PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Ethics in field experimentation: A call to establish new standards to protect the public from unwanted manipulation and real harms
Rose McDermott and Peter K. Hatemi
PNAS first published November 23, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2012021117
In 1966, Henry Beecher published his foundational paper “Ethics and Clinical Research,” bringing to light unethical experiments that were routinely being conducted by leading universities and government agencies. A common theme was the lack of voluntary consent. Research regulations surrounding laboratory experiments flourished after his work. More than half a century later, we seek to follow in his footsteps and identify a new domain of risk to the public: certain types of field experiments. The nature of experimental research has changed greatly since the Belmont Report. Due in part to technological advances including social media, experimenters now target and affect whole societies, releasing interventions into a living public, often without sufficient review or controls. A large number of social science field experiments do not reflect compliance with current ethical and legal requirements that govern research with human participants. Real-world interventions are being conducted without consent or notice to the public they affect. Follow-ups and debriefing are routinely not being undertaken with the populations that experimenters injure. Importantly, even when ethical research guidelines are followed, researchers are following principles developed for experiments in controlled settings, with little assessment or protection for the wider societies within which individuals are embedded. We strive to improve the ethics of future work by advocating the creation of new norms, illustrating classes of field experiments where scholars do not appear to have recognized the ways such research circumvents ethical standards by putting people, including those outside the manipulated group, into harm’s way.