Being a good spy: Legitimizing access to web-based observation
Keywords:Internet-based research, research ethics, informed consent
Observation of online forums is a relevant methodological approach for researchers in several disciplines. However, ethical guidelines on such observations challenge the ethically concerned researcher. In this paper, I reflect on how I carried out my observation of an online weight-loss forum, and how I could have conducted it differently to meet ethical standards and the demands of high-quality research. After receiving approval from the forum administrators to observe the forum, information about my project on obesity was posted online. Some of the participants reacted negatively to my presence in the forum. This paper draws on the evolving discussion between researcher and participants on the complex issue of research ethics, particularly informed consent, in studying closed forums on the Internet. It is suggested that evaluating whether participants are harmed is more important than the public/private divide when considering whether informed consent is necessary.