Is it alright to use internet sources as data?

This week I will considering whether it’s alright to use internet sources as data in qualitative studies. The internet has become a huge part of our lives and is used in hundreds of different ways. So should research be one of these ways? I think that there are valid points on both sides of this argument, and I will look at them before coming to a conclusion on the issue.

There are some difficulties with using the internet for research. One obvious problem is that it’s hard to tell if people are actually who they say they are. In real life, it would be very obvious if a 40-year-old accountant was claiming to be a 20-year-old student, but over the internet it would be hard to verify this. Another potential way of using the internet that I’ve not yet mentioned is collecting data from chatrooms and forums. This is obviously filled with problems, like not being able to tell if people are who they say they are, as I already said. Another huge ethical problem is that people don’t know that they’re being used as data. For example, there are many forums and websites that act as support groups for all sorts of mental and physical illnesses, and I don’t think members of them would be happy if data was collected from them without their knowledge.

So what reasons are there for using the internet to gather research data? Well, there are the obvious points of it being easier, cheaper and quicker. Sending out questionairres online is much easier than either getting participants to come to you and fill them out, or sending them out by post. It is also cheaper, as apart from the basic internet connection, there is no cost involved in sending out questionairres online. Another advantage of using the internet for research is that it allows researchers to access a wider population. For example, if they wanted to study the differences of an aspect of living in two different countries, they can just send stuff out to people in each country, whereas if they are restricted to not using the internet, they would have to find local people who used to live in the countries, which is harder and probably would not gain as many responses.

One study found that some of the criticisms of using the internet are maybe not always accurate. They conducted personality tests both online and in person, and found that the internet responses compared favourably as a measure of self-report. They recommended that the internet could be used as long as test intruments were checked stringently to be valid. (Buchanan, T. & Smith, J.L.)

In conclusion, I think the internet has a lot of potential to help psychological research. However, I think it should only be used in some circumstances. If researchers are reasonably convinced that people are who they say they are and the participants have given informed consent for data to be used, then it is a very good way of collecting data.


Buchanan, T. & Smith, J.L. (1999) Using the Internet for psychological research: personality testing on the World Wide Web. British Journal of Psychology, 90, p125-44

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  1. Research and the internet is very tricky!
    I do agree that we need to be careful if we are collecting data from the internet, in fact I don’t think that researchers should collect data from forums or chat rooms, because firstly it could be viewed as unethical, as we are in a sense eavesdropping on people’s conversation without their knowledge let alone their consent! Secondly, it is unreliable because we don’t know if what they are actually saying is the truth.
    Our blogs or maybe other people’s blogs could be used to collect data, but what we say may not be right, it is just our opinion after all, and in our case it is backed up with a few references. Although people chose to post their thoughts publicly on the internet for anyone to read, I still don’t think that it is right that we analyse them.
    Sending out surveys I think is a different matter, I used to do surveys for YouGov, but I just don’t have the time or patience to do them anymore. There is an incentive as you collect points for each survey you do, and when you receive a certain number of points to get £50. You also agree to do this survey, so there doesn’t seem to be any ethical issues with them. The only problem here is if they lie on the survey, but this could just be how much they earn, which you are able to opt out of. It is basically the same as any survey that you do on paper. So in terms of data collection on the internet I think online surveys are ok, as long as they get consent.

  2. This is definately a difficult topic and extremely controversial. So many people rely on the internet; we now have it on our phones, wireless and all sorts. It is now like our first point of call. If you think about university alone, the majority of what we need to do can be done and is done over the internet. For example, blackboard for our lecture slides and submitting assignments, we get our grades online and we can now even buy printer credits over the internet. So if we can do all of this over the internet then why not do research over the internet too?? Also people should realise that whatever they put on the internet can be accessed. Even if you have a membership on a chat site well anyone can sign up and be a member so they should realise that isnt private. If people are willing to let the world see something they have written then why is that different from their words being used as data. However, like you said it is really difficult to know what internet sources to trust. Researchers can’t just use the first thing they come across and expect it to be reliable (espeically on chat rooms and sites like this because you cannot guarantee the identity of a person online). one key thing to look out for is if the website has an author because if it has an author then you can check the background of them. I found a website that discusses the tips to finding a reliable internet source (kind of contradicting seen as we are saying how you have to be careful with information of the internet but I’m sure it will be fine) : . Due to all these reasons I would say it depends on the research you are conducting. I wouldn’t say the internet would be good to use as the single source but I think it could be beneficial in expanding existing ideas and information.

  3. There are so many issues with the internet that it is hard to say whether it is alright to use internet sources as data. The internet is used in our day to day lives, and it’s becoming increasingly harder to live without it, we now have internet on our phones, so we receive emails straight away and can keep up to date with meetings and university schedules etc. Also we use the internet to keep in contact with distant friends and family (or even close friends and family) over social networks such as facebook, twitter and myspace. Experimenters are starting to use the internet for advertisements, they will advertise their experiments online, and you are able to sign up online, very much like SONA. It would be silly if we couldn’t use the internet for more than signing up for studies, there is so much on the internet that would be valuable to research, facebook and twitter could give us so much detail about peoples character to analyse and research, however as you said, it is very unethical to take information from the internet about someone, when they have not given their consent. Another issue with this is that a lot of the information online is false, people do not want to put their information on facebook so will lie. Also you can add to Wikipedia yourself, whether the information is wrong or right. So if you use the internet for data you will be at risk of all your data being invalid. It is a bit sketchy using information online for data.

  4. Using the internet as a source of data is in my view not wrong morally but the information is likely to be contextually overlooked and is a missuse of the information. A blogger for example may create a blog to share information, learn and create a realm of social critique, when information is taken from this realm and placed into the format of a formal experiment the original intent is being disregarded and as a consequence of that the data in the study is contextually irrelevant as so many variables are unaccounted for. A persons social critique may appear very far in the vein of a left wing mind-set yet in practice they come down more in the middle or even right to appease people, therefore the data obtained via the internet is subject to the power of anonymity making it often usuitable for formal research but not always.
    See in the following how opinions are subject to influence when expressed in different formats.

  5. You are very person specific in your thoughts of the applications available to data on the internet. By this I mean that your ideas for uses only extend to taking data from individual people. But the internet is more than this, it is a collective, a culture, and therefore can be analysed as a whole entity. An example of some research that has done this has shown that if we analyse the frequency of things typed into search engines we can correlate what is typed to events, time of the year and other influences. Therefore this method takes away any sort of personal ethical violations that may occur and could be applied to areas of social psychology to understand human behaviour in all its interactions on the web.

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