Some thoughts about human subjects research in the wake of Facebook’s massive experiment.

You can read the study itself here, plus a very comprehensive discussion of reactions to the study here.

1. If you intend to publish your research in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, you are expected to have conducted that research with the appropriate ethical oversight. Indeed, the submission process usually involves explicitly affirming that you have done so (and providing documentation, in the case of human subjects research, of approval by the relevant Institutional Review Board(s) or of the IRB’s determination that the research was exempt from IRB oversight).

2. Your judgment, as a researcher, that your research will not expose your human subjects to especially big harms does not suffice to exempt that research from IRB oversight. The best way to establish that your research is exempt from IRB oversight is to submit your protocol to the IRB and have the IRB determine that it is exempt.

3. It’s not unreasonable for people to judge that violating their informed consent (say, by not letting them know that they are human subjects in a study where you are manipulating their environment and not giving them the opportunity to opt out of being part of your study) is itself a harm to them. When we value our autonomy, we tend to get cranky when others disregard it.

4. Researchers, IRBs, and the general public needn’t judge a study to be as bad as [fill in the name of a particularly horrific instance of human subjects research] to judge the conduct of the researchers in the study unethical. We can (and should) surely ask for more than “not as bad as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment”.

5. IRB approval of a study means that the research has received ethical oversight, but it does not guarantee that the treatment of human subjects in the research will be ethical. IRBs can make questionable ethical judgments too.

6. It is unreasonable to suggest that you can generally substitute Terms of Service or End User License Agreements for informed consent documents, as the latter are supposed to be clear and understandable to your prospective human subjects, while the former are written in such a way that even lawyers have a hard time reading and understanding them. The TOS or EULA is clearly designed to protect the company, not the user. (Some of those users, by the way, are in their early teens, which means they probably ought to be regarded as members of a “vulnerable population” entitled to more protection, not less.)

7. Just because a company like Facebook may “routinely” engage in manipulations of a user’s environment doesn’t make that kind of manipulation automatically ethical when it is done for the purposes of research. Nor does it mean that that kind of manipulation is ethical when Facebook does it for its own purposes. As it happens, peer-reviewed scientific journals, funding agencies, and other social structures tend to hold scientists building knowledge with human subjects research to higher ethical standards than (say) corporations are held to when they interact with humans. This doesn’t necessarily means our ethical demands of scientific knowledge-builders are too high. Instead, it may mean that our ethical demands of corporations are too low.

Reasonably honest impressions of #overlyhonestmethods.

I suspect at least some of you who are regular Twitter users have been following the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag, with which scientists have been sharing details of their methodology that are maybe not explicitly spelled out in their published “Materials and Methods” sections. And, as with many other hashtag genres, the tweets in #overlyhonestmethods are frequently hilarious.

I was interviewed last week about #overlyhonestmethods for the Public Radio International program Living On Earth, and the length of my commentary was more or less Twitter-scaled. This means some of the nuance (at least in my head), about questions like whether I thought the tweets were an overshare that could make science look bad, didn’t quite make it to the radio. Also, in response to the Living On Earth segment, one of the people with whom I regularly discuss the philosophy of science in the three-dimensional world, shared some concerns about this hashtag in the hopes I’d say a bit more:

I am concerned about the brevity of the comments which may influence what one expresses.  Second there is an ego component; some may try to outdo others’ funny stories, and may stretch things in order to gain a competitive advantage.

So, I’m going to say a bit more.

Should we worry that #overlyhonestmethods tweets share information that will make scientific practice look bad to (certain segments of) the public?

I don’t think so. I suppose this may depend on what exactly the public expects of scientists.

The people doing science are human. They are likely to be working with all kinds of constraints — how close their equipment is to the limits of its capabilities (and to making scary noises), how frequently lab personnel can actually make it into the lab to tend to cell cultures, how precisely (or not) pumping rates can be controlled, how promptly (or not) the folks receiving packages can get perishable deliveries to the researchers. (Notice that at least some of these limitations are connected to limited budgets for research … which maybe means that if the public finds them unacceptable, they should lobby their Congresscritters for increased research funding.) There are also constraints that come from the limits of the human animal: with a finite attention span, without a built in chronometer or calibrated eyeballs, and with a need for sleep and possibly even recreation every so often (despite what some might have you think).

Maybe I’m wrong, but my guess is that it’s a good thing to have a public that is aware of these limitations imposed by the available equipment, reagents, and non-robot workforce.

Actually, I’m willing to bet that some of these limitations, and an awareness of them, are also really handy in scientific knowledge-building. They are departures from ideality that may help scientists nail down which variables in the system really matter in producing and controlling the phenomenon being studied. Reproducibility might be easy for a robot that can do every step of the experiment precisely every single time, but we really learn what’s going on when we drift from that. Does it matter if I use reagents from a different supplier? Can I leave the cultures to incubate a day longer? Can I successfully run the reaction in a lab that’s 10 oC warmer or 10 oC colder? Working out the tolerances helps turn an experimental protocol from a magic trick into a system where we have some robust understanding of what variables matter and of how they’re hooked to each other.

Does the 140 character limit mean #overlyhonestmethods tweets leave out important information, or that scientists will only use the hashtag to be candid about some of their methods while leaving others unexplored?

The need for brevity surely means that methods for which candor requires a great deal of context and/or explanation won’t be as well-represented as methods where one can be candid and pithy simultaneously. These tweeted glimpses into how the science gets done are more likely to be one-liners than shaggy-dog stories.

However, it’s hard to imagine that folks who really wanted to share wouldn’t use a series of tweets if they wanted to play along, or maybe even write a blog post about it and use the hashtag to tweet a link to that post.

What if #overlyhonestmethods becomes a game of one-upmanship and puffery, in which researchers sacrifice honesty for laughs?

Maybe there’s some of this happening, and if the point of the hashtag is for researchers to entertain each other, maybe that’s not a problem. However, in the case that other members of one’s scientific community were actually looking to those tweets to fill in some of the important details of methodology that are elided in the terse “Materials and Methods” section of a published research paper, I hope the tweeters would, when queried, provide clear and candid information on how they actually conducted their experiments. Correcting or retracting a tweet should be less of an ego blow than correcting or retracting a published paper, I hope (and indeed, as hard as it might be to correct or retract published claims, good scientists do it when they need to).

The whole #overlyhonestmethods hashtag raises the perennial question of why it is so much is elided in published “Materials and Methods” sections. Blame is usually put on limitations of space in the journals, but it’s also reasonable to acknowledge that sometimes details-that-turn-out-to-be-important are left out because the researchers don’t fully recognize their importance. Other times, researchers may have empirical grounds for thinking these details are important, but they don’t yet have a satisfying story to tell about why they should be.

By the way, I think it would be an excellent thing if, for research that is already published, #overlyhonestmethods included the relevant DOI. These tweets would be supplementary information researchers could really use.

What researchers use #overlyhonestmethods to disclose ethically problematic methods?

Given that Twitter is a social medium, I expect other scientists in the community watching the hashtag would challenge those methods or chime in to explain just what makes them ethically problematic. They might also suggest less ethically problematic ways to achieve the same research goals.

The researchers on Twitter could, in other words, use the social medium to exert social pressure in order to make sure other members of their scientific community understand and live up to the norms of that community.

That outcome would strike me as a very good one.

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In addition to the ever expanding collection of tweets about methods, #overlyhonestmethods also has links to some thoughtful, smart, and funny commentary on the hashtag and the conversations around it. Check it out!

Technical note about comments.

Comments have been getting stuck in moderation here for longer than usual because my email alerts telling me a comment has been posted and needs to be approved have stopped arriving.

I’ll try to get to the bottom of this (whether it’s an issue with the blog software or my spam filters), but in the meantime, if you’ve tried to post a comment and it is taking a very long time to appear, feel free to email me (drdotfreerideatgmaildotcom) to alert me to the problem.