This week’s Science Sunday focuses less on the nitty gritty of biological sciences and instead, more on the ethics behind conducting research. The big headline this week in research ethics was about Facebook’s social psychology experiment (scientific paper), in which they manipulated News Feed data for over 600,000 users in order to determine whether the positive or negative emotions of the posts they were reading impacted what they posted themselves.
Legally, Facebook claims that they did everything according to book, while they admit that how they manipulated users may have been in an ethical “gray area”. This brings me to the point of discussion that I wanted to start with this post: when is what is legally right not ethically right, and how can this be reconciled in the name of research? And with humans being the subject of Facebook’s study, how much should/could users have known before being used as participants?
In the biological sciences, it is now a requirement for scientists to study scientific ethics, also known as the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). I just completed the RCR course required by the University of Pittsburgh. I can say that while the rules and regulations about how to handle situations (both related to humans in research, and many other situations that may be encountered) are clearly spelled out, most of the case studies we discussed still provoked debate and do not always have a clear-cut answer. Ethics is not an easy field to navigate.
So: was what Facebook did okay? Legally, yes, but ethically…what do you think?