When we introduced the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program last year, we envisioned the first global opportunity for systematic scholarly access to privately held social data rooted in the highest standards of peer review and research ethics.
In recent weeks, we’ve focused on implementing the Social Data Research Review Framework, a pioneering effort to ensure proposed social data research projects are designed to minimize the potential for harm as much as feasibly possible. We believe this will serve as a model through which the seeds of newly relevant ethical norms for digital social science may grow.
Currently, social science research ethics flow from professional principles or are institutionalized in government regulatory mechanisms, like the Common Rule in the United States. The Common Rule governs the institutional review boards that approve or reject proposed research on ethical grounds. Originally designed to protect individual human subjects, the Common Rule remains an important baseline, but it does not sufficiently encompass the rapidly changing ways that research on networked data can harm individuals, groups, or society at large.
One of the major recent changes is the growth of social data that results from billions of interactions between real people. Even when precautions are taken to anonymize data, the scale and ability to comingle external data have been shown to make re-identification of individual subjects or groups possible.
The SSRC’s Social Data Research Review Framework adds an essential tool to our approaches to enhancing ethical norms for both individuals and institutions. Following scholarly peer review, proposals submitted to the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program receive an additional ethics review. This process, developed in consultation with members of the PERVADE team—a National Science Foundation research project on social science research ethics—considers ethical safeguards for proposals. Far from a simple approval, the Review Framework also generates a list of suggestions for improvement and, when appropriate, a list of actionable steps that approved researchers can take to better protect their subjects from harm.
But perhaps more importantly, this is not the only time that researchers will engage in conversation about the ethics of their work. Throughout the grant project, the SSRC is creating opportunities for researchers to reflect, at regular intervals before publication of their research, on the impact and potential effects of their scholarship. Additionally, the SSRC, in partnership with the PERVADE team, will take the grant program as a learning opportunity, exploring what applicants’ plans to protect human subjects tell us about current research practices. In total, we are working with partners to develop, define, and put into practice a new Social Data Research Review Framework for the twenty-first century.
Ethics in digital social science cannot just be the purview of an isolated committee and an individual researcher—it is everyone’s responsibility. For this reason, we award grants to institutions rather than individual researchers. This way, the institutions are also responsible for making sure that the research does no harm.
For almost a century, in pursuit of the common good, the SSRC has supported vanguard research by bringing together communities of scholars around emerging best practices and new capacities. With the Social Data Research Review Framework, we hope to function not only as ethical standard-bearers but as catalysts of a larger cultural shift within social science to account for the ever-changing ethical landscape. Beyond grant requirements and oversight, the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program continues this tradition as an opportunity for engaging the social research community to reimagine standards of ethics and privacy that address our new data research environment. For the SSRC’s Social Data Research Review Framework to work over the long term, social scientists must be plugged into the ongoing robust, global, discipline-wide dialogue about the ethics of data study. This grant program provides a unique opportunity to put those discussions into practice, even as we continue to participate in ongoing dialogue about best practices and necessary reforms.
The ethical processes of the Social Data Research Review Framework are designed to work in concert with other human subject protection mechanisms embedded in our program. Working with our partners, Social Science One and Facebook, we’ve designed an array of procedures, software tools, legal agreements, and research practices to make sure that the work we are facilitating appropriately balances the aspirational aims of the supported research against potential harm.
The next generation of ethical oversight in the social sciences must be collaborative. We as an organization and as a community of social scientists and affiliated institutions must strive for shared ownership of this responsibility. We’re confident that the work we’ve done in implementing the Social Data Research Review Framework in recent weeks is a significant step toward our collective goal, and for us, the last step before we announce grantees.