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As Data Overflows Online, Researchers Grapple With Ethics

As Data Overflows Online, Researchers Grapple With Ethics

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As Data Overflows Online, Researchers Grapple With EthicsFacebook recently conducted an experiment with approximately 700,000 users by manipulating their newsfeeds and recording the change in their emotions based on the information received. After the research was published, many people were outraged by Facebook’s failure to disclose the experiment and therefore not receiving their users’ agreement to participate.

According to Vindu Goel of the New York Times, most corporations typically conduct experiments like this in order to make product adjustments, but the results are not published. However, in this particular case, Facebook researchers collaborated with Cornell University professor Jeffrey T. Hancock and published the results. Had the research been sponsored by his university, Dr. Hancock would had to have followed institutional research guidelines governed by an institutional review board. The federal research guidelines are specific about providing subjects with information about the experiment and the need for prior consent from all participants if the research is going to be published externally.

In the fallout from the Facebook experiment, Professor Hancock stated that he intends to collaborate with other academic and corporate researchers—as well as government agencies like the National Science Foundation—to develop ethical guidelines for future research involving corporate data. According to Mr. Goel, the numerous users that Facebook and other corporations can access remain tempting targets for academic research. Unanswered questions include when is it appropriate to ask for user consent to experiments like Facebook’s or how transparent companies should be in disclosing the potential usage of personal information.

Social science researchers interviewed by Mr. Goel indicate that government regulations never anticipated the large-scale data collection possible through the Internet and technology-enabled companies. Dr. Mary L. Gray, a researcher at Microsoft and associate professor at Indiana University, offers this simple guideline for researchers: “If you’re afraid to ask your subjects for permission to conduct your research, there’s probably a deeper ethical issue that must be considered.”

Researchers will host conferences on ethics this fall at Stanford and M.I.T, where the Facebook experiment will likely be a case study. In a world where data collection is increasing exponentially each year, researchers need to agree on best practices for communicating with, and receiving consent from, subjects. There’s a big difference between projects that collect data during the normal process of activities or commerce versus manipulating it to change normal participant outcomes.

I believe that these discussions will help better define ethical parameters going forward.   It will be interesting to see if the conclusions drive the research toward the much more regulated federal academic guidelines or remain without consensus on the level of disclosure and consent.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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