CCTV graffiti British Library; creator Oxyman; license CC-BY-SA; source

Ethics and Digital History

The ethical implications of secondary analysis of personal details are beginning to be discussed (Richardson and Godfrey 2003). General guidance on ethical research for researchers can be found online (British Society of Criminology; the UK Data Archive). Defamation legislation which enables people to take legal action in the courts if someone made untrue or harmful statements about them does not relate to deceased persons. Whilst this has been unproblematic in the main for historians the ease of availability of online material (and the scale and intimacy of available detail on thousands of people who have been subject to legal proceedings) has raised particular issues. Dealing with online digital material offers rare challenges, but ones that may become more common in the future.

There may be a need for a different kind of ethical practice which considers areas such as how we conceive of participants, whether living or dead. For example, where once researchers or family historians would have spent considerable time researching details of a single person or family, now we can access huge numbers of people captured in online data. Digitised records are mostly reproduced wholesale – the photos of documents reveal all, as do the digital newspaper crime reports. The issue of anonymity, with regard to these kinds of official records, may be a dead letter. We seem to be able to know everything about anyone we choose. Moreover, researchers feel that they know enough about a person and the direction their lives took in order to state with a certain amount of authority the connections between offending and other life events.

We should remember, however, that these official documents (useful as they are) can never reveal the whole picture. Humans have complex relationships, impressive imaginations and reasoning abilities, some of which find expression in their actions, making them do some things, and stop doing other things. We will never be in a position to fully understand why human beings acted in certain ways. We must remember that digital sources (in bringing together so much data about one person) can give the illusion that we know more about their lives and motivations, than we actually do. Although the use of online digital material in its infancy, it is likely that this is an issue which will demand resolution in the near future, and we aim to be at the forefront of that debate. Indeed, we aim to be midwives of new processes of ethical online research.