doctoral research, ethics and the digital

Last Friday I was part of a workshop on doctoral research and ethics held at the Cambridge School of Education.

Anna Robinson Pant began the day talking about cultural dilemmas in academic writing and doctoral research. She has written a lot about this and you can see her work here.

I followed Anna with some thoughts about the pervasive media context in which we now live and research. I raised a set of questions about anonymity and confidentiality as well as those of consent and the right to forget. I posted about these quite recently. I also referred to Andy Coverdale’s research into the diverse attitudes of doctoral researchers to social media; to the recent survey conducted by Deborah Lupton on digital academic practice, and to the paper that Inger Mewburn and I wrote about academic blogging.

One of the doctoral researchers is the Editor of the History of Education Facebook site and the History of Education Society blog, and she spoke about her facebook-based research – the dilemmas of access, privacy and lurking – and about the benefits of being ‘the social media person’ for a learned society.

As the last activity of the day I asked participants to write a paragraph about the ethical issues that digital media raised for them. What follows are their responses. Some of these paragraphs are accompanied by names, others are anonymous – this is as their writers wished. Each raises interesting questions and provides a snapshot of their small group discussions about social media and doctoral research.

(1) The agonies of self-presentation
This is a world where the surfer rules, looking for flotsam. We find lots of reasons not to engage. The dilemma hinges on self. It becomes very easy to talk ourselves out of being active online but there is a natural desire to write and communicate our feelings and pehaps the web offers the opportunity to find a community. There’s no such thing as neutral writing and there is no control – the reader is king when the writer thinks they are.

(2) First perspective: using blogs as data for research
Blogs could broaden your understanding of the context related to your research
Depending on the aims of the research, blogs may function as data
But is it reliable? Anonymity issues. Control of the information What happens if someone changes information on the blog or deletes some of them?
Generally academically, it is considered an invalid citation.
Second perspective: Researchers as bloggers
Researchers may feel insecure about disclosing information on blogs.
Will they be acknowledged?
Becoming a target.

(3) Staying in control.
As a blogger-researcher, I’ve written my ideas, shared them but…it doesn’t mean that I’m ready for you to judge it! Well… perhaps then I shouldn’t have written them down at all…but. Why should I censor my ideas for fear of what you might think? Is it dishonest of me to not share with you all of my thoughts ? Would you truly know me thru reading all of this? No. Don’t answer that. That’s rhetorical. And this might all well be fake. Nope. And I am no longer in control.


(4) The Social Historian’s Dilemma: Context and Confidentiality
The starting point for analysing a source is context, whilst the prerequisite for conducting research is confidentiality and anonymity. This begs the question can you have anonymous thick description? And, how does this change in the digital age?
The online environment encourages us to share our viewpoints and offers more opportunities to do so publicly, yet at the same time providing, or seeming to provide, greater ability to disguise ourselves or control our anonymity. In such situations the researcher may find it difficult to gain, or site, the context for a source. Conversely, many who share information online appear to temporarily forget to consider the uses to which their words may be put, or places they may be transferred. They suffer from a present centred myopia, unable to consider the uses and contexts to which their online contributions might be transferred. The researcher must consider whether they should trace their context, and use this, and if so, in using it, they can and ought to disguise the individual.

(5) When you have considered the ethics, what is left to write about?
Can we write about supervisions? Supervisor comments are for our ears only. Whatever picture I paint of my supervisor in my blog, they have no opportunity to respond. Can we write about participants and the state of our research? If I write about tentative ideas and work in progress, have I forfeited my right to use it in my thesis for fear of self-plagiarism? Can I give permission to myself to re-use and recycle my own thoughts? Am I a whistleblower if I talk smack about my university and its policies? What about my colleagues who are shy of social media? Even a slight reference to their research or a comment they made could feel like an infringement. So what is left for the ethical blogger? Do we confine ourselves to the irrelevant and bland? The niche and humorous? Pictures of cake? Maybe we start with: encouragement, coping strategies, resource sharing, writing tips, planning strategies, conference and event reviews, more pictures of cake…

(Emma Dyer, Jane Scarsbrook, Kaylan Schwarz, Hanan Ramahi)

I’m sure the group would love to see any comments you might want to make in response.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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3 Responses to doctoral research, ethics and the digital

  1. Pingback: doctoral research, ethics and the digital | Edu...

  2. (6) To have an outlet for thoughts other than the PhD research: I teach statistics for the social sciences at Cambridge (while finishing up the PhD), with a special focus on replication studies and reproducibility. I thought long and hard if I should blog about my research – Foreign Direct Investment & Human Rights – at the Politics Department, or my teaching. I decided to blog about my teaching experiences and reproducibility. The reason: After a day of coding, data analysis or writing I want to do something else. Teaching motivates me, and I love discussing approaches on twitter (@polscireplicate) and the blog ( I think other people call this positive procrastination, but I think blogging about something that is important to you even if it is not directly related to the research can provide a good balance. Actually, I now wrote a research paper on reproducibility which is based on many issues I discuss on my blog.


  3. Elena says:

    I am interested in the second point you list (Using blogs as data for research / researchers as bloggers). As part of my PhD I am collecting research data using a blog I have set up specifically for this purpose. Researchers who conduct community based participatory research (CBPR) are invited to write a comment in my blog ( about any ethical issues they may have come across at various stages of their research. Interestingly, despite the few hundred views on the blog from various parts of the globe (which I read as: people are somewhat interested in my topic), comments have been posted by less than a handful of researchers.
    Could it be that, as your blog suggests, researchers feel insecure about disclosing information on blogs and may fear becoming a target?
    My blog offers anonymity, use of pseudonyms and no log in requirements as well as the opportunity for personal reflection or dialogue with other CBPR researchers.
    We like to share (and publish) our successes and stories about how our research contributed to improved circumstances in disadvantaged communities. However, I think that researchers can help each other by also sharing about the challenges in their work, the lived experience, tell other researchers that it is not always easy or straight forward or idealistic, and especially what they did to overcome the challenges and what they could have done differently at the outset. In my view, blogging offers an opportunity to learn from each other in this way across disciplines, cultures and contexts.


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