IRB Guidance: Technology & New Media Research
This page outlines the unique risks for human subjects research involving Facebook, blogs, discussion forums, etc.
Online research sources such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, chat rooms, discussion forums, and other social networking sites will be treated as publicly available data by the IRB in a very broad sense, and with a number of limitations. Please note, if you are simply posting recruitment materials through online platforms, this is generally not considered "Use of New Media"
The IRB does not consider sites that require the user to create an account, and then provide a log in and password, to be publicly available data. Therefore, participants must be consented before an investigator can observe or interact with participants in these online environments. Members of sites that require a log in have an expectation of privacy and do not expect that anything they post will be used for research purposes. In some circumstances, researchers can petition the IRB for a waiver of consent. In these situations, researchers will need to provide an appropriate argument/justification as to why a waiver of consent is appropriate.
Protocols which involve sensitive topics such as the discussion of illegal behaviors, health related issues, and/or may involve participation by minors, will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. If a study from this category is approved, it is likely that the IRB will require that researchers paraphrase any quotes, so they cannot be traced directly back to the participant.
Not Human Subjects Research
Some technology based studies may not even meet the definition of human subjects research per the federal regulations, and therefore not require IRB review. An example would be if a researcher is studying how many Facebook pages include images of families; the unit of measure in this case is the page, and not a human subject. If no personally-identifiable data is being collected, this is not human subjects research and does not require IRB review.
Research using public documents such as newspapers, books, or journals that are published online which involve no other data source(s) is not considered human subjects research, even if identifiable persons authored or are included in the public documents. However, projects that combines identifiable information about individuals obtained from public documents, with identifiable information obtained from other sources, may be considered human subjects research and thus are subject to IRB review for further consideration regarding its status.
Facebook, Twitter, and others may provide data mining services where their developers will mine data from the site, for a fee, at the researcher’s request. Depending on the scope of the data mining, the IRB may treat the data differently because the data collection activity would be done by the site and (likely) provided to the researcher without direct identifiers. The IRB deals with this type of research activity on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the on the likelihood of identifiable data being a part of the data set, the IRB may treat it as secondary data analysis, not human subjects research, or waive consent for the use of the data for research purposes.