Studying the Amateur Artist:
Abstract: In the mid-1990s, the Internet rapidly changed from a venue used by a small
number of scientists to popular phenomena affecting all aspects of life in industrialized nations.
Scholars from diverse disciplines have taken an interest in trying to understand the Internet and Internet
users. However, as a variety of researchers have noted, guidelines for ethical research on human subjects
written before the Internet's growth can be difficult to extend to research on Internet users. In this paper,
I focus on one ethical issue: whether and to what extent to disguise material collected online in published
accounts. While some people argue that vulnerable human subjects must always be made anonymous in publications
for their own protection, others argue that Internet users deserve credit for their creative and intellectual
work. Still others argue that much material available online should be treated as "published." To attempt to
resolve these issues, I first review my own experiences of disguising material in research accounts from 1992 to
2002. Some of the thorniest issues emerge at the boundaries between research disciplines. Furthermore, many
humanities disciplines have not historically viewed what they do as human subjects research. Next, I explore
what it means to do human subjects research in the humanities. Inspired by issues raised by colleagues in the
humanities, I argue that the traditional notion of a "human subject" does not adequately characterize Internet
users. A useful alternate mental model is proposed: Internet users are amateur artists. The Internet can be seen
as a playground for amateur artists creating semi-published work. I argue that this approach helps make some
ethical dilemmas easier to reason about, because it highlights key novel aspects of the situation, particularly
with regard to disguising material. Finally, I conclude by proposing a set of practical guidelines regarding
disguising material gathered on the Internet in published accounts, on a continuum from no disguise, light disguise,
moderate disguise, to heavy disguise.
Ethical Issues of Online Communication Research
Representations or People?
Ethics of Internet Research: Contesting the Human Subjects Research Model