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    Ethics (or lack thereof) and the Recent Facebook Study

    The recent facebook emotion study has me thinking.  I am a research psychologist and I have quite a bit of experience in ethics guidelines.  I was the chair of the Research Ethics Board (REB) at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College of Memorial University for 6 years and the chair of the REB here at Algoma University for 2.  I co wrote the ethical guidelines for Memorial University (the largest English university east of Montreal in Canada) and had a similar position here at Algoma (the smallest university in Ontario, for those of you who are scoring at home).

    The study itself manipulated the news feeds of users to see if it would change their emotional states.  The researchers then counted the number of happy and sad words that the users posted.  There was a small but statistically significant effect.  OK, let me start by saying this, the work itself is quite clever.  Indeed, I have been involved in similar work.  An honours student of mine and I changed the interactions people had while playing Doom.  Rob Rawn, the student and lead author on the paper, either mocked people (and even dropped a few F bombs) over a headset while playing either co op or free for all deathmatch with the subjects or said nice things like ‘good shot’ or ‘you’ll get him next time’.  (The funny thing is here that Rob is a super nice guy, and felt bad about being mean to people).  Anyway, it turned out that there was no real effect on aggression in the players.  

    When Rob did his thesis he had to submit an ethics protocol to the psychology department.  The department, acting under the policy for research with human subjects at Algoma University, approved the project (with the permission of the Algoma University REB).  Subjects signed a consent form that noted that they were free to withdraw from the experiment at any time.  They were told they were in a study about aggression in gaming, and that they were going to play a violent video game.  They knew this in advance.  Afterwards they were thoroughly debriefed.  Rob even apologized to people if memory serves.  They were then told that if they wanted the results of the study they could come to the annual psychology honours thesis conference.  They were given my phone number and email address if they had any questions. 

    Now, let’s look at the facebook study.

    This was done by a corporation who wanted to look at emotion on their website.  Fine.  The data were then picked up by researchers at a University who published the work.  Apparently the REBs at the institutions in question considered these data to be archival, so no problem.

    I disagree.  The subjects in the study did not sign up to have their emotions manipulated.  So, no informed consent.  The subjects in the study could not withdraw at any time, because they had no idea they were in the study (again, no informed consent).  The subjects were not debriefed.

    I think the REB dropped the ball here, and I think the journal did as well.

    (Oh, and I used 'subjects' rather than 'participants' because this is my blog and 'subjects' is a fine word......)

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