Data Mining on Facebook: A Free Space for Researchers or an IRB Nightmare?
33 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2013
Date Written: November 28, 2010
Social networking sites like Facebook are yielding much more than the opportunity to connect with friends, view and post photographs, or show support for a particular organization or cause. Researchers are currently using social networking sites like Facebook to gather data that will yield information about people’s political views, social interactions, or even their views on privacy, a practice referred to as data mining, often without the knowledge of the Facebook users from whom they are collecting data.
A number of university Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) have recently adopted policies and procedures governing online research, particularly data mining on social networking sites. Federal regulations that have their basis in ethical standards governing research require IRB review for research that involves human subjects, but whether data mining on Facebook constitutes research with human subjects is questionable. If data mining on Facebook involves an interaction between the researcher and the Facebook user, or if the researcher is collecting identifiable, private information about Facebook users, this type of research involves human subjects, and the federal regulations mandate IRB review. Researchers and universities would therefore have both an ethical and a legal obligation to ensure that subjects whose online profiles are mined for data are adequately protected from harm. If IRB review is not required, it is unnecessary and inefficient to burden researchers and IRBs with preparation and review of an IRB application for research involving data mining on Facebook.
This article argues that data mining on Facebook does not constitute research with human subjects, but contends that if the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Human Research Protections determines that this type of research involves human subjects, it should either undergo expedited review or be deemed exempt. It discusses the benefits that both researchers and IRBs will reap if data mining on Facebook does not involve human subjects, as well as the consequences that researchers and IRBs face if the research requires IRB review and no such review is conducted. However, unless and until the Department of Health and Human Services issues guidance addressing or specific regulations governing Internet research, whether data.
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