Carnegie Mellon University
July 16, 2014

Press Release: Facebook Study Did Not Breach Research Ethics, Says Carnegie Mellon's Alex John London

Contact: Shilo Rea / 412-268-6094 /

Alex John LondonPITTSBURGH—The Facebook study that unknowingly put nearly 700,000 of the social networking site's users in a psychological experiment was not ethically ideal, but it did not breach research ethics, according to Carnegie Mellon University's Alex John London (right).

London, professor of philosophy in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and director of CMU's Center for Ethics and Policy, co-authored an opinion paper in the July 17 issue of Nature to argue that claims in the media that the Facebook study was scandalous or an egregious breach of research ethics are overblown.

"Facebook should have sought to have the study revised by an IRB [institutional review board] even though it does not appear that they were under any legal or regulatory duty to do so," London said. "Having said that, I think that in altering the ranking algorithm for subsets of users, Facebook was not operating outside of the boundaries of what users could reasonably expect of them. For this reason, I don't think that explicit consent was necessary, although I do believe that Facebook could have sought and obtained such consent and that it would have been better if they had done so.

"The bottom line is that likening this study to truly egregious abuses of research participants in the past misrepresents the issues in this case and perpetuates what I view as the harmful idea that research is in and of itself a risky or morally suspect social endeavor," he added.

The Nature piece, "Misjudgments will drive social trials underground," was written by five co-authors, including London, on behalf of 27 other ethicists.

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