The Facebook story suggests that
computing researchers should consider possible connections between
their research and human welfare.
Computing research that goes regularly to the IRB will continue to go
there. What about computing research that might now be declared
exempt from IRB consideration, or
at least be puzzling to IRB experts?
It is difficult to pin down the moving
“front” between the IRB’s established
territory and where the IRB will be
in the future. The IRB is not the only
mechanism to consider, but public opinion has tended toward more
strict control of research, and the IRB
is often the most experienced source
of guidance available. Computing researchers should watch the IRB and
think proactively about important
Although going through IRB review
can be a disincentive to writing and
submitting proposals, the history of
IRBs shows sensitivity to the needs of
research. Many institutions have created separate IRBs to deal with biomedical research and behavioral research
in recognition of important differences between those research domains.
One protocol does not fit all research.
In time there might be additional
IRBs created. Computing researchers
should be engaged at the beginning
to forestall senseless regulation and
promote ethical practice. The IRB has
been at the forefront of ethical discussions regarding the researcher’s “duty
of care” toward research subjects and
others in the broad realm of “human
welfare.” There is much to be learned
from the IRB. Finally, the IRB mechanism is likely to persevere and grow
in importance as the primary device
for settling matters of research and
human welfare, at least in Federally
supported research. Computing researchers should become closer to
the IRB, not to accelerate IRB control
over computing research, but to understand IRB concerns and establish
a sensible and sustainable trajectory
for the future.
Open issues regarding human
welfare will not be settled using an
authoritarian approach. Computing
researchers in universities and com-
panies cannot do whatever they like.
Doctoral students and postdoctoral
fellows should be aware of science
and engineering ethics. Ethical con-
cerns must lead professional prac-
tice and regulation, not the other way
around. IRBs have not discovered all
the ethical issues that should be in
the foreground of research. For exam-
ple, there are major uncertainties re-
garding what constitutes “informed”
consent, many of them brought on by
advances in IT. 1 Technological capa-
bilities and social attitudes continue
to change. Uncertainties remain, and
learning to manage research involv-
ing human welfare is not a one-time
proposition. Many researchers who
assumed they would never be includ-
ed in IRB review now routinely take
their proposed work to the IRB. Com-
puting researchers have the opportu-
nity to develop ethical directions for
their work that exemplify humane
and responsible conduct. To do so re-
quires individual initiative and insti-
tutional support. This is not because
IRB control over computing research
is inevitable (it might not be), but be-
cause this is the right thing to do.
1. Barocas, S. and Nissenbaum, H. Big data’s end-run
around procedural privacy protections. Commun. ACM
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2. Childress, J. F., Meslin, E. M., and Shapiro, H. T., Eds.
Belmont Revisited: Ethical Principles for Research
with Human Subjects. Georgetown University Press,
Washington, D.C. (2005); http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/
3. Kramer, A. D.L, Guillory, J.E., and Hancock, J. T.
Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional
contagion through social networks. In Proceedings
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4. Jones, J. Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis
Experiment. Free Press, New York, 1981; http://www.
5. Mantelero, A. The EU proposal for a general data
protection regulation and the roots of the ‘right to be
forgotten.’ Computer Law and Security Review 29, 3
(Mar. 2013), 229–235.
6. Marrus, M.R. The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial
1945–46: A Documentary History. St. Martin’s Press,
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understanding to share genomic data of HeLa cells;
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John Leslie King ( email@example.com) is W. W. Bishop
Professor in the School of Information at the University of
Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
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