5.5.5 Be ethical

The admonition to be ethical applies to all the research described in this book. In addition to the more general issues of ethics—discussed in Chapter 6—mass collaboration projects raise some specific ethical issues, and since mass collaboration is so new to social research, these problems might not be fully apparent at first.

In all mass collaboration projects, issues of compensation and credit are complex. For example, some people consider it unethical that thousands of people worked for years on the Netflix Prize and ultimately received no compensation. Relatedly, some people consider it unethical to pay workers on micro-task labor markets extremely small amounts of money. A final issue of credit is authorship of papers. Different projects take different approaches, but some projects give authorship credit to all members of the mass collaboration; for example, the final author of the first Foldit paper was “Foldit players” (Cooper et al. 2010).

Open calls and distributed data collection can also raise complex questions about consent and privacy. For example, Netflix released customers movie ratings to everyone. Although movie ratings might not appear sensitive, they can reveal information about customers’ political preferences or sexual orientation, information that customers did not agree to make public. Netflix attempted to de-identify the data so that the ratings could not be linked to any specific individual, but just weeks after the release of the Netflix data it was partially de-anonymized by Narayanan and Shmatikov (2008) (see Chapter 6). Further, in distributed data collection, researchers could collect data about people without their consent. For example, in the Malawi Journals Projects, conversations about a sensitive topic (AIDS) were transcribed without the consent of the participants. None of these ethical problems are insurmountable, but they should be considered in the design phase of a project. Remember, your “crowd” is made up of people.