Friday, September 4, 2009

Internet Survey Sparks Outrage

Two newly PhD'd "cognitive neuroscientists"--Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam--got a book contract (rumored to be quite lucrative) with a popular press to write a book called "Rule 34: What Netporn Teaches Us About The Brain."

As part of their work, they launched an online survey aimed at authors of sexually explicit, online fan fiction. Many people who read the survey found it to be poorly designed and offensive, and anger grew as fan authors came to fear that the book would present erroneous information about their community.

The study was not IRB approved. Because the researchers had graduated from Boston University by the time they launched the survey, BU's IRB has disclaimed any authority over the matter, though it may have asked the researchers to stop using presenting themselves as being affiliated with the university. While some of the commentary on the event has included discussions about what the IRB might have done had it been presented the protocol, we can only speculate about whether IRB review would have changed the project for better, worse, or not at all.

Moreover, the chief concern of critics seems not to be that individual survey respondents would be harmed, but that their community as a whole would be harmed by a mass-market book written by inept, ignorant authors. Since the National Commission, policy makers have generally agreed that IRBs should not try to defend whole communities against mischaracterization by scholars.

Still, readers of this blog may be interested in a case where researchers' lack of preparation irreparably alienated the very people whom they wished to study.

For a good introduction, see Alison Macleod's human element blog. Many links follow.