participants?
- Will the other participants keep participants’ comments confidential, i.e., not share comments made in the discussion with anyone outside the group?
- Will participants be identified with their comments either internally (i.e., via the final report or presentation) or externally (e.g., via text snippets in an online blog or posting a participant’s uploaded video on YouTube)?
- What recourse does a participant have if any security or identity violation occurs?
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