For my case study on ethical considerations in research, I have chosen the Tastes, Ties and Time (T3) study of 2006, wherein a group of researchers used the Facebook account data of a cohort of students from an anonymous, north-eastern American university over the students’ 4 years in college, supplemented by residential information of the students on campus, to study the relationships between online and offline social networks and provide a dataset for future research in the field of social network dynamics.
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The researchers took several steps to protect the privacy of the subjects, such as the deletion of names and identification numbers from the dataset, the release of their cultural taste labels after a substantial delay, and requiring other researchers to comply with a ‘terms and conditions of use’ agreement prior to being granted access to the dataset. The project was reviewed and cleared by Harvard’s Committee on the Use of Human Subjects.
Within days of the study being published, the anonymous university was identified as Harvard College, placing the privacy of the students at risk, and subsequently the dataset was withdrawn and made unavailable.
I believe that while the T3 research team set out with the right intentions and acted in good faith, they failed to conduct ethically based research on the grounds of ethical violations regarding the nature of consent and subject privacy.
First, the researchers failed to seek consent from the students with regards to the collection of their Facebook profile data. The researchers claimed that the data they collected was publicly available on the students’ profiles, however privacy controls exist on Facebook which enable users to determine whom they wish to make their profile information visible to, and many students had set up their accounts such that only their friends or other members at Harvard could view their profiles. By using research assistants from within the Harvard community, the team gained access to information from such profiles which was inaccessible to the rest of the world, without the consent of the subjects.
The research team also failed to take consent from the students regarding the purpose for which their Facebook information was being collected and would be subsequently released to other researchers, which in my opinion amounts to the unauthorized secondary use of such information. The same lack of consent applies to housing data collected by the T3 team from the university, which had been provided by the students to the university for administrative purposes and not for the purpose of the T3 research.
Also, my view is that the precautions taken by the research team to protect the identity of the university and the subjects were insufficient, as the identity of the university was revealed within days of the dataset being released by cross-referencing its publicly available codebook with comments made about the study in public forums. The dataset also contained information on the subjects regarding elements such as gender, race, ethnicity, major and home state which served as a cultural fingerprint for many of the students and placed their identities at risk, particularly in case of students singularly representing certain states and nationalities.
I believe that certain lessons can be learned from the T3 case study. One, consent must be sought not only for the collection of data from the subjects of a research study, but also for the purpose for which such data will be used by the researchers. Neither was done in this case.
Two, researchers must recognize conceptual gaps in their understanding of privacy controls on such platforms, and should attempt to form an interdisciplinary team of associates in order to help fill these gaps and ensure that the process of collection of data using these platforms conforms to ethical standards regarding subject privacy and consent.
Three, researchers must deal with the danger of re-identification of individuals when using such online platforms. Merely deleting names and identification numbers of the subjects is not enough to ensure their privacy and safety. The limitation of ‘Personally Identifiable Information’ of the subjects to merely these elements is insufficient to anonymize the datasets. Additional characteristics such as physical, mental, economic, cultural and social must be considered by the researchers to ensure that their research does not compromise the identities of their subjects.
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In conclusion, I feel that the T3 study exposes emerging complexities involved with conducting research over online social platforms. These platforms provide new possibilities in the field of social science; however, they also pose challenges to the traditional nature of consent and strategies for data collection and anonymization. The study has also brought to light the shortcomings of institutional review boards that oversee such case studies, which should also be educated about such complexities to ensure that future projects like the T3 study are required to go through a more rigorous review and screening process and thus satisfy ethical considerations regarding research.
Zimmer, M. (2019). “But the data is already public”: on the ethics of research in Facebook. [online] Available at: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10676-010-9227-5.pdf [Accessed 31 Oct. 2019].
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