Social media research data often lacks ethical guidelines, need recommendations

Researchers often collect social media data without the user's consent, which may stray outside ethical guidelines, according to a study published in Research Ethics.

Collecting population data for health purposes through social media has become more common, but researchers at University of Edinburgh in Scotland argue that ethical guidelines have not caught up to technology. In this study, researchers examined how studies follow ethical guidelines set by Research Councils UK (RCUK).

"Ethics is about more than privacy in this context. Researchers may be using information that has been willingly shared in the public domain, but this doesn't give them carte blanche to do as they please,” said Claudia Pagliari, of the University of Edinburgh's Usher Institute. “Asking permission to use people's social media postings is courteous, although this may be impossible in very large studies. Treating personal information with confidentiality and respect, and avoiding its misuse for unethical purposes, are essential.”

Researchers found that of the 13 guidelines recommended by RCUK, only four specifically mentioned using social media for data collection. Additionally, only a third of 156 published health articles that included social media data reported making any ethical consideration in the use of such personal information.

"Our study highlights a significant gap in UK guidance on mining social media data for research purposes. Funding bodies, learned societies, research organizations and journals―in addition to the researchers themselves―all have a role to play in ensuring such research is carried out to the highest ethical standards,” said Pagliari.  "Having good interdisciplinary guidelines and clear expectations for how these should be applied will help to improve practices."