Publicly Available Documents

In the final hours of revisions to my dissertation, it occurred to me that I probably really needed to check with the blogger whose site name I was using in my title, to make sure that was OK with him. I did, and he said yes, he was flattered. He read a bit of it, and shared some good thoughts on what I’d written. He also showed it to his wife.

Had I still been wearing my journalism hat, I would not have pointed either of them at any of the work, as that’s standard practice in that field. It’s a rule of thumb that you don’t give the people you’re writing about the article before it hits the press, lest they want to change your portrayal of them, or take back things they said. The assumed relationship with the subject is somewhat antagonistic.

But in my dissertation I am working as an anthropologist (more or less; to the extent that any of us in interdisciplinary departments have a methodology or field), and anthropologists’ ethics and theories generally encourage sharing your work with your respondents. It’s believed that if you were correct in your interpretation of their culture, they should confirm what you’ve said. If not, you probably ought to take their critique into account.

In this case, though the blogger seemed perfectly happy with my use of his blog, his wife objected. It appears she works professionally with the writing of medical students in some capacity, and she came to my dissertation with the critical eye she employs there.

Her first objection was to my wording in this introduction to two comments, the first of which was hers:

At times, bloggers and readers attempted to share with strangers their way of using URLs to help strangers read websites the way natives did; this was a somewhat hamfisted effort:

Hey, people! You cannot cancel your efax service at this website. See that funny little thing up there that says “”? That’s ’cause this is This is not Efax. Nobody at can cancel your efax service. If you can’t figure out what this means, get off the Internet and don’t come back.

She questioned my professional integrity and scholarship, and said that if I kept the word “hamfisted” in there, I did not have her permission to use her quotes. She found it judgmental and imprecise, and detracting from the arguments I was making about people judging each others’ writing style on the Internet.

All reasonable points, and I didn’t want a fight, so I changed the language. I do think there may have been a bit of a departmental misunderstanding between us; I’m an anthropologist, not a medical doctor.

She also raised another question: Had I thought about anonymizing details from the “About” page of her husband’s blog? (I quoted it in near-entirety, including his birthdate.) “I know that this is not a cat that’s going to be stuffed back into its bag entirely,” she said, “but if Josh ever decided that he wanted all that personally identifying stuff off of, it’d be pretty unfortunate for it to be preserved in toto in your thesis, especially if the thesis is googleable.”

I hadn’t thought about that, exactly. In most cases of human subjects research, particularly when research has the potential to embarrass participants, researchers are required to anonymize many details about who they are. In my case, all information I was using had already been published by participants. As I said to her, my IRB approval was a cakewalk because I worked entirely with publicly available documents. My professors did not make a peep about the fact that I neither claimed to, nor did, anonymize commenters, probably for the same reason.

I did not think much about removing details; I did in cases when those details posed a significant threat to participants (children posting the names of their schools and hometowns; people posting their credit card numbers), but not much aside from that. But of course, one of the main observations I was working on was that many of the people publishing these posts did not appear to realize they would be public.

One case that worries me somewhat is one commenter, who wrote an errant letter to Bill Gates in the wrong place, and then wrote to the blogger telling him he had no right to publish the comment as the poster believed it was sent in confidence (not based on any evidence offered on the page). Both comments remain on the page. As it happens, this errant commenter is a published PhD whose book can be found on Amazon. I did not hide his name or title in my dissertation. Interestingly, my dissertation wiki does not turn up as a Google hit for his name at this point.

Like I said, none of this raised any flags for my committee. My advisor didn’t mention it in meetings; it didn’t come up in the defense. I proposed under an assumption I’d be working with publicly available documents, and sailed right through IRB. At this point, I’ve made my first deposit of the dissertation. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Doctoral Studies office reviewer expresses concern.

With recent suggestions that Internet information should have an expiration date to ensure that we may all be forgiven for earlier misadventures — with Facebook users changing their privacy settings as they learn more about what can be learned about them online — with the New York Times writing about mistakes people that have made which now haunt their professional lives, through their print ensuring that such information will be permanently archived in library microfilm and databases — what is a “publicly available document”? How does figure in to this? It seems to me that the IRB, like the rest of us, needs to reconsider this.

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