A New Standard of Scholarly and Ethical Review for Networked Data Research

The Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program is supported by a robust infrastructure that enables social media data research which is at once independent, rigorous, equitable, and timely, while protecting research subjects.

Our Social Data Research Review Framework, which we detailed in our January update, is a peer review architecture uniquely designed for the study of social media. This framework guides the processes used to determine both who should be granted Facebook data access and project funding and what they are allowed to do with them—keeping the selection and research processes independent from industry partners to ensure scholarly autonomy.

Like many other grant programs that the SSRC has helped to facilitate, a group of peer reviewers—leading scholars working in relevant fields—helped to assess applicant qualifications as well as the strength of their proposed questions and methods, and the fit of both to the available data. The specific aspects peer reviewers look for—like baseline researcher qualifications and eligible topics of study—are defined publicly by the SSRC and Social Science One in the project’s first request for proposals, announced last year. This transparent process has the double benefit of limiting data and funding access to clearly specified projects, while also eliminating the need for privileged access or personal connections as preconditions for participation.

This grant program also inaugurates innovative ethical protection tailored for scholarship with networked data, which we shared in our February update. Developed in collaboration with PERVADE—a project supported by the National Science Foundation—these interrelated safeguards include an additional ethical review stage, requirements for ongoing engagement and reflection on the impacts of their research, and a meta-study that will examine the effectiveness of the grant program’s protection.

More than a procedure, this requirement seeks to contribute to a cross-disciplinary discourse on research ethics and to foster a social science research community in which everyone sees themselves as stakeholders in privacy protection. Supporting these conversations is not only inseparable from our grant management responsibilities, but is as essential to subject protection as the technical tools which our partners continue to refine.

These aspects and others, especially those contributed by our two partners, Facebook and Social Science One, are part of the larger complex of innovations that has helped us take this important step toward the goal of an independent, privacy protected pathway for scholars to conduct research with proprietary social media data.

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