Social media present valuable opportunities for management researchers, but also risky terrain for publication in mainstream journals. As the British Academy of Management kicks off this week with a pre-workshop on this very topic, Dr Sarah Glozer reflects on the risk of social media research and considers how it might be overcome.
Social media researchers within management spend a large portion of their time thinking about the risk to knowing (and unknowing) participants when designing their studies. Whilst preventing harm towards research participants should always be a priority in academic research, I would like to present a different contention: why are we not thinking about researcher risk? In a world of rising academic publishing expectations, this article considers if social media settings present risky contexts for management researchers.
Why research social media?
Social media, defined as Internet-based applications that build on the interactional capacity of ‘Web 2.0’, are proliferating day by day. A recent estimate suggests that there are around 400 global social media platforms, and that around one-third of the world’s population are now active social media users. Consequently, academic interest in social media continues to soar across disciplines, as seen in recent papers published in Business and Society, and a special issue announced by the Journal of Business Ethics.
Social media, then, present valuable opportunities for conceptual, empirical, technical and methodological research. Yet, despite nearly two decades since the first social media sites came to fruition, research within and into social media is still a niche pursuit within mainstream management journals, particularly that of a qualitative nature.
What is risk?
It is widely appreciated that research should not pose any risk of harm to participants. Harm can be psychological (e.g. embarrassment), economic (e.g. loss of property) and at the worst, physical (e.g. threat to life). The risk of harm is greater when social media users’ privacy/anonymity is breached, or when the nature of the data being handled is ‘sensitive’ (e.g. related to health issues). It is argued that within any research project, the potential for risk/harm should be minimised and the benefit to research maximised, with accepted ethical procedures designed to protect participants and researchers from harm. But what does risk look like in a researcher capacity?
What is researcher risk?
Back in July, I co-organised an event at The University of Nottingham with Dr. Chris Carter on publishing social media research. The event brought together social media researchers from across fields of accounting, computer science, employment relations, information systems, marketing, management, communication studies/corporate social responsibility and psychology. Through our conversations, three types of researcher risk came to light:
- Technical risk related to procedural difficulties with using social media technology to collect and analyse data. Researchers voiced difficulty in maintaining research projects in the face of fluid and evolving ‘live’ social media settings (research has a ‘shelf-life’) and frustrations when large volumes of data crashed software programmes and information was lost.
- Social risk related to the personal consequences of researching social media. Here researchers discussed the challenge of spending many hours immersed in online fora to develop deep, emic insights (to the detriments of personal relationships) and the pain of observing ‘hate speech’ (or even being on the receiving end of this).
- Professional risk related to the challenges of being identified as a social media researcher; still arguably a niche pursuit in mainstream management research. It was within this category that researchers shared difficulties in navigating the complex milieu of Institutional Ethics Review Boards, journal reviewer/editor comments, ethical guidelines and legal precedent in order to get social media research ‘out there’ and published.
It is on this latter point that the risk of being a social media researcher became clear: there was a general feeling that we still need to legitimise social media research within the broad management discipline.
How can we reduce researcher risk?
As identified in a forthcoming chapter by Dr. Rebecca Whiting and Dr. Katrina Pritchard, we are in a state of flux and uncertainty regarding digital ethics. This has a clear impact on how social media research is judged, particularly given that there is still little consensus on what constitutes best practice across disciplines and institutions. Turning to published research often only fuels this confusion with topics such as participant anonymity being handled very differently by various journals; some advocate anonymity, others do not.
So where does accountability lie in reducing researcher risk? We are hoping to bring together researchers, reviewers and editors within management to regularly discuss and debate these issues and to reduce the ‘risky’ business of publishing social media research. There are number of ways you can join the debate:
- Attend our pre-development workshop (PDW) at the British Academy of Management this week;
- Join our Facebook group;
- Follow our hashtag on Twitter (#SMRinsights);
- Send me an email
Image by Ian Clark