Lab Ethics Statement

Social research ethics are at the core of the Social Data Science Lab’s programme of work. Recent work shows how users of social media platforms are uneasy about their posts being collected without their explicit consent (NatCen 2014, Williams et al. 2017). However, many social media terms of service specifically state that users’ data that are public will be made available to third parties, and by accepting these terms users legally consent to this. In the Lab’s research programme we interpret and engage with these terms of service through the lens of social science research which often implies a higher ethical standard than provided in legal accounts of the permissible use of these kinds of data. The topic of ethics in social media research has been a key focus of ours and formed a primary research question in our first ESRC Digital Social Research Demonstrator Grant. Ethics as a topic continues to be embedded in our follow-on grants and we are continuously reflecting upon our practice as social and computational researchers. We are acutely aware of the key ethical issues of harm, informed consent, the invasion of privacy and deception as they relate to the collection, analysis, visualization and dissemination of social media data.

Below we outline our ethical principles that apply to all our on-going externally funded work:

  1. We abide by the Economic and Social research Council’s Framework for Research Ethics
  2. All projects undergo Cardiff University Research Ethics Committee Review
  3. We follow Twitter’s Broadcast guidelines
  4. We only use social media data for academic research purposes
  5. We keep all information gathered on individual Twitter users confidential on secure password protected servers
  6. In research outputs we never directly quote individual Twitter users without their consent.  We use opt-in consent for posts that are deemed sensitive and/or users that are deemed vulnerable.  Opt-out consent is used for all other posts and users.  Where consent cannot be obtained we represent the content of tweets in aggregate form (e.g. topic clustering, wordclouds) and themes (decontextualised examples and descriptions of the meaning or tone of tweet content).  These forms of representation preclude the identification of individual Twitter users, preserving anonymity and confidentiality
  7. In research outputs we do directly quote from Twitter accounts maintained by organisations (e.g. government departments, law enforcement, local authorities, companies) and public figures (e.g. politicians) without seeking prior informed consent
  8. We follow the Twitter (2016) Broadcast guidelines when publishing tweets:
    • Include the user’s name and Twitter handle (@username) with each Tweet
    • Use the full text of the Tweet. Editing Tweet text is only permitted for technical or medium limitations (e.g., removing hyperlinks)
    • Not delete, obscure, or alter the identification of the user. Tweets can be shown in anonymous form in exceptional cases such as concerns over user privacy
    • In some cases, seek permission from the content creator, as Twitter users retain rights to the content they post
  9. We follow a risk assessment ahead of publishing Twitter data, and use the decision flow chart found here as part of this process (See Williams et al. 2017 for further discussion).


NatCen (2014) Research Using Social Media: Users’ Views, London: Natcen.