Research Ethics


It’s not often that the question of research ethics hits the headlines, but the recent publicity around Facebook’s online research into emotional contagion has highlighted some important ethical questions for anyone considering, or conducting, online research, and for users of social media more generally.

Added on 23 July 2014 by Rebecca Coatswith

Man researching using tablet device

The Facebook experiment tested the theory of emotional contagion, which suggests that a mood or emotional state can be passed from one person or group to another without their knowledge. Emotional contagion is well established as a theory, but the scale of the experiment far surpasses previous studies, with the total number of subjects reaching a staggering 689,003.

During the one week experiment, which took place in 2012, subjects’ exposure to emotional content in their news feed was manipulated and their subsequent posts analysed to see if there was any correlation between the emotional content of the posts and the altered news feed.  In total over three million posts were analysed.

The combination of a subject area that many will find interesting, alongside such a large data set make for a newsworthy story.  However, in the weeks following publication, the focus of discussion has shifted away from the research findings, to the question of how such data was obtained and whether the research was ethically sound.

In an editorial expression of concern published two weeks after the article, the journal editors highlighted the need for “sensitivity and… vigilance regarding personal privacy issues”, as well as noting the importance of obtaining informed consent from participants, who should also have the opportunity to opt out of such inquiries.

For researchers, the online environment offers both the means to gather data, as well as a site in which to conduct research. Social networking sites in particular, offer a potentially rich source of data that will be of interest to researchers from many disciplines – ethnography and linguistics to name but two. Yet at the heart of such research lies two important considerations: to what extent can individuals’ comments on social networking sites be considered ‘public’, and should researchers consider the acceptance by users of website terms and conditions or data use policies to constitute ‘informed consent’?

Researchers have a duty to ground their work in defensible and ethical practices. Whether research is conducted in person or online, the nature and conduct of any inquiry should be both rigorous and robust. This means being explicit about the purpose of the inquiry, the approach taken and the ultimate aim of the research. It also means obtaining explicit and informed consent from those taking part.  Researchers need to take care that such consent is ongoing as the nature of their inquiry may change over time, and should therefore also ensure that participants have the opportunity to withdraw from such research should they so wish. Research located in social networking sites may still be in its infancy, but this is all the more reason to pay close attention to ethical issues as the potential and scope for research continues to grow.

For a copy of the Ashridge Research Ethics Policy, visit:


Kramer, A.D. I., Guillory, J.E. and Hancock, J.T. (2014) ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA; 24(111) pp8788-8790