Data & Society > our work > academic journal > Ten simple rules for responsible big data research

PLOS Computational Biology | 03.30.17

Ten simple rules for responsible big data research

Matthew Zook, Solon Barocas, danah boyd, Kate Crawford, Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Alyssa Goodman, Rachelle Hollander, Barbara A. Koenig, Jacob Metcalf, Arvind Narayanan, Alondra Nelson, Frank Pasquale

Matthew Zook, D&S affiliate Solon Barocas, D&S founder danah boyd, D&S affiliate Kate Crawford, Emily Keller, D&S affiliate Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Alyssa Goldman, Rachelle Hollander, Barbara A. Koenig, D&S researcher Jacob Metcalf, Arvind Narayanan, D&S advisor Alondra Nelson, and Frank Pasquale wrote a paper detailing ten rules for responsible big data research. Introduction is below:

The use of big data research methods has grown tremendously over the past five years in both academia and industry. As the size and complexity of available datasets has grown, so too have the ethical questions raised by big data research. These questions become increasingly urgent as data and research agendas move well beyond those typical of the computational and natural sciences, to more directly address sensitive aspects of human behavior, interaction, and health. The tools of big data research are increasingly woven into our daily lives, including mining digital medical records for scientific and economic insights, mapping relationships via social media, capturing individuals’ speech and action via sensors, tracking movement across space, shaping police and security policy via “predictive policing,” and much more.

The beneficial possibilities for big data in science and industry are tempered by new challenges facing researchers that often lie outside their training and comfort zone. Social scientists now grapple with data structures and cloud computing, while computer scientists must contend with human subject protocols and institutional review boards (IRBs). While the connection between individual datum and actual human beings can appear quite abstract, the scope, scale, and complexity of many forms of big data creates a rich ecosystem in which human participants and their communities are deeply embedded and susceptible to harm. This complexity challenges any normative set of rules and makes devising universal guidelines difficult.

Nevertheless, the need for direction in responsible big data research is evident, and this article provides a set of “ten simple rules” for addressing the complex ethical issues that will inevitably arise. Modeled on PLOS Computational Biology’s ongoing collection of rules, the recommendations we outline involve more nuance than the words “simple” and “rules” suggest. This nuance is inevitably tied to our paper’s starting premise: all big data research on social, medical, psychological, and economic phenomena engages with human subjects, and researchers have the ethical responsibility to minimize potential harm.

The variety in data sources, research topics, and methodological approaches in big data belies a one-size-fits-all checklist; as a result, these rules are less specific than some might hope. Rather, we exhort researchers to recognize the human participants and complex systems contained within their data and make grappling with ethical questions part of their standard workflow. Towards this end, we structure the first five rules around how to reduce the chance of harm resulting from big data research practices; the second five rules focus on ways researchers can contribute to building best practices that fit their disciplinary and methodological approaches. At the core of these rules, we challenge big data researchers who consider their data disentangled from the ability to harm to reexamine their assumptions. The examples in this paper show how often even seemingly innocuous and anonymized data have produced unanticipated ethical questions and detrimental impacts.

This paper is a result of a two-year National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project that established the Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society, a group of 20 scholars from a wide range of social, natural, and computational sciences ( The Council was charged with providing guidance to the NSF on how to best encourage ethical practices in scientific and engineering research, utilizing big data research methods and infrastructures.

Subscribe to the Data & Society newsletter

Twitter |  Facebook  |  Medium  | RSS

Reporters and media:
[email protected]

General inquiries:
[email protected]

Unless otherwise noted this site and its contents are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.  |  Privacy policy