By now, you’ve undoubtedly read about the fact that Facebook is using us all as lab rats. Shocker, right? That’s just Facebook for you, just one more “oops” in the never-ending parade of privacy breaches.
But esteemed scientific professional societies know better, right? Well, sadly, it appears that, at least in this case, they do not...or at least that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)--the organization in whose journal the study was published--does not. According to NAS’s mission statement they are “private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars”--in other words, a professional society or association.
In case you haven’t read any of the billion articles that are circling the Internet about this study, just save yourself the trouble of searching and read this one--it covers it all, from what the study was about--seeing if Facebook could influence people’s emotional states by tampering with what they saw in their news feeds--to the fact that, while Facebook’s data use policy does include language that says, basically, that Facebook can do whatever they want with user’s data, scientists who conduct experiments involving human subjects are bound by more comprehensive ethical and legal boundaries.
Specifically, scientists who work for institutions that receive Federal funding (in this case, Cornell and UCSF) are bound by the Federal Policy for Human Research--aka The Common Rule. The Common Rule is a LOT more comprehensive than Facebook’s data use policy that merely states that users’ data may be used “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement. The Common Rule stipulates informed consent include:
A statement that the study involves research, an explanation of the purposes of the research and the expected duration of the subject’s participation, a description of the procedures to be followed, and identification of any procedures which are experimental;
A description of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject; …
An explanation of whom to contact for answers to pertinent questions about the research and research subjects’ rights, and whom to contact in the event of a research-related injury to the subject;
A statement that participation is voluntary, refusal to participate will involve no penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled, and the subject may discontinue participation at any time without penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled.
I’m pretty positive that none of the almost 700,000 Facebook users involved in the experiment received a statement about the study or any foreseeable risks it might entail, nor were they informed that their participation was voluntary. Because, of course, it was not.
One of the editors of the paper, a professor from Princeton, is quoted in The Atlantic as saying that the local IRBs for both universities whose researchers were involved in the study approved it “apparently on the grounds that Facebook apparently manipulates people’s News Feeds all the time.” Really? Because Facebook does it all the time makes it ok, especially when it comes to experiments on human subjects?
And now Cornell is saying that the researchers are blameless because they only had access to results, not the actual data, so no IRB approval was needed. And this explanation supposedly justifies the fact that even though this was research involving human subjects, an argument can be made that this study should be exempt from the Common Rule. The thing is, though, that ultimately, it was on the NAS to decide whether or not to publish the study, and they chose to publish it despite the fact that doing so violates its own editorial policies which state that “Research involving Human and Animal Participants and Clinical Trials must have been approved by the author's institutional review board” and “For experiments involving human participants, authors must also include a statement confirming that informed consent was obtained from all participants.” So the Internet can debate this till the cows come home; the bottom line is that PNAS shouldn’t have published this paper if it was following it’s own rules.
Ironically, in a 2009 editorial in Science entitled “Keeping Science Moving,” NAS’s president Ralph J. Cicerone said, of scientists, “Their first duty, of course, is to do good research while adhering to high ethical standards of openness and honesty.” I’m wondering how this study, published in NAS’s own journal, embodies those ethical standards, and how the researchers involved are able to justify the study as ethical in any way. Facebook, we all know, could give a crap about what’s ethical, so no worries there….but scholarly journals? We expect better.