4.2.2 Protections from Risks

The revelation of PII is not the only potential risk of participating in social research. As discussed above, some research has revealed that the assurance of confidentiality itself can raise participants’ concerns about the potential risks of their involvement in research (McCarty et al. 2019). In the course of a study, researchers occasionally encounter incidental findings (Hofman 2016),84 and must consider the ramifications of disclosing or not disclosing those to the participants or others (Ells and Thombs 2014). There is not currently a common set of expectations for handling such cases in social networks research.

A relevant example comes from research leaning on the many methodological advances in SNA research found in tracing outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV (Neaigus et al. 1994). For certain health conditions, including HIV, public health officials can be subject to mandatory case reporting, sometimes both to governmental agencies and to partners who have potentially been exposed.85 These standards can conflict with participants’ expectations that researchers will maintain their confidentiality. Some have argued that the modest risks stemming from individuals’ partner identification may be outweighed by the potential population level benefits of slowing disease spread (Klovdahl 2005).

This also points to important questions regarding for whom the balancing of potential risks and benefits apply. In the HIV tracing case, Klovdahl and colleagues argued that part of the justification for allowing the minimal risks of violating confidentiality were counter-balanced by the collective benefits of reducing potential further HIV spread through the population. The question of who benefits from research has particularly been raised in organizational studies of social networks (Kadushin 2005). Many of the answers Kadushin offers are informed by the ethical ramifications of the potential uses of resulting data, a question to which we now turn.