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Big Data and Society | 05.14.16

Where are Human Subjects in Big Data Research? The Emerging Ethics Divide

Jake Metcalf, Kate Crawford

D&S Researcher Jake Metcalf and D&S Affiliate Kate Crawford examine the growing discontinuities between research practices of data science and established tools of research ethics regulation.

Abstract: There are growing discontinuities between the research practices of data science and established tools of research ethics regulation. Some of the core commitments of existing research ethics regulations, such as the distinction between research and practice, cannot be cleanly exported from biomedical research to data science research. These discontinuities have led some data science practitioners and researchers to move toward rejecting ethics regulations outright. These shifts occur at the same time as a proposal for major revisions to the Common Rule — the primary regulation governing human-subjects research in the U.S. — is under consideration for the first time in decades. We contextualize these revisions in long-running complaints about regulation of social science research, and argue data science should be understood as continuous with social sciences in this regard. The proposed regulations are more flexible and scalable to the methods of non-biomedical research, but they problematically exclude many data science methods from human-subjects regulation, particularly uses of public datasets. The ethical frameworks for big data research are highly contested and in flux, and the potential harms of data science research are unpredictable. We examine several contentious cases of research harms in data science, including the 2014 Facebook emotional contagion study and the 2016 use of geographical data techniques to identify the pseudonymous artist Banksy. To address disputes about human-subjects research ethics in data science, critical data studies should offer a historically nuanced theory of “data subjectivity” responsive to the epistemic methods, harms and benefits of data science and commerce.

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