Professor Andrew Gelman reports that he was sent a deceptive e-mail as part of a research project by two business professors, Katherine Milkman and Modupe Akinola. Milkman and Akinola wished to see if "students from underrepresented groups" (presumably racial and ethnic minorities, and perhaps women) would be less likely to gain the interest of doctoral faculty than "other students" (i.e., white guys). So they sent e-mails to Gelman and about 6300 other professors in PhD-granting departments at American universities. The messages, purportedly from a student planning to apply to PhD programs and wishing for a brief meeting, varied by the name of the student and by the time of the proposed meeting. When a professor answered, they replied to cancel the meeting. The idea was to see if students with white-guy names received more or fewer invitations to meet than others.
After receiving a debriefing e-mail explaining the sham, Gelman replied to the authors that "My helpful impulses toward inquiring students are being abused by this sort of study, which I think belongs in the trash heap of ill-advised research projects along with Frank Flynn's notorious survey from a few years ago when he tried to get free meals out of NYC restaurants by falsely claiming food poisoning." He later elaborated on his blog, "What bothers me is that we were involuntary participants in the study. The researchers took advantage of our time and our good nature (that we were willing to meet with an unfamiliar student). Not cool."
Gelman's post has spurred several comments. Some feel the study should not have been conducted at all: "I really want . . . a formal apology from both institutions, and an acknowledgment that this project should never, ever have gotten IRB approval." And "Since the researchers took the subjects' time without asking, I think they're guilty of stealing something of this magnitude. People often get put in jail for less."
Others think Gelman is being too sensitive: "Everyone is so precious about this. . . . The fact everyone here wrote, read or commented on this blog post suggests that a few minutes here and there don't cost anyone much." Another cites the work of Peter Riach and Judith Rich, who found that the "minimal inconvenience" imposed on the unwitting subjects of such field experiments can be justified by the "degree of accuracy and transparency which is not available from any other procedure." [Peter A. Riach and Judith Rich, "Deceptive Field Experiments of Discrimination: Are They Ethical?" Kyklos 57 (2004): 457-70.]
Gelman himself is in the middle; he thinks that deceptive surveys are OK, he just wants the researchers to send $10 in compensation to everyone who received the e-mail. "Then, after they send us the study results, if we think the findings are interesting, we can each individually decide whether to send the $10 back to them."
The lesson here is that just because a study is approved by an IRB (two, in this case), doesn't mean it won't leave some participants feeling abused. Nor should IRBs strive for such innocuity; they need to weigh the values of free choice and honesty against the values of knowledge and freedom.
I would be curious to see the original protocols and to learn what reactions Milkman, Akinola, and the two IRBs expected. If they did in fact anticipate that a number of recipients would feel as Gelman does--misused, but only to the extent of $10 in damage--the idea of a compensation fund for the outraged isn't bad. (Though perhaps it could require participants to ask for the money rather than having payment as the default.) If the researchers and the IRBs didn't expect this reaction, there's an opportunity here for some good empirical research. Or, as one commenter put it, "Maybe it's a double dummy study design where they wanted to see how easy it is to annoy professors with email."