6.4.4 Respect for Law and Public Interest

Respect for Law and Public Interest extends the principle of Beneficence beyond specific research participants to include all relevant stakeholders.

The fourth and final principle that can guide your thinking is Respect for Law and Public Interest. This principle comes from the Menlo Report, and therefore may be less well known to social researchers. The Menlo Report argues that the principle of Respect for Law and Public Interest is implicit in the principle of Beneficence, but it also argues that the former deserves explicit consideration. In particular, while Beneficence tends to focus on participants, Respect for Law and Public Interest explicitly encourages researchers to take a wider view and to include law in their considerations.

In the Menlo Report, Respect for Law and Public Interest has two distinct components: (1) compliance and (2) transparency-based accountability. Compliance means that researchers should attempt to identify and obey relevant laws, contracts, and terms of service. For example, compliance would mean that a researcher considering scraping the content of a website should read and consider the terms-of-service agreement of that website. There may, however, be situations where it is permissible to violate the terms of service; remember, Respect for Law and Public Interest is just one of four principles. For example, at one time, both Verizon and AT&T had terms of service that prevented customers from criticizing them (Vaccaro et al. 2015). I don’t think researchers should not be automatically bound by such terms-of-service agreements. Ideally, if researchers violate terms-of-service agreements, they should explain their decision openly (see e.g., Soeller et al. (2016)), as suggested by transparency-based accountability. But this openness may expose researchers to added legal risk; in the United States, for example, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act may make it illegal to violate terms-of-service agreements (Sandvig and Karahalios 2016; ???). At this brief discussion illustrates, including compliance in ethical deliberations can raise complex questions.

In addition to compliance, Respect for Law and Public Interest also encourages transparency-based accountability, which means that researchers should be clear about their goals, methods, and results at all stages of their research and take responsibility for their actions. Another way to think about transparency-based accountability is that it is trying to prevent the research community from doing things in secret. This transparency-based accountability enables a broader role for the public in ethical debates, which is important for both ethical and practical reasons.

Applying the principle of Respect for Law and Public Interest to these three studies considered here illustrates some of the complexity researchers face when it comes to law. For example, Grimmelmann (2015) has argued that Emotional Contagion may have been illegal in the State of Maryland. In particular, Maryland House Bill 917, passed in 2002, extends Common Rule protections to all research conducted in Maryland, independent of funding source ( many experts believe that Emotional Contagion was not subject to the Common Rule under Federal Law because it was conducted at Facebook, an institution that does not receive research funds from the US Government). However, some scholars believe that Maryland House Bill 917 is itself unconstitutional (Grimmelmann 2015, 237–38). Practicing social researchers are not judges, and therefore are not equipped to understand and assess the constitutionality of the laws of all 50 US states. These complexities are compounded in international projects. Encore, for example, involved participants from 170 countries, which makes legal compliance incredibly difficult. In response to the ambiguous legal environment, researchers might benefit from third-party ethical review of their work, both as a source of advice about legal requirements and as a personal protection in case their research is unintentionally illegal.

On the other hand, all three studies published their results in academic journals, enabling transparency-based accountability. In fact, Emotional Contagion was published in open access form, so the research community and the broader public were informed—after the fact—about the design and results of the research. One quick and crude way to assess transparency-based accountability is to ask yourself: would I be comfortable if my research procedures were written about on the front page of my home town newspaper? If the answer is no, then that is a sign that your research design may need changes.

In conclusion, the Belmont Report and Menlo Report propose four principles that can be used to assess research: Respect for Persons, Beneficence, Justice, and Respect for Law and Public Interest. Applying these four principles in practice is not always straightforward, and it can require difficult balancing. For example, with regard to the decision whether to debrief participants from Emotional Contagion, it might be considered that Respect for Persons might encourages debriefing, whereas Beneficence discourages it (if the debriefing could itself do harm). There is no automatic way to balance these competing principles, but the four principles help clarify trade-offs, suggest changes to research designs, and enable researchers to explain their reasoning to each other and the public.