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September 15, 2014


In Wake of Uproar Over Facebook’s Emotional Manipulation Study, Bioethics Scholars Say New Rules Are a “Moral Imperative” 

In a digital world where many adults remember a time before personal computers and the internet existed, its not surprising that ethics policies and practices are still catching up to the technology, acknowledge an international team of research ethics scholars in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Using the recent debate over the Facebook-Cornell “emotional contagion” study as a starting point, they begin mapping the ethics terrain of large-scale social computing research.

“The emotive reaction to the Facebook experiment is proof of the public interest in this set of issues as well as an indication that best practices have yet to be identified,” the commentary states. 

The authors address questions such as: What counts as research involving human participants? When is consent required and what approach is appropriate for use of information freely shared on social media? How should privately funded companies conducting internal research be regulated, since they fall outside of federal rules?

Jeffrey Kahn

“The Internet as a virtual public space where people interact, and concerns about the privacy of those interactions, are concepts that were unimaginable in the late 1970s when foundational ethics frameworks for the protection of human research subjects were developed,” says Jeffrey Kahn, lead author of the commentary and the Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

The commentary argues that the application of an appropriate ethics framework and some form of ethics oversight to large-scale social computing research is “a moral imperative” and that it is “in everyone’s interest not to attempt forcing a 20th century regulatory regime onto 21st century technologies and approaches to research and innovation.”

The commentary examines areas where current regulations fall short and offers take-away lessons for the development of a new research ethics paradigm for social computing research: 

1: It is time for clear direction regarding what sorts of investigations in the context of social computing meet the definition of research on human subjects.

2: Public-private collaboration is integral to large-scale social computing, and investigations should benefit from the relationship rather than be a source of confusion, inefficiency, and disincentive.  Rules should consider research holistically rather than piecemeal approaches borne of artificial and outdated distinctions. 

3: Approaches to informed consent must be reconceived for research in the social computing environment, taking advantage of the technologies available and developing creative solutions that will empower users who participate in research, yield better results, and foster greater trust. 

4: Although geopolitical boundaries may have limited impact on social computing activities, confusion over jurisdiction and applicable laws remain an impediment to research.  Harmonization will be a key to realizing the potential benefits of research on a global scale.

5: As research areas evolve, journals can play an especially important role as the final and independent gatekeeper assuring that research has been performed ethically.

Acknowledging that the evolution of social computing is impossible to predict, the commentary concludes that any new ethical frameworks must be nimble enough to adapt with technological changes over time: “The development of adaptable approaches to ensure that social computing research is conducted ethically is critical to its success,” the authors conclude.

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