Do we need to anonymize tweets in published accounts?
In this article about tweets being made available to researchers, the authors quote two epidemiologists saying ethical use of Twitter should anonymize tweets:
Caitlin Rivers and Bryan Lewis, computational epidemiologists at Virginia Tech, published guidelines for the ethical use of Twitter data in February. Among other things, they suggest that scientists never reveal screen names and make research objectives publicly available. For example, although it is considered ethical to collect information from public spaces—and Twitter is a public space—it would be unethical to share identifying details about a single user without his or her consent. Rivers and Lewis argue that it is crucial for scientists to consider and protect users’
I disagree. Of course it may be more often true for epidemiology, but it really depends on what kind of study you’re doing. As Kurt Luther, Casey Fiesler, and I have written, sometimes anonymizing users may be morally wrong because you are denying them credit for their work. (“That tweet was really funny–I want my name on it!”) Twitter is public, published material. The contents of private Twitter feeds are for followers only, but the contents of public feeds arguably are as public as a newspaper article. If you want to take extra precautions to anonymize people, that’s fine. But to say it’s always necessary is ridiculous. It depends on the type of study you’re doing.
Jim Hudson and I empirically studied how people often misunderstand how public their communications are. The complicated question that follows is: if user expectations are out of line with what experts would call “reasonable,” how should the scholarly community proceed? Dealing with things on a case-by-case basis is the best we can do for now.