Applied Business Ethical Research
One of the main principles of ethical research is to avoid causing harm. There are four main ways a researcher can cause harm: Physically; Psychologically or emotionally; Financially; and Reputational harm.
Whilst medical researchers will claim that sometimes causing harm can be justified, the harm-causing action must first meet one of the following conditions:Number one: The person harmed gave consent. Think of someone who agrees to go through a painful surgery so that he will be healthy again. That’s consent to cause harm.
Number two: The harm caused was part of the harmer’s role-related responsibility. Sometimes causing justified harms is just part of the job. If a parent prevents her teenager from hanging out with friends until homework is done, she is fulfilling her role-related responsibility, no matter how much anguish she might cause her child at the moment.
Number three: A harm was caused to prevent an even greater harm to the community as a whole. For example, a government collects taxes, causing financial harm to some citizens, because without taxes the government could not provide services that benefit all citizens.
After meeting one of these conditions, an act of justified harm must also pass a publicity test. The publicity test means that we’re willing for the exception to the general rule, “cause no harm,” to be widely and publicly known, and applied in all similar situations. The harm-causer in this case must also be willing to acknowledge that she or he might be the one hurt in the future by the same exception.
So, maybe I can harm you in a variety of ways. But, being the ethical person that I strive to be, I won’t harm you without justification. And, I won’t harm you unless I am willing to explain to you and the public at large why I am doing so. And, I won’t harm you without believing that you and everyone else is equally justified in causing the same kind of harm, even to me.
When it comes to medical ethics, the view that, “Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his/her own body” generally prevails and dictates action. This view has been expanded further to consider those who are not able to make decisions on their own. “Informed consent is rooted in the fundamental recognition—reflected in the legal presumption of competency—that adults are entitled to accept or reject health care interventions on the basis of their own personal values and in furtherance of their own personal goals.”
But what of circumstances where patients are deemed incompetent through judicial proceedings, and where someone else is designated to make decisions on behalf of a mentally incompetent individual? Is this sufficient to make decisions made on their behalf ethical?
It might be easier to consider how informed consent works when it relates to medical procedures or medical research, but what about less obvious cases where there is potential for psychological and even reputational harm? There is growing evidence in scientific journals of the practice of collecting data for research from online discussion forums sources and social media. Those using these mediums justify their use on the grounds that these platforms are open to the public and therefore the information contained on them is not subject to standard ethical principles of informed consent.
The journal article:
Henderson, M., Johnson, N.F. and Auld, G., 2013. Silences of ethical practice: dilemmas for researchers using social media. Educational research and evaluation, 19(6), pp.546-560.
provides some interesting questions and issues for researchers to consider (there are many additional and more recent articles on this issue that you can also source through Google Scholar).
Given these perspectives and the increasing evidence that social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter are manipulating news feeds, gathering information about us and even copying our identities through AI, corporations are becoming increasingly concerned about their exposure to the risk of unethical research claims and the possibility of being liable for causing harm to those whose information is being harvested.
The company you work for has been collecting information from social media platforms about the views of its customers using sentiment analysis for some time. This practice has resulted in a rich understanding of their customers and has allowed a number of very successful marketing campaigns to be enacted.
Given this view about the ethics of this practice and the potential for negative customer reactions and possible legal redress, your company is understandably concerned. You have been asked to prepare a recommendation for your board about how the company can continue to monitor customer sentiment on social media in an ethical manner.
In particular you have been asked to propose a research design that will address the relevant ethical issues and will still allow the principles of sentiment analysis to be performed. You are to specifically address the issues outlined in the research article: Silences of ethical practice: Dilemmas for researchers using social media; and propose ways your organisation can address these issues.