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Saturday, 28 November 2015

An ethical dilemma

There are many divisions in market research: qual and quant, supplyside and buyside, data collection and insight, art and science. Pick a side and fight your corner. The latest split is ‘new’ versus ‘old’ research. Ray Poynter, who puts himself in the ‘new’ camp (and has organised a successful social network and campaign around the concept of NewMR), defines it as “those trying to hang on to the past and those embracing the new”.

Alarmingly, though, he warns that the two sides are dividing along ethical lines. “If market research companies abide by the old ethics, in particular anonymity and informed consent, they will not be able to compete for business in most areas where market research is growing,” Poynter writes.

These growth areas are things like brand communities and social media monitoring which challenge traditional assumptions of what research should be. This is clearly causing a headache for industry associations like Esomar and the Market Research Society (MRS), who have both recently published documents – one a set of guidelines, the other a discussion paper – that have come in for some criticism from advocates of the ‘new’. In the US, the Council of American Survey Research Organisations (Casro) this week published its own draft guidelines which are, in many respects, similar to Esomar’s, and can no doubt expect an equivalent response.

“When you’re pushing at boundaries it is easy to feel frustrated by rules that seem to hold you back. But hasty decisions are never the wisest”

The task facing these organisations is to balance traditional values with the new realities of what market researchers can feasibly do [at this point I should disclose that the MRS pays my salary and publishes this website, though we maintain editorial independence]. How does the requirement that respondents give informed consent square with a world in which they share their opinions publicly and these can be harvested and analysed without them knowing? Why do research participants have to be anonymous when many consumers use social media channels to talk directly to companies, join communities and help co-create new products?

As far as I can see, no one is saying they have to – but without anonymity or informed consent, or adherence to any of the other key principles of market research, standards-setting bodies are saying that such activities should not be portrayed as ‘market research’.

Poynter argues that this is “nonsense”, and that we could soon end up in a situation where the majority of work done by researchers is classified as “not market research”. But his suggestion – for commercial researchers to adopt a new set of ethics and leave the old ones to the social researchers and academics – seems rash.

Researchers shouldn’t be so quick to want to adandon a strong and widely-recognised self-regulatory regime. British journalism is currently in a quagmire because of weak self regulation, which allowed a rotten few to abuse the basic journalistic responsibility of finding and publishing information, to justify the unlawful hacking of people’s private voicemails. The result of the scandal is likely to be tougher regulation – or legislation – to control journalism.

There are research parallels here, though significantly less scandalous. Think back to the PatientsLikeMe incident, where a closed community of disease sufferers was unwittingly mined for comments. Outrage followed – but it was contained because the research industry could point to a long-held principle that people should give their informed consent to take part in research and should be told what companies are doing with their information.

One might argue that the rules should be different for public spaces like Twitter and blogs and forums and large parts of Facebook – yet the informed consent requirement can still be maintained so why jettison it? Casro says researchers must ensure they have a legal right to harvest data – as set out in a site’s terms of use – and that there is “a reasonable basis to conclude that most users would be aware that the information they provide could be viewed by anyone with relative ease”.

“Market research might be changing, but so are consumer expectations of privacy and with it the laws that govern them”

Anonymising online commenters can also be achieved through masking techniques, according to Esomar. At its most basic, this would involve making alterations to republished comments so they cannot be found through search engines. So again, why is it necessary to abandon a long-held principle?

In his blog, Poynter suggests a set of NewMR ethics based around adherence to the law, not doing things likely to outrage the public, creating high standards and emphasising the need to be open and honest. It’s not clear how this really differs from what the ‘OldMR’ organisations set out to do.

It’s a perilous time for market research, when even a website has no right to monitor how its own visitors behave thanks to new rules from the European Union. When you’re pushing at boundaries it is easy to feel frustrated by rules that seem to hold you back. But hasty decisions are never the wisest.

Market research might be changing, but so are consumer expectations of privacy and with it the laws that govern them. Straying outside the bounds of what is accepted to be – and more importantly what legislators understand to be – market research might prove just as commercially risky in the long run as sticking with notions of ‘anonymity’ and ‘informed consent’.

‘Old ethics’ they may be, but they are exactly what consumers and legislators are arguing for in their dealings with online behavioural advertisers. Researchers should be proud of the fact that in this respect they are clearly ahead of the rest.

Brian Tarran is editor of Research Magazine and

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Readers' comments (23)

  • There is nothing old or new about social media research techniques (ignore the data source for a second). They employ naturalistic observational techniques and participant observational techniques which have been around for decades. Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists use these highly ethical techniques all the time. They do not necessarily require permission from the people being researched BECAUSE they are done in highly ethical manners.

    University boards around the world, known for having extremely high standards for research ethics, accept and approve these methods. These are standard, true, and valid research methods. I truly do not understand why the market research industry would consider treating them any differently.

    If we move beyond that, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that research organizations will quickly become irrelevant if they cannot appreciate obversational techniques. The world is full of people who have no incentive to appreciate the ethics that we as market researchers bring to the table. Those people don't need to join MR organizations or call themselves market researchers to conduct observational research. I, however, WANT to be a member of research organizations.

    There are simple solutions to the problems that have been identified. Let's just work together and solve them. Then, we move forward better than ever.

    I hope to look back at these discussions as a great time when our industry rallied together for a greater cause and came out the better for it.

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  • I think my main concern is that the MR great and the good are trying to re-shape the world in the image of the MR industry in the 1950s.

    We should be letting the people who supply the data define the rules (the people we used to call respondents).

    I think the public and the legislators are both beginning to realise that industries that self-regulate restrict competition and by-pass democratic and accountable processes - something the recent 'hackgate' scandal in the UK has highlighted.

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  • Brian Tarran

    I think that's a noble idea, Ray, but perhaps impractical. How do we let people define the rules?

    One could argue they already do, as they elect the people who set the broader legislative frameworks around which market research – indeed all businesses – can operate.

    I guess you could define the rules on a per-project basis, so that you make clear at the outset of a project that "this is how you want to use the data/this is what we need from you - do you agree/refuse to take part?" But that will leave consumers (and more importantly legislators) with a very diverse view of what constitutes a research project, making it hard to speak as one industry.

    Or you could appoint a panel of consumers to rule on what they find acceptable/don't find acceptable – but if you think recruiting for surveys is hard, I'd imagine that'd be considerably tougher.

    I really don't see that the alternative to self-regulation would be some kind of ever-evolving compact between researchers and respondent/participants/consumers (which arguably is what self-regulation should be). The more likely alternative is disinterested, ill-informed and heavy-handed government oversight.

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  • Please tell me I've got this wrong. But if I copy and paste your post Brian and put it in a client presentation without your knowledge I shall be in breach of the proposed MRS code. You see Brian you might have thought as a journalist that you are publishing in an open area. But according to what is being proposed - the internet is now classified as all private, and I am breaching copyright by taking what you have posted without your permission. And by the way since I used your material you have become a respondent. Which you became without giving your permission to be recruited as one. In order for the code to be enforced so I ask your permission next time.

    The basic problem is trying to fit every kind of research into the bod who asks the questions and the bod who gives the answer paradigm. Which by the way has never been a good or adequate definition of qualitative research.

    I really hope I've got the wrong end of the stick on this one. I'm in process of setting up a Cloud of Knowing session (Cloud 7) on Aug 31st for us to debate this and the CASRO/ESOMAR alternative.

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  • Hi Brian, I am not sure that giving power to the people is so hard. For brevity I will set this in the context of the UK and its legislation:

    1) All surveys could let respondent's determine if the data is to be treated as anonymous or not

    2) People should be able to say that MR companies (or company X) should not be able to contact them - no do not call exemptions

    3) If respondents want the client's products as incentives, they should be able to have them (which means giving up Data Protection exemptions)

    4) People joining online communities or taking part in deliberative research could be informed that the research might change their behaviour - and agree or refuse

    5) In social media analysis we still need to work through the details, and the details will change as the social web evolves, but we need a level playing field. A level playing field means legislation, not codes of conduct that only relate to a minority. Rules/laws might help if they defined what is public and what is private, whether people 'scraping' data had a duty of care to the originators of the comments, the rights of people to remove their comments, and the point at which data collection moves from acceptable to stalking.

    The main role I see for self-regulation is not for ethics, I trust the people and legislators more than the industry for that, but for quality marks for clients. Professional accreditation, the use of peer reviewed techniques, and making justifiable claims about the trustworthiness of the data are of little interest to respondents, but of great interest to clients, and could confer an economic benefit to those suffering the economic costs of complying.

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  • Brian Tarran


    As far as I know, the MRS document is not proposing a code but setting out the legislative framework within which a code must sit.

    But that's by the by. What the MRS document rightly points out is that if you took my post and included it in a client presentation without my permission you would be in breach of copyright that I – or more correctly Research Magazine – holds over my writing.

    It is up to the individual copyright holder whether to pursue you for such infringement, but that doesn't change the fact that what you have done might be actionable.

    I am publishing in a public area, but that doesn't mean copyright doesn't apply. Republishing journalism is a bad example though, because journalistic organisations usually have an army of lawyers to defend their copyright.

    Facebook, Twitter comments, etc. are likely to be a whole different kettle of fish. An uploaded photo is clearly the property of whoever took it, but status updates and tweets? You might recall that the Library of Congress has committed to archiving all public tweets without the permission of all individual authors – but that's for history's sake not market research.

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  • Brian Tarran


    The points you make are eminently sensible – and indeed, as I understand it, they are the kinds of questions you might ask a respondent now, though depending on the answers you might find yourself residing in this "not market research" space.

    I fully accept that research is changing and the types of projects researchers might be called on to do are exciting and fascinating in the way they blend both research skills and marketing consultancy, advice and advocacy.

    Yet I still think there is a strong argument for maintaining a base level understanding of what "market research" is and the ethics that underpin it. It might not fit with what researchers are actually called on to do some of the time, but it will help to preserve the core of the business when legislation might threaten other aspects of the job.

    Just look at the cookie rules adopted by the European Union. For web analytics companies this is a potential nightmare, having to ask permission of every user to place a cookie on their machine, even when all they really want to do is anonymously measure and understand online visitor behaviour.

    But cookies have become so associated with advertising, and tracking with targeting, that we have these blanket rules, and many web analytics companies have not made a virtue of gaining the subject's consent (beyond a website's Ts&Cs) that now they are forced to do it it's a shock to the business model.

    By contrast, the big web measurement firms I've spoke to about this are relatively confident that because their core offering is an opt-in measurement panel, they can continue providing websites with visitor data regardless.

    If the vision of the web espoused by Wired's Chris Anderson comes to pass then we can expect to see the public internet disappearing to be replaced instead by a series of private, walled gardens with the power to shut companies out on a whim (see Apple).

    In such an environment, gaining the 'informed consent' of research participants (and the gatekeepers of the walled gardens) is going to be a business necessity.

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  • I wonder if it would be useful to make a distinction between research where people are represented and those where they are not and what is happening is a sampling of the culture.

    The reason we have a code at all is because researchers have entered into a financial contract with the marketer and the code is a response to the perceived conflict of interest - what rights does the individual have if the researcher is being paid to research them? The respondent needs to be protected from the perils of misrepresentation, or repurposing what is collected to enable the marketer to sell to that individual - when their recourse is extremely limited. In this case I would suggest that the researcher as well as assembling a representative sample has a duty to fairly represent those from whom they are collecting data.

    However I would treat the sampling of the culture very differently because there isn't a direct relationship with a respondent. Observation as Annie Pettit commented above - would fall into this category also. It shouldn't be possible to identify an individual posting when this culture sampling is taking place - so they can't be sold to on the basis of the information they have provided. The monitoring of online content is culture sampling. If researchers aren't allowed to do it or it becomes prohibitively complicated for us to do so then either we have to stop being market researchers or retreat to being those who only function in the area of direct representation of customers. Leaving social media monitoring companies to clean up with a queue of clients switching their budgets away from 'research' to this kind of work.

    There is a bigger danger behind that - which is that as social media companies become more adept at culture sampling the same tools can be adjusted for CRM activity - the tracking of customers for commercial purposes. If the CRM manager can generate insights about the customer without needing to secure specific permissions for research. Then why should any client pay for research except in very particular narrow circumstances?

    In summary for research to remain competitive we need a way for market research to maintain its share of business intelligence. If we stay with the existing paradigm of direct representation of customers then we won't. So make a division and allow researchers to sample culture without having to collect all the permissions.

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  • Brian I have always understood that if I attribute the content which I have used then I am not in breach of copyright because I have named the source. Which makes quoting people viable however aggressive the legal people working for the organisation. This doesn't work for market research because if I were to attribute a respondent to a client then they would be identifiable. Which is why we have to treat market research as a special case.

    The internet as a medium can be confessional - yes there is a lot of anonymity but people are often perfectly happy to be attributed. If there are social media spaces where this is part of the terms and conditions - people accept that their named comments can be taken and used for commercial purposes - even if this is used by companies to market directly to them (behavioural targeting - being a good example) then this would fall outside of the guidelines of market research. But a client might well be very willing to pay for it.

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  • Brian Tarran

    John, there is a defense of 'fair use' under copyright law which should protect you if you are only lifting a small portion of an article – but technically, whether you name the source or not, if you don't seek permission you could be sued for breach of copyright.

    I'd argue that individual social network users probably wouldn't pursue you for breach of copyright, but its technically possible that the social networks themselves – if they assign themselves the copyright of all content hosted on their platform – may well decide to take action against scraping on an industrial scale.

    I disagree with your assumption, though that "people accept that their named comments can be taken and used for commercial purposes". It might be in the T&Cs, so legally permissable, but I reckon you'd be on ethically shaky ground.

    Using my mum as an example, she's on Facebook to talk to her friends, to share pictures and to keep up with family. I don't think it would even occur to her – even if she could work out what the legalese of the T&Cs were saying – that she had in some way signed up to have her comments taken and used for commercial purposes.

    The question remains: just because you can, does it mean you should? The Esomar/Casro documents, to my mind, set out a decent ethical framework in which to consider your actions as a researcher.

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