Bioethics Blogs

Microsoft Seeks Ethics Review Without Bottlenecks and Frustration

Duncan Watts of Microsoft Research announces Microsoft will soon launch “an ethics-review process for human-subject research designed explicitly for web-based research.” Could such a process avoid the pitfalls of the IRB?

[Watts, Duncan J. “Lessons Learned From the Facebook Study.” Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs: The Conversation, July 9, 2014. h/t Rebecca Tushnet]

Here is the proposal:

What we need is an ethics-review process for human-subject research designed explicitly for web-based research, in a way that works across the regulatory and institutional boundaries separating universities and companies. For the past two years, my colleagues at Microsoft Research have been designing precisely such a system, which is to be rolled out shortly.

It is still a work in process, and many details are liable to change as we learn what works and what doesn’t, but the core principle is one of peer review. Although we have an ethics board composed of experienced researchers (including me), the idea is not to have every proposal submitted to the board for review—a recipe for bottlenecks and frustration. Rather, it is to force researchers to engage in structured, critical discussions with educated peers, where everyone involved will be accountable for the outcome and hence will have strong incentives to take the review seriously. Unproblematic designs will be approved via an expedited process, while red flags will provoke a full review—a two-tier system modeled on existing IRBs.

Aside from its inherent scalability, the peer-review approach also has the benefit of involving the entire research community in discussions about ethics.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.