Social media and research ethics in the spotlight

Social media has become an effective tool for researchers, offering advantages from sourcing big data to cost saving – but there are implications to research conducted using these platforms.

These implications were among the matters discussed during the third annual Western Cape Research Ethics Committees Colloquium hosted by the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on Tuesday September 11.

According to Dr Amiena Peck, from UWC’s Department of Linguistics, social media platforms have created many advantages for online research.

“Millions of South Africans use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin, and more and more people join daily. This makes finding data more accessible, but it does offer challenges,” Dr Peck said.

“Unfortunately, there are no guidelines and no existing literature for guidelines when using social media for data collection, and there are several other challenges – such as privacy issues and cyber security.”

Professor Neil Myburgh, chair of UWC’s Biomedical Research Ethics Committee, said the issue of consent when using social media was often not spoken about – but this should change.

“We have seen on Twitter where photos of children were shared in particular campaigns, bringing ethical issues to the surface,” he said.

Professor Myburgh noted that researchers needed to consider all ethical issues when harvesting data from social media and strict ethical guidelines needed to be established. These kind of reviews carried out by Research Ethics Committees allow a collective of multi-skilled people to review a proposal and check its scientific veracity, as well as its ethical quality – a useful process.

UWC rector and vice-chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, said ethics was close to the hearts of most researchers and professionals at universities. “Colloquia such as these are important to ensure that proper ethical research methods are taught to our young researchers. We have seen what has been happening in the accounting profession, for example – the curriculum needs to be amended so that we can teach the softer skills to our young accountants,” he said.

The colloquium was attended by participants from research structures at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town, the South African Medical Research Council and the Western Cape Department of Health.