PSYCH291 discussion-Research Ethics and ‘Big Data’

This discussion is designed to provide an opportunity for you to

  • reason through a recent research ethics controversy,
  • discuss your perspectives on this topic with other students and the instructor, and
  • apply some of the concepts from the module and the TCPS tutorial to evaluate the ethical issues involved in an actual research project.

In this discussion assignment you will read an article discussing a recent psychological research project that has raised novel questions about research ethics related to the collection and analysis of “Big Data.” This exercise will challenge you to apply the research ethics principles that you learned about in the TCPS CORE tutorial to comment on the novel problems that arise in Big Data research projects.

The following brief article reviews ethical concerns that arose in connection with an experiment that manipulated the display of information on people’s Facebook newsfeeds to experimentally vary how frequently they were exposed to relatively positive information or relatively negative, sad information from their Facebook friends. They tested how these different levels of exposure to positive versus negative information in social media affected the positivity or negativity of the participants’ own moods. This experiment raises novel issues about consent and the ethical considerations that arise in a partnership between a private service provider and university affiliated researchers.

Everything We Know About Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment

After you read the article reflect on the information and arguments that it contained and formulate some observations and insights that you can post to the discussion topic.

Here are some sample questions that you might consider to guide your reflections:

  • If an experiment such as this falls under the ‘data use policy’ in the terms of service that Facebook users agree to when they join Facebook, does this mean that the participants’ informed consent was effectively obtained in this study? If so, why do you think this represents informed consent? If not, how did the study deviate from standards for informed consent?
  • Was deception used in this experiment? If so, how were participants deceived in this study? If deception was used what ethical concerns does this raise about the study, and how effectively did the researchers handle these ethical concerns?
  • Given that the Cornell researchers were only involved after the data had already been collected by Facebook and were only involved in analyzing the data and writing up the study for publication do you agree with the decision of Cornell’s Institutional Review Board that the Cornell researchers were exempted from ethics review because their activities did not involve direct engagement in human research?
  • Why do you think this research generated so many alarmed reactions when it was publicized? Do you think those reactions were justified? If so, why?
  • If Facebook researchers conduct a study like this again in the future, what, if anything, should they do differently to address some of the ethical concerns that were raised?

These are just a few prompts to get you started. Feel free to consider other issues and questions. Once you’ve

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