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Re: I can't find the article. A link, please? BeardedLady

Posted by Phil on November 15, 2002, at 7:04:30

In reply to I can't find the article. A link, please?, posted by BeardedLady on November 15, 2002, at 6:57:02

Dr. Bob, Ethics, and Copyright
This is what I originally wrote a few months ago when this issue first appeared...

Bob Hsiung is apparently having some "pushback" from forum participants he studied and wrote up in the most recent issue of CyberPsychology & Behavior. The article seems to be largely one of a descriptive nature, detailing his interactions with consumers on the message boards on his Web site. It included many excerpts from posts made to the board over a specific time period. However, apparently Dr. Bob forgot to submit the research to his IRB for review before he did it or had it published. Oops. Nor does it appear he told the consumers that frequent his board that he was conducting this research, or asked their permission, or even just asked what they would think of it.

In the emerging world of studying online behavior, questions of ethics and how to conduct studies of support groups is very much a gray area with no well-defined rules. Psychologists, unlike psychiatrists, are held to a strict set of ethical guidelines that define a researcher's behavior (online and off). It's possible that Hsiung believes he adheres to the American Psychological Association's code of ethics, because he is often seen quoting from it online during the past few years. But since he is not a member of the American Psychological Association, he cannot (nor should he be) held to their standards. In my original entry on this issue, I made it sound as if he should. But it does give readers an idea of how drastically different professionals from different professions can be held to very different ethical standards.

Hsiung's Reactions
There are a few issues that bring into question Dr. Hsiung's behavior surrounding this incident. He setup and portrays his forums as a place to get help, advice, and support, not only from other consumers, but from none other than "Dr. Bob" himself. He's changed his active participation in the forums. Originally, like any Web site starting up a new online community, he had little traffic and could be seen posting quite often to his forum answers to medication questions and side effects. Now he is seen posting a lot less often to his forums, but it remains the role he takes on and plays in this environment. He is also, naturally, the site's administrator and handles all the usual problems associated with online communities.

Naturalistic research is defined by simply observing an environment and making notes about your observations. It also means you don't tell the participants they've been observed until after the fact, and for reasons of objectivity and researcher bias, the environment being observed should not be one's own. (Hsiung failed to proactively inform his users of the research until a community user informed the community first.) Nearly all research conducted under one's affiliation is supervised by the institution's Internal Review Board (IRB). An IRB is setup with the sole purpose of determining whether a study is doing enough to protect its human subjects, even when they themselves or the researchers don't see the danger of the research, or feel they need protecting. Since Hsiung failed to submit the research for review by his own IRB, his research was conducted under no supervision or review by any external party. Such an external review may have picked up on some of the potential ethical dilemmas outlined here and earlier.

APA Ethics
If Hsiung were a psychologist (remember, he's not!), he'd be limited in conducting research on the same group that he's participating in, administering, and owns. Yet he did conduct naturalistic research on his own support group, which brings up a number of ethical issues.

Standard 1.17 of APA's ethics code helps psychologists to define multiple relationships. Multiple relationships can exist, for example, when a psychologist acts as both researcher and study participant. Section (b) of the standard states:

Likewise, whenever feasible, a psychologist refrains from taking on professional or scientific obligations when pre-existing relationships would create a risk of such harm.

The potential risk of harm relating to Hsiung's actions are when a group member's username was published (For instance, what if the username is the same username the individual uses on other boards on which they're well-known? The person's entire online reputation could've been ruined.), as well as a complete work of poetry. How can publishing someone's poetry be harmful? What if the author of the poem didn't want it to be published in print, or in a professional journal? Remember, Hsiung never asked anyone's permission for what he excerpted and included in his article. He just went and did it, under his "unrestricted use" clause.

In addition, I mentioned some other ethical issues in the original blurb on this issue. Dispensing with informed consent (Standard 6.12) makes it clear that if you're going to do research without first getting the participants' consent, you consult with other colleagues and your IRB before moving forward. Standard 6.09 also talks about getting IRB approval, and 6.18 talks about debriefing participants. These are all actions Hsiung didn't do or didn't feel the need to do. They are also behaviors typically associated with inexperienced researchers working alone or under minimal supervision. (Remember, Hsiung is a medical doctor by training, not a researcher, so it is not surprising that there were some of these pitfalls experienced. That's when a senior research supervisor or an IRB can be helpful.)

But since Hsiung is not a member of the American Psychological Association, apparently none of this applies to him. He has the freedom and flexibility to conduct whatever kind of "research" he wants, answering only to himself.

Copyright and Intellectual Property
Notwithstanding these ethical concerns, I'm still left wondering why anyone would ask for "unrestricted use" of other people's words and ideas. Copyright gives the author sole ownership of their works, unless express permission is given otherwise. Every word you write online is automatically copyrighted by you, without ever having to file a piece of paper or register anything. (In order to pursue legal action against another, typically you do have to file such forms first.) Only when someone comes to you and says, "Hey, I'm writing this article and was wondering if you'd mind if I used this paragraph you wrote as a basis for it, giving you attribution." Most authors are okay with use of their words or ideas, as long as proper attribution is given.

But "unrestricted use" means just that. Hsiung can use your words in any manner he wants, in any context he wants, forever. No attribution need be given, because his use of your words is "unrestricted." That means there are no restrictions on how he uses them, where he published them, or what he does with them.

It's not clear why he asks this of his forum participants. In a decade of observing and participating in hundreds of online forums and communities on the Internet and elsewhere, I've never seen anyone try and put such a blanket clause on other people's words. It's unheard of. Yet most of Hsiung's participants seem unconcerned about this clause. It is perhaps because they don't see much value in their words or ideas, especially as contributions to a support forum.

Recently, however, Hsiung has attempted to begin a professional forum, using the same clause. As a fellow professional, he understands that professionals often participate in an exchange of ideas and information. In Hsiung's world, he wants free, unfettered access to the very livelihood of some of its professional members. That may be fine for some, but it is not a forum I could ever participate in, even if I wanted to. Giving away all rights to my words, now and forever, seems a bit extreme for the "benefit" of participating in such a forum.

What about "fair use?" "Fair use," as a valid legal provision, already exists within case law and is well-defined (view the link for further information). Hsiung already has access to "fair use" of support group entries without the "unrestricted use" clause he is presently using. This suggests that since Hsiung doesn't recognize the limits imposed by "fair use" on an author's work, he would rather "unfair use." No thanks. There are plenty of free, open support forums (and professional forums, such as those found at ISMHO) where the owners respect the rights (all rights, including intellectual property rights) of those contributing to the site, forum, or discussion.


Lest anyone thinks this is a personal grudge or some such against Hsiung, it is not. I believe Hsiung to be a knowledgeable, distinguished faculty member of a reputable, respected university. I have even recommended him to take over a senior editor position a few years ago on a book, and within the past 2 years, wrote a letter of recommendation for him for promotion within his university. I've also co-chaired, for 3 years, a continuing education workshop at the APA on Internet topics.

I have tried, unsuccessfully, to discuss with him privately (in e-mail) the issues revolving around his "unrestricted use" clause, but he didn't reply. I value his opinion as a colleague, but I cannot stand idly by while a support group online is taken advantage of for what appears to be professional gain. I have written and argued against exactly this type of naturalistic research on support groups in the past with others, and will continue to do so again in the future, because I believe it takes advantage of individuals who are often not in a position to turn elsewhere for assistance (if even given the informed consent to make, which in this case, they never had). And as someone who values his intellectual property rights, I don't believe there is any legitimate purpose for someone asking for "unrestricted use" of another person's words and ideas.

Open Journal is open source software by J. Grohol.




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