The scandal around whether Cambridge Analytica used harvested Facebook data has raised some important questions for academia: how should scholars manage their relationships with big technology firms? What impact will the controversy have on public and corporate willingness to share data in the future?
These questions are not likely to be answered overnight. But two academics in the US have come up with a potential solution just three weeks after the Facebook scandal broke – one that has already attracted the backing of the social media giant.
Gary King, Albert J. Weatherhead III university professor and director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, and Nate Persily, James B. McClatchy professor of law at Stanford Law School, have proposed a new model for industry-academic partnerships, via which companies such as Facebook would provide access to all relevant data and systems on broad research topics to a “third party” commission led by respected scholars.
Academics would then be able to submit research proposals to a subcommittee, organised and funded by non-profit foundations, which would follow standard peer review protocols.
A paper outlining the proposal states that the commission would filter data to the awarded scholars “on its own accord, omitting proprietary and other specifically delineated information following agreed upon rules”.
It adds that members of the commission are “treated as insiders and given full access to sensitive information”, meaning that they are not free to publish research without pre-publication approval or respond to requests for proposals.
However, “if the commission concludes that the company has violated its agreement and prevented it from providing any piece of information it needs to address the general [research] topic area, it will report this in a visible public statement”, it says.
Professor King and Professor Persily have established a partnership with Facebook under the model, which was agreed in the weeks following the revelation that Aleksandr Kogan, a cognitive and behavioural neuroscience researcher at the University of Cambridge, had passed data on millions of Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica is accused of using this information to target voters online in an attempt to sway the 2016 US presidential election in favour of Donald Trump, a claim that it denies.
Under the new partnership, which will explore the impact of social media on elections and democracy, Facebook will provide “privacy-preserving” data and access, seven non-profit foundations will fund the research, and the Social Science Research Council will oversee the peer review process for funding and data access.
Professor King said that a key feature of the model is that it does not include “pre-publication approval”.
“That’s a really unusual situation here – people really have access and really can have academic freedom,” he said.
He was also keen to observe that the new model is “not a compromise”, but makes it “possible for everybody to get all the pieces of what they want”: it ensures that Facebook’s business interests are protected, the data are secure and kept private, and the researchers maintain independence.
“Although the social sciences have more data than we have ever had before, we have a smaller fraction of the available data than we have ever had before,” he said, explaining that academics used to create most of the world’s data but now most of it is “inside companies”. “So coming up with some kind of system like this, it’s just essential for us to be able to do our work.”
Professor King said that he is now working on recruiting the members of the commission, who he is keen to ensure are “highly respected” senior academics and diverse in terms of demographics and expertise.
He added that other companies besides Facebook have already got in touch to express interest in helping with the social media and democracy project, although it remains to be seen whether they will agree to make their data available under the same model.
But John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, said that he was “mistrustful” of any model that focused on groups of academics working in partnership with industry and did not guarantee standards across the sector.
In the UK, universities are already required to comply with research integrity policies and guidelines to receive research funding, but this does not include consultancy work.
Professor Holmwood argued that the UK Research Integrity Office, which provides advice and guidance about the conduct of research, should also be given statutory powers and funded by universities, so that there is an independent body to hear complaints, he said.
“All research conducted by university academics should be subject to the same research ethics scrutiny, whether it is used for academic purposes or consultancy,” he said.