To the Editor:
In “We Are All Research Subjects Now” (The Chronicle Review, October 7), Sarah E. Igo discusses the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) Social Data Initiative, a project that examines technology and media’s effects on society, and its Social Media and Democracy Research Grant program, which provides academic researchers with funding (provided by a consortium of foundations) and access to Facebook data via Social Science One, through a peer review and supplementary ethics review process administered by the SSRC.
Igo provides important historical perspective on the contemporary ethical challenges facing social scientists conducting research with big data. She sees the Social Media and Democracy Research Grant program as “an opportunity to reconsider, and possibly revise, the rules of social inquiry.” I agree. The ethical considerations that emerged in the late 20th century — a topic of my own research — must be reinvented if the potential for social research using big data to advance human understanding and address social issues is to be realized for public benefit and publicly supported.
“Are the guidelines for ethical research and treatment of subjects that were devised nearly 50 years ago a durable resource for us today?,” Igo asks. The SSRC’s answer is a resounding “no.” The Social Data Initiative proceeds from the understanding that institutional review boards, which regularly exempt social data research from consideration, are a necessary baseline, but are not sufficient. It is precisely for this reason that, from the very beginning, the Social Media and Democracy Research Grant program was set up to include not just the requirement of approval from a university or federal institutional review board or its international equivalent as part of the application process, but an additional layer of ethical review that directly engages some of the concerns Igo raises. It was therefore surprising to read Igo’s assertion that the Social Media and Democracy Research Grant program’s ethical review is “yoked to debates from the 1960s” and “relies on scholarly regulations of the same vintage.” The program sought to engage and did incorporate the latest thinking and best practices on data ethics. A core goal is to foster broader, more robust ethics review norms that are appropriate to the moment and data research now.
In the widely circulated Request for Proposals issued in July for the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants, applicants read that, beyond standard IRB approval, “applications recommended for support will then undergo additional ethics and privacy review operated in collaboration with PERVADE, a multi-institution project studying how a broad range of stakeholders is responding to research ethics challenges in data science.” This process includes the assessment of a standing panel of experts in data ethics. A group of PERVADE researchers is also studying the Social Media and Democracy Research Grant program overall and will help to ensure that the SSRC will be learning as the project unfolds. We will share what we learn with the research community and the broader public.
While Igo neglects these critical details in her essay, I welcome the commitment she shares with the SSRC to building research ethics for the 21st century. A new SSRC task force report, “To Secure Knowledge: Social Science Partnerships for the Common Good,” explicitly argues for a 21st century research ethics precisely because current norms, practices and institutions are no longer sufficient (if they ever were) to protect not only human subjects as individuals, but groups and society as a whole from the possible consequences of research using big data and other methodological innovations. Released in September after eighteen months of careful deliberation with a wide array of stakeholders, the report recommends convening social researchers, ethicists, and other stakeholders to discuss and develop best practices in research ethics for this moment and ensuring “cumulative learning of experiments in understanding and designing new ethical codes and practices.”
The Social Media and Democracy Research Grant program is a new model of social research. The SSRC certainly expects twists and turns along the way, and is all too aware of the realities and perceptions of partnering with an industry that has messed up royally and repeatedly in terms of the privacy of its users. Building from the ethical review that is part of the core of the Social Media and Democracy Research Grant program and following up on the recommendations in the “To Secure Knowledge” report, the SSRC is committed to identifying and addressing new ethical challenges, working with government, industry, the philanthropic sector and the public to ensure that ethical norms, practices and oversight are appropriate to our time.
Toward the end of her essay, Igo writes, “If the byproduct [of the Social Media and Democracy Research Grant program] is a new standard of data ethics with a broad purchase — viewed as the responsibility not simply of academics but also of the multifarious parties now engaged in social and behavioral research — that will truly fulfill the SSRC’s mission to ‘produce findings that improve everybody’s lives.’ ” There is no better way to describe a core goal of our work at this fraught moment in history. We at the SSRC are delighted that Igo, one of our leading historians in chronicling and drawing lessons from the uses and misuses of data, is raising these issues, and we welcome her continued critical engagement as this process unfolds. And this welcome extends to others who see the incredible possibilities and risks of the new kinds of social research, and have insights to share.
Social Science Research Council