Whether the study was ethically questionable is itself debatable, and there are no black-and-white answers. Those defending the study have pointed out, quite rightly, that Facebook and many other online companies routinely perform such studies for their own benefit or as part of social experiments. They don’t need our consent to do such research and nobody seemed to care before, so why such an uproar now when the findings are published in a scientific journal? Facebook may well have done the exact same experiment anyway, and by collaborating with scientists, aren’t they doing it in a way that is publicly transparent and beneficial? Critics warn that too strong a backlash might dissuade such companies from joining forces with science in the future.
These are important points but they overlook the fact that, for better or worse, publicly funded science is held to a higher ethical standard than comparable research in the private sector. Once academic scientists get involved the bar is raised, never lowered. In fact, if this case has highlighted anything, it is how marketing research can be so unregulated. The Facebook study paints a dystopian future in which academic researchers escape ethical restrictions by teaming up with private companies to test increasingly dangerous or harmful interventions.
Facebook Fiasco: Was Cornell University’s study of ‘emotional contagion’ a breach of ethics? | Science | theguardian.com. Via James Schirmer on Twitter, Some interesting questions here in light of my recent post on this subject.