6.8 Conclusion

Social research in the digital age raises new ethical issues. But these issues are not insurmountable. If we, as a community, can develop shared ethical norms and standards that are supported both by researchers and the public, then we can harness the capabilities of the digital age in ways that are responsible and beneficial to society. This chapter represents my attempt to move us in that direction, and I think the key will be for researchers to adopt principles-based thinking, while continuing to follow appropriate rules.

In section 6.2, I described three digital-age research projects that have generated ethical debate. Then, in section 6.3 I described what I think is the fundamental reason for ethical uncertainty in digital-age social research: 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 described 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 summarized two broad ethical frameworks—consequentialism and deontology—that can help you with 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.

With that background, in section 6.6, I discussed four areas that are particularly challenging for digital-age social researchers: informed consent (section 6.6.1), understanding and managing informational 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 concluded with three practical tips for working in an area with unsettled ethics.

In terms of scope, this chapter has focused on the perspective of an individual researcher seeking generalizable knowledge. As such, it leaves out important questions about improvements to the system of ethical oversight of research; questions about regulation of the collection and use of data by companies; and questions about mass surveillance by governments. These other questions are obviously complex and difficult, but it is my hope that some of the ideas from research ethics will be helpful in these other contexts.