This really depends on the type of study. There is no easy or quick or general answer for this question. A study interviewing 10 social media users is different from an infodemiology / infoveillance public health study analyzing the twitter signals from millions of users (see e.g. http://www.jmir.org/2014/12/e290 for some ethical concepts). When in doubt, we strongly suggest to contact the IRB/REB at your institution to discuss your research and to either get an exemption or an explicit approval.
JMIR's general ethics statement is valid for all journals published by JMIR Publications and contains the following guidelines.
When reporting experiments on human subjects, authors should indicate IRB (Institutional Reserch Board, also known as REB) approval/exemption and whether the procedures followed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation (institutional and national) and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2000 (5). If doubt exists whether the research was conducted in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration, the authors must explain the rationale for their approach, and demonstrate that the institutional review body explicitly approved the doubtful aspects of the study.
Our instructions for authors also contain a section on Ethics, reminding authors that
Internet-based research raises novel questions of ethics and human dignity. Informed consent, protection of privacy, and other human rights are further criteria against which the manuscript will be judged.
In other words, it often comes down to whether peer-reviewers or editors raise specific ethical concerns vis-a-vis the specific research reported, and how authors respond to these concerns. The best way to respond to (or preemptively avoid) any concerns is if authors can write that a local IRB/REB has reviewed and approved the study and the informed consent forms (if any). If you an author and have missed this before embarking on your research, ask your REB/IRB if a retrospective exemption can be given.
Analysis of large bodies of text written by humans on the Internet and in some social media such as Twitter (e.g. quantitative analysis i.e. infodemiology / infoveillance studies, or for qualitative analysis) is generally not considered "human subjects research" in JMIR, but if these texts (posts, comments) are written within a "virtual community" (which may include social media communities) then the group size and group norms are among the factors that need to be taken into account to judge whether a group/community (and their postings) can be considered "public" versus private, and the "invasiveness" of the research plays a role as well (Eysenbach & Till 2001).
For more information for authors and IRBs/REBs please read the seminal BMJ paper by JMIR founding editor Prof. Eysenbach and JMIR EB member James Till (cited over 600 times):
- Eysenbach G, Till JE. Ethical issues in qualitative research on internet communities. BMJ 2001;323:1103-1105
Call for papers / Theme Issue on Ethics
The ethics and methods of conducting research on the Internet is a dynamic area - new technologies continuously bring new challenges and questions, and ethical norms and public expectations may change. JMIR has a standing theme issue (e-collection of articles) on this very issue, and we also encourage submission of research papers and viewpoints to this theme issue:
Other relevant e-collections: