Historical Social Research

Michael Weinhardt: Ethical Issues in the Use of Big Data for Social Research. [Abstract]

With the advent of Big Data (BD) in the social sciences, vast amounts of data (and the tools to analyze them) have become available faster than ethical and legal standards could develop regarding the use of such data. At the same time, data collectors and analysts face new moral dilemmas as the proliferation of personal and impersonal data clearly poses new challenges to traditional assumptions about privacy and autonomy. The discussion of such ethical challenges seems to lag behind and the literature specifically dealing with the research ethics of BD is still scarce. This article asks which ethical and legal aspects need to be considered when collecting and analyzing data on individuals from the web and combining them to gain an enriched picture of human activities. It proceeds to provide a brief overview of existing research ethics regulations and outlines areas of particular relevance to the challenges that come with the use of BD, such as the delineation of human subject research, the (im)possibility of informed consent for these new kinds of data, the sources and public availability of data and questions of risk and risk assessment. It also formulates some generic recommendations in order to stimulate further debate, one of which posits that social scientists must address and discuss the challenges that emerge in research applications of BD more widely than it is currently the case.

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