Lab Ethics Statement

Social research ethics are at the core of the Social Data Science Lab’s programme of work (including HateLab) . Recent work shows how users of social media and online forums are uneasy about their posts being collected without their explicit consent (NatCen 2014, Williams et al. 2017). However, many 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 online 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 projects 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 online 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 keep all information gathered on individual posts confidential on secure password protected servers
  4. In research outputs we never directly quote individual posters without their informed 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 posts 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
  5. In research outputs we do directly quote from online accounts maintained by organisations (e.g. government departments, law enforcement, local authorities, companies) and public figures (e.g. politicians) without seeking prior informed consent
  6. We follow a risk assessment ahead of publishing online 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.