Internet research,yes or no?

February 5, 2012

The internet is a relatively new area of research for psychologists. There is no doubt that the internet has a large impact on how people live their lives in modern society. Many hours of a person’s day can be spent on the internet especially now with the invention of smart phones which can allow access to the internet whenever, wherever. The question is what role does it play in research and how can it be used as an invaluable resource for gathering data and information.

The internet is used in many ways by psychologists and there is no doubt it is a handy tool. The breadth of know knowledge the internet has on offer is staggering and has come to be a truly amazing source of resources.  The internet has also made academic research available to everyone through websites such as Google scholar, and not just those involved in academia (students, lecturers, doctors etc.)(1).   Also the creation of the wiki websites Wikipedia being the biggest encyclopaedia known, put together by many different people(2). There is now also wiki scholar for a more credited source of information(3). The internet has allowed science to reach a much broader audience than ever before and it is important for researchers to keep up with the digital age.

The amount of people using the internet is enormous which means a large opportunity to study many types of people from all over the world (4). To researcher’s studying people the internet is like a sweetshop with the biggest variety you could ever imagine, but there are setbacks. The internet has large amounts of possible case studies waiting to happen but with any field study be it a busy town centre or an exotic tribe in the rainforest their can problems especially when it comes to ethics, reliability and validity. The internet is no different and perhaps has a higher risk of violating these essentials in a study than other field experiments. The issues are apparent when thinking about who is taking part in the study and whether they are adding reliable data to the experiment. The researcher doesn’t know if it really is one person, if they are being honest, are they just trying to look good, are they really who they say? A participant could lie and say they are a female when actually they are male.      It is these kinds of variables that seriously damage the credibility of internet research (5). Ethics also need to be considered when conducting research on the internet.

The internet is considered a public domain so therefor researchers should be able to take what they need because people are expecting whatever actions they do to be observed, is this really true (6). Does it make it right that just because we put garbage on the street it would be ok for people to snoop down it to find out information, would you expect that? Is it ok for the press to do this to celebrities or those in the public eye? Can companies analyse your activities on the internet to direct advertising at the appropriate consumers because it’s a public domain? A study on the internet has offended the people they were trying to study by making them feel like they were abnormal and being used as lab rats. This brings to light the issue of researchers doing a study on the internet without thinking about their participants and the damage caused to research by their insensitivity (it is unlikely the people associated with this online community will want to participate in any other studies) (7, 8, 9).

In conclusion I feel the internet is a valuable source of information and has an ocean of possibilities when it comes to research. However I think that the guidelines on research over the internet should considered carefully in detail because the reputation of scientific research could be questioned by reckless behaviour by researchers.

References/Links

1. Google Scholar – http://scholar.google.co.uk/schhp?hl=en&as_sdt=0,5

2. Wikipedia – http://www.wikipedia.org/

3. Wiki-scholar –  http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Portal:Wiki_Scholar

4. World internet users and population stats – http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

5. Internet Research: Comments on formulating the problem – http://ee.lbl.gov/papers/assumptions.pdf

6. Internet research ethics – http://www.nyu.edu/projects/nissenbaum/ethics_wal_full.html

7.  How not to conduct research: Online ethics edition – http://www.psychologyinaction.org/2011/05/05/how-not-to-conduct-research-online-ethics-edition/

8. A billion wicked thoughts – http://www.billionwickedthoughts.com/index.html

9. Eruthros (forum where study took place) – http://eruthros.dreamwidth.org/273840.html

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29 Responses to “Internet research,yes or no?”

  1. psuc3d Says:

    Hello, really enjoyed your blog 🙂 I would just like to add my reason for being very wary of internet research. I think that the internet is a hugely beneficial way for researchers to get a lot of information very quickly but the type of information that they get is very limited. They only ‘observe’ participants while they are on the internet and so cannot conclude anything outside of this. They can claim that people are more likely to support someone of the same gender WHILE ON THE INTERNET and nothing else, for example. It also excludes the members of the population that do not use the internet. Looking forward to your next blog!


  2. It was interesting to read about internet research, especially when the internet is widely used by millions of people. However, i personally believe that one should rely on reliable sources such as books and journals when conducting research as opposed to the internet as to what extent do you know if these websites have produced valid information? In addition, when conducting internet research, social desirability bias is indeed an issues because how do you know if these participants are providing you with valid data? They could merely just be providing you with answers that aid or inhibit your research. Furthermore, when conducting internet research you are indeed not taking into account those people who do not have access to the internet which therefore limits to what extent you can generalise your findings to the wider population.

  3. hb90 Says:

    Very interesting blog, I would have to agree that although the internet is a very valuable research tool, sometimes sticking to the books and journals is a better idea. When it comes to internet research, yes there are social desirability biases as World of Statistics has pointed out. But in any experiment such as simply handing out questionnaires there is bound to be social desirability bias so that should not be a reason to discredit internet research. When it comes to generalising these finding to the wider population, yes, it will only affect people with the internet. But with the invention of smart phone and internet cafe’s most people can gain access no matter where they are in the world. Unlike some studies that only benefit and can only be generalised to western society or a small sector of people such as patients suffering from schizophrenia.

  4. kennedy92 Says:

    I agree that if using the internet on as a research tool you need to tread carefully. I think the internet can be a quick and easy way to research various topics but I think reliable sources (such as books and research reports should be used). However there can be reliable and creditable sources online. for example looking at url can indicate if the source is creditable. An example is ‘.gov’ generally means is a government website which can be useful in statistical research. I think chat rooms etc. can be useful in qualitative research as anonymous comments can be accessed but like a few of you have said these people could be lying about themselves or what they are saying so it is hard to assess how reliable and valid their comments are. I think the internet can be used as a stepping stone to get general ideas on the direction you want to research (academically and generally) and then back it up with more reliable sources like books then I think this is acceptable. It is a difficult topic as the world today is becoming so technical and internet based that it could be quite possible that research may turn to this aswell and I am sure we all hope that research is not purely based on internet research. This link helped me understand what kinds of websites can generally be reliable but this website does stress that the internet should just be used as a stepping stone and should not be used alone. (http://homeworktips.about.com/od/researchandreference/a/internet.htm )
    http://netforbeginners.about.com/od/navigatingthenet/tp/How-to-Properly-Research-Online.htm << this website explains more indepth how to research properly online that all research should be backed up and we should be skeptical when finding sources (especially online). and reminds us it is called REsearch for a reason because everything must be repeated and looked at thoroughly.


  5. No, in my opinion internet research is not an accurate and reliable way of collecting data. Opinions that may be put on the web may not be accurate to what they actually believe. Many people have fallen victim of issuing statements, comments, ideas and opinions online in the heat of the moment. Which later they end up regretting and retract the comment. How can you guarantee that you don’t use a comment as a source only for it to be deleted? How can you be sure that the website will not be shut down? How can you guarantee in the analysis of these online forums that they are not making information up? Someone may say that they are a 14years old female (when in fact they are nothing of the sort) they are actually male and 21years old. By taking that data and accepting that persons information as fact you are lead to the possibility of interpreting the data all wrong. Nothing on the internet is certain, people can behave a lot more confident on the internet with a lot less consideration of responsibility as they can maintain a sense of anonymity. Not to mention you have all the issues with ethics and the gaining of consent from participants. So overall I think that although it would be great to be able to use the internet as a source of information it is subject to much subjectivity, chance and ethics, not to mention many other variables.


  6. […] 4. https://jessicaaro.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/internet-researchyes-or-no/#comment-48 […]

  7. mballen91 Says:

    The internet is an every expanding well of knowledge and information and can be used to great benifit. It has already been used to form new ideas such as the Six Degrees of Separation (Watts, 2003). This theory gave a wealth of information in a social perspective. We now know that people and social networks work like railways, there are smaller stations which are your ‘average joes’ and then you have you main stations which are the ‘socialites’ (also known in separation terms as hubs) . Smaller stations only have a few connections, but all it takes is one connection to a hub and then all the stations connected to that much greater station become accessable. Therefore we are all theoretically connected to each other via these hubs. Studying information on the internet made it possible to see this phenomenon in action. The potential of learning social theories of psychology through the means of the internet could therefore be astronomical. It is well known that the internet is a puclic domain and just as you can conduct covert observations in public environments so should you be able to on the internet. Did you not get your references/data to back up your statements off the internet?


  8. […] favourite comment of the week has to be jessicaaro arguing that one benefit of internet research is that the people from space can now be […]

  9. re3ecca Says:

    You’ve raised some very valuable points I think – although the internet is a fast and efficient way to reach a lot of people, there is the obvious downside that there is absolutely no way to guarantee validity or reliability – as all of the participants are anonymous in the sense that you haven’t met them and therefore can’t verify that any information they have posted is actually real. This is a significant disadvantage as both reliability and validity are needed for results to be useful. This does not stop websites such as the bbc using the internet to do psychological research, such as “the big personality test” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/labuk/results/personality/).
    In my opinion, the internet is not a good method for psychological research, as the only claims you can accurately measure are ones about internet activity itself (eg. finding out how many users are on facebook is reliable and valid) but you can’t accurately measure processes and people themselves as you don’t know if the answers to surveys and questionnaires.etc are valid or if people are just clicking buttons at random, and you can’t control for extraneous variables such as lots of people entering twice, and you can’t use random sampling to control extraneous variables as everything is opportunistic sampling

    • Jessicaaro Says:

      As I mentioned in previous comments I agree that the methodology on the internet must be rigorous in order to address the validity and reliability issues. However I don’t agree that psychological research is only limited to findings such as the activities as it can only tell you limited information. The phenomenal amounts of people visiting Facebook would be the initial research conducted to come up with a satisfactory hypothesis but it would not be able to stand alone. However I think it would be interesting to study how many people change their behavior online and how much so, for example the amount of people who troll on YouTube (1). This could have something to do with people committing inappropriate acts they would not commit under normal circumstances because they believe they have no responsibility for it, or there will be no punishment for their actions. Milgram’s experiments that show people will commit and carryout unethical acts without a problem when they believe they have no responsibility is in support of this (2).

      1. – http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/sep/13/internet-troll-jailed-mocking-teenagers

      http://videointerweb.com/2010/07/21/what-is-a-youtube-troll/

      2. – http://www.lordashcroft.com/pdf/03042011_crime_punishment_and_the_people.pdf

      http://cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7article/article35.htm

      http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm

      • re3ecca Says:

        I see your point, but what I meant to say is that there is no research that can be verified as reliable or valid if it is entirely online – the example you mentioned of people changing their behaviour online requires interaction with people in an offline environment which improves reliability or validity. Experiments and surveys that are entirely online have the significant disadvantage that there is no way to prove the existence of the actual participant (as it stands.. it may be possible to make websites that require identity and verification in future) so what I am saying is the internet is a good medium for monitoring online behaviour (naturally) but i don’t think it is a good tool to measure other behaviour such as ethical dilemma’s/reaction times and most of the stuff we do in SONA because there is not way to verify if it’s an actual person or somebody “trolling” as you mentioned, which commonly occurs on the internet. We also have sampling issue such as not being able to use random sampling – if you are asking for opinions for free then you are only getting participants who are willing to do so which could be an extraneous variable… if you pay them you’re also creating an extraneous variable…. whereas in real world experiments you can at least guarantee the participants are real and that they are a random cross-section; even if it’s of a limited group. Therefore i think studies like that that are carried out online using surveys etc are unlikely to get published or given much credibility because there are so many variables to consider. online surveys are mostly used by marketing research companies now and I don’t think have much credibility in psychology yet for the reasons discussed above.

  10. Hannah Says:

    I think that research on the internet is one of those things that is going to have many advantages and disadvantages and is going to be heavily debated for a while!
    In terms of using the internet to find research papers, I think that it is excellent because it is so much easier to type into google scholar key words for what you are looking at and being able to access all the papers with a simple click, than to go trawling through the library trying to find journals etc.
    I think that you raised the main issues when using the internet too actually conduct research. Although, even when meeting your participants face to face, they could still lie to you about their age (for example say they were 18 when really they were under), for example, but I do however, completely agree that things like lying about age, gender and culture etc. will be a lot easier on the internet which is going to cause a whole lot of validity issues for the researcher.
    I really enjoyed reading your blog and think that you highlighted interesting questions and provided a good debate 

    • Jessicaaro Says:

      I agree that the demographic details on the internet can be a serious complication when conducting research. It would be interesting if research could be conducted where the the demographics are not so important, since people are always going to be able to lie, therefor causing the reliability and validity to suffer. The best way would be to focus more the IV and DV (1). However there is also the possibility that people are more honest on the internet because they are speaking or debating about a subject to people they will never meet, so their are no immediate implications or consequences for the things they say (2). A good example is if you were to conduct research on parents that have disabled children. They may be more willing to answer a questionnaire over the internet because it is less emotionally stressful than talking about a very sensitive issue in front of a stranger e.g. the researcher (3). The problem arises though when you taking information from a forum without asking, the person may not want their information shared and looked in the scientific community as journal article. The internet maybe a public domain but that does not give you the right to do what you want. I would no go onto a forum expecting scientific research is being conducted on there, especially if I will be discussing sensitive issues (4).

      1. http://iteslj.org/Articles/Kasper-Focus/

      2. http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm

      3. http://www.metanoia.org/imhs/therapists4a.htm

      4. – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC59687/
      http://www.nyu.edu/projects/nissenbaum/ethics_cap_full.html

  11. Blondie Says:

    I would like to forward you onto my most recent blog titled, ‘The psychology of Facebook’, where I discuss whether we lose the right to consent if we post information on the internet without using the possible privacy settings that are available. My main focus when concerning the reliability and validity of the possible data out there, is that we will not be able to guarantee honesty on behalf of the participants. I also believe that the issue of privacy and where researchers should draw the line when conducting internet research needs to be clearly drawn and rigidly supervised.


  12. I think this a really interesting debate. The internet has so much potential for research but like you say there are ethical issues.

    You can find websites and message boards and support groups for pretty much any mental illness under the sun. This would be a perfect place for someone studying abnormal psychology to gather data and recruit participants. It could have huge research benefits and greatly help understanding.

    However, even though the internet is public domain, I don’t think we should just be able to do as we please with people’s data. Informed consent would not be gained and I think people would be angry if it came out that psychologists were analysing their private posts and thoughts. Also we have to consider that people may be lying, and even if they are not lying, we only see a very small part of their life over the internet, how much can we really tell from this?


  13. […] https://jessicaaro.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/internet-researchyes-or-no/#comment-81 Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a Comment by emilyjchurchill on February 23, 2012  •  Permalink Posted in Uncategorized […]


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