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Humans in Computing: Growing Responsibilities For Researchers

By John Leslie King

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 58 No. 3, Pages 31-33

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Facebook found itself at the center of heated debate during the summer of 2014. Researchers manipulated Facebook's News Feed feature and published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing those viewing positive posts expressed more positive emotions, while those viewing negative posts expressed more negative emotions.3 The paper's title proclaimed "experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion" among the 689,003 people in the experiment.

Supporters claimed the results were useful, that the researchers had done nothing wrong, and that Facebook users agreed to such uses when they signed up. Critics claimed the experiment had mistreated people by including them in the research without prior knowledge or opportunity to give informed consent to their participation. Companies such as Facebook can conduct research without the oversight of institutional review boards, or IRBs. This was cited in critiques, suggesting that problems would have been avoided if an IRB had reviewed the plan. What role, if any, should IRBs play in computing research?


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