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 the Menlo Report argues that it deserves explicit consideration. In my mind, the best way to think about this principle is that Beneficence tends to focus on participants and that Respect for Law and Public Interest explicitly encourages researchers to take a wider view and include law in their considerations. In analog age research—such as traditional surveys and lab experiments—researchers were unlikely to accidentally break the law. In online research, this is, unfortunately, much less true.

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 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. For example, at one time both Verizon and AT&T had terms of service that prevented customers from criticizing them (Vaccaro et al. 2015). 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 (e.g., Soeller et al. (2016)). But, this openness may expose researchers to added legal risk. In the United States, for example, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act makes it illegal to violate terms of service agreements (Sandvig and Karahalios 2016).

Further, transparency-based accountability means that researchers need to be clear about the goals, methods, and results at all stages of their research process and to take responsibility for their actions. Another way to think about this 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 research community and 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 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 under law 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 (recall that 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); p. 237-238]. 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 should be careful to undergo third-party ethical review of their work, as both 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 open access so the research community and the broader public were informed—after the fact—about the design and results of the research. One rule of thumb 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, that is a strong sign that your research design needs 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, when deciding whether to debrief participants from Emotional Contagion, Respect for Persons might encourage debriefing whereas Beneficence might discourage debrief (if the debriefing would itself do harm). There is no automatic way to balance these competing principles, but at a minimum, the four principles help clarify trade-offs, suggest changes to research designs, and enable researchers to explain their reasoning with each other and the general public.