Methodological and ethical issues in research using social media: a metamethod of Human Papillomavirus vaccine studies

Gustafson, Diana L. and Woodworth, Claire F. (2014) Methodological and ethical issues in research using social media: a metamethod of Human Papillomavirus vaccine studies. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 14 (127). ISSN 1471-2288

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Abstract

Background Online content is a primary source of healthcare information for internet-using adults and a rich resource for health researchers. This paper explores the methodological and ethical issues of engaging in health research using social media. Methods A metamethod was performed on systematically selected studies that used social media as a data source for exploring public awareness and beliefs about Human Papillomaviruses (HPV) and HPV vaccination. Seven electronic databases were searched using a variety of search terms identified for each of three concepts: social media, HPV vaccine, and research method. Abstracts were assessed for eligibility of inclusion; six studies met the eligibility criteria and were subjected to content analysis. A 10-item coding scheme was developed to assess the clarity, congruence and transparency of research design, epistemological and methodological underpinnings and ethical considerations. Results The designs of the six selected studies were sound, although most studies could have been more transparent about how they built in rigor to ensure the trustworthiness and credibility of findings. Statistical analysis that intended to measure trends and patterns did so without the benefit of randomized sampling and other design elements for ensuring generalizability or reproducibility of findings beyond the specified virtual community. Most researchers did not sufficiently engage virtual users in the research process or consider the risk of privacy incursion. Most studies did not seek ethical approval from an institutional research board or permission from host websites or web service providers. Conclusions The metamethod exposed missed opportunities for using the dialogical character of social media as well as a lack of attention to the unique ethical issues inherent in operating in a virtual community where social boundaries and issues of public and private are ambiguous. This suggests the need for more self-conscious and ethical research practices when using social media as a data source. Given the relative newness of virtual communities, researchers and ethics review boards must work together to develop expertise in evaluating the design of studies undertaken with virtual communities. We recommend that the principles of concern for welfare, respect for person, and justice to be applied in research using social media.

Item Type: Article
URI: http://research.library.mun.ca/id/eprint/11783
Item ID: 11783
Additional Information: Memorial University Open Access Author's Fund
Keywords: Metamethod Social media, Data collection, HPV vaccination, Ethics, Methodology
Department(s): Medicine, Faculty of
Date: 2 December 2014
Date Type: Publication
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