Studying the amateur artist: A perspective on disguising data collected in human subjects research on the Internet
- Cite this article as:
- Bruckman, A. Ethics and Information Technology (2002) 4: 217. doi:10.1023/A:1021316409277
In the mid-1990s, the Internet rapidly changedfrom a venue used by a small number ofscientists to a popular phenomena affecting allaspects of life in industrialized nations. Scholars from diverse disciplines have taken aninterest in trying to understand the Internetand Internet users. However, as a variety ofresearchers have noted, guidelines for ethicalresearch on human subjects written before theInternet's growth can be difficult to extend toresearch on Internet users.In this paper, I focus on one ethicalissue: whether and to what extent to disguisematerial collected online in publishedaccounts. While some people argue thatvulnerable human subjects must always be madeanonymous in publications for their ownprotection, others argue that Internet usersdeserve credit for their creative andintellectual work. Still others argue thatmuch material available online should betreated as ``published.'' To attempt to resolvethese issues, I first review my own experiencesof disguising material in research accountsfrom 1992 to 2002. Some of the thorniestissues emerge at the boundaries betweenresearch disciplines. Furthermore, manyhumanities disciplines have not historicallyviewed what they do as human subjects research. Next, I explore what it means to do humansubjects research in the humanities. Inspiredby issues raised by colleagues in thehumanities, I argue that the traditional notionof a ``human subject'' does not adequatelycharacterize Internet users. A useful alternatemental model is proposed: Internet users areamateur artists. The Internet can be seen as aplayground for amateur artists creatingsemi-published work. I argue that thisapproach helps make some ethical dilemmaseasier to reason about, because it highlightskey novel aspects of the situation,particularly with regard to disguisingmaterial. Finally, I conclude by proposing aset of practical guidelines regardingdisguising material gathered on the Internet inpublished accounts, on a continuum from nodisguise, light disguise, moderate disguise, toheavy disguise.