4 Ethical Considerations

The Belmont Report (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research 1978) consolidated the primary principles of research ethical guidelines into what is known as the “Common Rule” governing the protection of human subjects in research within the United States.71 The development of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs, in the US), Research Ethics Committees (RECs, in the EU) and other ethics protection boards elsewhere, has incorporated a broad range of concerns. These considerations are typically organized broadly around participants’ rights to: (1) voluntary participation and informed consent, and (2) protections from harm.72

While these two general principles also govern researchers’ decisions when designing social network research, social network data collection and analyses present unique considerations and challenges. Therefore, this chapter focuses on the unique ethical considerations and protections for social networks research.73 Given that there is not a single agreed upon standard for how best to provide the desired protections, it may seem at places in this chapter that I raise more questions than I answer. This reflects the developing—but not yet achieved—consensus on how best to implement ethical standards in social networks research.

In 2005, Ronald Breiger edited a special issue of Social Networks, in which authors identified a number of key ethical principles for the field of social networks, and proposed solutions to particular concerns that had arisen in a few specific research domains (Breiger 2005). Twelve years later, a conference centered on similar topics took place in Paris (RECSNA 2017). In comparing the themes across these two resources, many of the orienting principles remained largely the same over this period. Yet, the proposed best practices for addressing those principles have changed somewhat. In particular, the domains to which the principles are applied have been transformed and expanded. For example, as social networks increasingly expands to incorporate computational social science tools, and and works with “big data”, we need to systematically rethink our application of ethical principles in these domains (Lazer et al. 2009; Hargittai 2018). Therefore, this chapter is organized around the primary concerns of the Belmont Report74—voluntary participation and protection from risks—elaborating the unique needs of social networks research for addressing these, and providing some discussion of how recent developments in data availability have led to rethinking some of these ideas.

Before proceeding, we shouldn’t assume that IRBs or RECs exist without their controversies. Many of the principles that govern the application of the “Common Rule” for the development and implementation of ethical guidelines by IRBs have their roots in biomedical research (Schönhuth 2017). At times, the extension of principles derived from biomedical standards into social science research is appropriate. In many others this application is highly restrictive, and seems more interested in applying the same procedures than achieving the principles those procedures were developed to address (Gunsalus et al. 2006). This use of a biomedical lens for applying Common Rule to social scientific research has been especially criticized when it comes to qualitative (Gunsalus et al. 2007) or community-based participatory research (Shore 2006). Scholars have argued that individual autonomy is an inappropriate standard for these types of research, when the focus is on studying collective phenomena (Bell 2014). In addition to developing our own set of standards, social networks scholars have occasionally drawn on these notions of collective (rather than individual) ethical protections to collaborate with IRBs in developing appropriate standards for social networks research. One final caveat before we begin: It may be obvious, but it’s nonetheless worth emphasizing that simply because someone satisfies the requirements of their research ethics board does not necessarily mean that the proposed research would be ethically conducted (McCarty et al. 2019). The chapter outlines procedures and principles that each researcher must also evaluate for their own research, above and beyond the requirements placed on them by their IRB or REC.