My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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issues in quotation and citation

I know that i should love human subjects boards, but i have to admit that they are my least favorite aspect of doing research. My biggest complaint is that they do not understand the dynamics of doing research online. Thus, i’ve spent far too much time discussing what it means to be an ethical researcher of online material. One issue that always emerges concerns citations. As a researcher, you are required to respect the confidentiality of your subjects always. Yet, when you are quoting online material, you can easily throw the quote into Google and find the original source, revealing the person behind the quote (or at least their handle).

While this topic is frequently discussed in conversations about ethical research, it is clearly not a lesson that everyone has learned. In The New Nanny Diaries Are Online, the author thinks that she is being discrete, referencing her nanny anonymously. By throwing the quotes into Google, you can find the nanny’s blog. This is particularly interesting because it gives the nanny a chance to respond in her own words.

This is an interesting dynamic and one that i’m curious about in the context of research. What would it mean if subjects of research could respond to the analysis of their practices? Historically, anthropologists did not make their analyses available to subjects because it was assumed that the subjects could not understand the analysis. Personally, i’ve always been of the mindset that publications should be explicitly made available to all subjects. Yet, i have taken the elitist position that i know more and while i should listen to disagreements, i should still publish what i wrote if i still believe it after the disagreements. What would it mean to bring the subject more actively into the conversation, letting them out themselves as they see fit? What if the subjects want to be referenced explicitly so that they _can_ refute my claims?

(Based on Alex Halavais)

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4 comments to issues in quotation and citation

  • joe

    I’m glad you posted on this… do you think that there are techniques we can use to quote online communications such that they aren’t discoverable? Like what if you totally change the character of the quote and stipulate (in a footnote) that this isn’t the exact quote due to privacy concerns but is close, and has been peer-reviewed internally to ensure that it meets the character of the original.

    I know that sounds convoluted, but it’s better than nothing, right?

  • My typical response is to just not quote, which is *terrible*. The problem with altering the quote is that half the goal is to get the voices of the people involved.

  • Funny, but I find that the thing being contested here is not that the nanny has been found, but that her quotes were used without her consent (something common to places that lack IRB’s 😉
    That consent is what IRB requires. Yes I’ve gone through the pain of obtaining IRB approval for collecting information online and, yes one of the questions is always – how are you going to maintain the integrity of your participants if their quotes can easily be googled? It is a valid question. It is a really really important question and, I think, it has to do with consent first and foremost. You ask the authors, get their permission, verify that you are not misquoting, quote. Otherwise, you don’t. The association of internet researchers (AOIR) put in a lot of effort into creating a set of ethics guidelines – it is a very thorough document ( site should have it). Another document, published a few years ago, deals with psychological research online and it’s ethical problems – Kraut, R. E., Olson, J., Manaji, M., Bruckman, A., Cohen, J. & Couper, M. (2003). Psychological Research Online: Opportunities and Challenges. American Psychologist, 59(2), 105 117

    The digital world has offered us unprecedented ways of collecting data and doing research, yet it also created lots of new things we must consider, problems we must address. While the ways of doing research have changed, I believe our obligations to our participants have remained.

    Of course, a dialogue with participants may be extraordinarily valuable for some types of research. However, I find that researchers themselves are sometimes better equipped to develop incites beyond the obvious behavior. I see examples of that often when I give talks about my work – residential mobility (moving from house to house) is something that just about anyone can relate to. Surprise, most of us have some commonalities in our experiences with moving and many many differences. Yet just because one or two people never experienced something that many people do (one type of stress or another), doesn’t mean these experiences do not exist. At first, I was frequently taken aback – how do yo respond to someone who says: “well, THAT never happened to me or anyone I know!” Eventually I learned…

  • Of course i’m not sure again.