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6.1 Introduction

The previous chapters have shown that the digital age creates new opportunities for collecting and analyzing social data. The digital age has also created new ethical challenges. The goal of this chapter is to give you the tools that you need to handle these ethical challenges.

Their is currently uncertainty and disagreement about the appropriate conduct of some digital age social research. This uncertainty has led to two related problems, one of which has received much more attention than the other. On the one hand, some researchers have been accused of violating people’s privacy or enrolling participants in unethical experiments. These cases—which I’ll describe in this chapter—have been the subject of extensive debate and discussion. On the other hand, the ethical uncertainty has also had a chilling effect, preventing ethical and important research from happening; a fact that I think is much less appreciated. For example, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, public health officials wanted information about the mobility of the people in the most heavily infected countries in order to help control the outbreak. Mobile phone companies had detailed call records that could have provided some of this information. Yet, ethical and legal concerns bogged down researchers’ attempts to analyze the data (Wesolowski et al. 2014). If we can develop ethical norms and standards that are shared by both researchers and the public—and I think we can do this—then we can harness the capabilities of the digital age in ways that are responsible and beneficial to society.

There are important differences between how social scientists and data scientists approach research ethics. For social scientists, thinking about ethics is dominated by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and the regulations that they are tasked with enforcing. After all, the only way that most empirical social scientists experience ethical debate is through the bureaucratic process of IRB review. Data scientists, on the other hand, have little systematic experience with research ethics because it is not commonly discussed in computer science and engineering. Neither of these approaches—the rules-based approach of social scientists or the ad-hoc approach of data scientists—is well suited for social research in the digital age. Instead, I believe that we as as a community will make progress if we adopt a principles-based approach. That is, researchers should evaluate their research through existing rules—which I will take as given and assume should be followed—and through more general ethical principles. This principles-based approach ensures that researchers can make reasonable decisions about research for which rules have not yet been written and that we can communicate our reasoning with other researchers and the public.

The principles-based approach that I am advocating is not new; it draws on decades of previous thinking. As you will see, in some cases the principles-based approach leads to clear, actionable solutions. And, when it does not lead to such solutions, it clarifies the trade-offs involved, which is critical for striking an appropriate balance and being able to explain your reasoning to other researchers and the public. Further, as you will see, taking a principles-based approach does not require an inordinate amount of time. Once you learn the basic principles, you can use them to quickly and efficiently reason about a wide range of problems. Finally, the principles-based approach is sufficiently general that I expect that it will be helpful no matter where your research takes place or where you work (e.g., university, government, NGO, or company).

This chapter has been designed to help a well-meaning individual researcher. How should you think about the ethics of your own work? What can you do to make your own work more ethical? In Section 6.2, I’ll describe three digital age research projects that have generated ethical debate. Then, in Section 6.3, I’ll abstract from those specific examples to describe what I think is the fundamental reason for ethical uncertainty: rapidly increasing power for researchers to observe and experiment on people without their consent or even awareness. These capabilities are changing faster than our norms, rules, and laws. Next, in Section 6.4, I’ll describe four existing principles that can guide your thinking: Respect for Persons, Beneficence, Justice, and Respect for Law and Public Interest. Then, in Section 6.5, I’ll summarize two broad ethical frameworks—consequentalism and deontology—that can help you reason one of the deepest challenges that you might face: when is it appropriate for you to take ethically questionable means in order to achieve an ethically appropriate end. These principles and ethical frameworks will enable you to move beyond focusing on what is permitted by existing regulations and increase your ability to communicate your reasoning with other researchers and the public (Figure 6.1). With that background, in Section 6.6, I will discuss four areas that are particularly challenging for digital age social researchers: informed consent (Section 6.6.1), understanding and managing information risk (Section 6.6.2), privacy (Section 6.6.3), and making ethical decisions in the face of uncertainty (Section 6.6.4). Finally, in Section 6.7, I’ll conclude with three practical tips for working in an area with unsettled ethics. In the Historical Appendix, I’ll describe the evolution of the current system of research ethics oversight in the United States including the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the Belmont Report, the Common Rule, and the Menlo Report.

Figure 6.1: The rules governing research are derived from principles which in turn are derived from ethical frameworks. A main argument of this chapter is that researchers should evaluate their research through existing rules—which I will take as given and assume should be followed—and through more general ethical principles. The Common Rule is the set of regulations currently governing most federally-funded research in the United States (for more information, see the Historical Appendix). The four principles come from two blue-ribbon panels that have sought to provide ethical guidance to researchers: The Belmont Report and the Menlo Report (for more information, see the Historical Appendix). Finally, consequentialism and deontology are ethical frameworks that have been developed by philosophers for hundreds of years. A quick and crude way to distinguish the two frameworks is that consequentialists focus on ends and deontologists focus on means.

Figure 6.1: The rules governing research are derived from principles which in turn are derived from ethical frameworks. A main argument of this chapter is that researchers should evaluate their research through existing rules—which I will take as given and assume should be followed—and through more general ethical principles. The Common Rule is the set of regulations currently governing most federally-funded research in the United States (for more information, see the Historical Appendix). The four principles come from two blue-ribbon panels that have sought to provide ethical guidance to researchers: The Belmont Report and the Menlo Report (for more information, see the Historical Appendix). Finally, consequentialism and deontology are ethical frameworks that have been developed by philosophers for hundreds of years. A quick and crude way to distinguish the two frameworks is that consequentialists focus on ends and deontologists focus on means.