Monday, May 23, 2016

Ethics of big data research are unsettled, and so are mechanisms

Sarah Zhang of WIRED uses the OKCupid data dump to explore the unsettled state of big data research ethics and mechanisms to promote them.

[Sarah Zhang, “Scientists Are Just as Confused About the Ethics of Big-Data Research as You,” WIRED, May 20, 2016.]

Everyone Zhang spoke to more or less agrees that while new forms of research raise new ethical questions, we haven’t seen IRBs provide consistent, much less wise, answers:

  • Your humble blogger: “The [IRB] structure was very much developed out of health agencies for experimental research."
  • Kelsey Finch: “The IRB may make very different decisions based on who is on the board, what university it is, and what they’re feeling that day."
  • Michelle Meyer: "Someone needs to provide oversight, but the optimal body is unlikely to be an IRB, which usually lacks subject matter expertise in de-identification and re-identification techniques.”

Unfortunately, researchers themselves aren’t doing much better. Zhang notes that

When Katie Shilton, an information technology research at the University of Maryland, interviewed 20 online data researchers, she found “significant disagreement” over issues like the ethics of ignoring Terms of Service and obtaining informed consent.

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