There’s no fresh start in today’s world. Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what you did. Everything we do is collated and quantified. Everything sticks. — Selina Kyle (Catwoman), in “The Dark Knight Rises”
Last week, I wrote about an interesting controversy involving authors who analyzed blog posts and public comment threads on sites talking about climate change and discovered a correlation between climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists. The paper, entitled, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” was published in a journal called Frontiers in Psychology, from the publisher Frontiers. The paper went through a number of ups and downs before finally being retracted a few weeks ago due to what the lawyers involved called an “unclear legal context,” wording that sounds a little like “because we don’t want to be sued over this one.”
Upon retraction, Frontiers went on the record as saying that:
In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical, and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.
However, Frontiers recently changed its tune, stating that there was an ethical issue, one having to do with identification of what they call “human subjects,” a perhaps disingenuous use of the term given that what was analyzed were blog posts and online comments:
For Frontiers, publishing the identities of human subjects without consent cannot be justified in a scientific paper. Some have argued that the subjects and their statements were in the public domain and hence it was acceptable to identify them in a scientific paper, but accepting this will set a dangerous precedent. With so much information of each of us in the public domain, think of a situation where scientists use, for example, machine learning to cluster your public statements and attribute to you personality characteristics, and then name you on the cluster and publish it as a scientific fact in a reputable journal. While the subjects and their statements were public, they did not give their consent to a public psychological diagnosis in a scientific study. Science cannot be abused to specifically label and point out individuals in the public domain.
This seems a little simplistic. Human subjects are defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as:
. . . a living individual about whom an investigator conducting research obtains (1) data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or (2) identifiable private information about whom includes a subject’s opinion on a given topic.
Further in the definition, there is an interesting phrase about “private” information — i.e., it is information “which the individual can reasonably expect will not be made public.” The blog posts and comments used in the “Recursive Fury” paper were public, as were the identities of those making them. I don’t see how there can be any expectation of privacy.
There is also a difference between human subjects in a clinical study and observing the information trail left by humans in their natural environment. Imagine the fields that would vanish — anthropology, history, economics, sociology, literature — if we needed permission to study anything left behind by other humans.
One complaint is that the people leaving these posts and comments behind can be identified. And, in fact, reading the paper, it wouldn’t take long for anyone with a browser to find out who made the comments. This only underscores that their identities were not private, but public, at least to the extent of being “identifiable.” And this is probably as it should be. Consider the alternative — that the paper includes completely anonymous and unidentifiable statements rather than giving some specifics that could lead to someone following a public statement to a public author. The complaint I’d imagine from the anonymized approach would have been even more difficult to dispute or defend — the researchers would be accused of inventing data or showing their bias by fabricating comments or being unwilling to share their data. Clearly, that’s not a viable research alternative, especially on topics such as this.
Any expectation of privacy seems to require a reality based on Google and the Internet and databases not existing. Remember, in 2002, using anonymized patient data and publicly available records, a researcher was able to identify the health records of the Massachusetts Governor at the time, William Weld. Recommendations for purchases follow us from sites to sites. Retailers can figure out if someone is pregnant, using only shopping events, which seem much more private than public blog comments and postings. Can we really act offended, shocked, and appalled when public statements in the public domain or observable public behaviors are analyzed and ultimately traceable back to us? Is that really a basis for retraction? Or just a new level of reality?
The researchers used nothing private to reach their conclusions. But there is more. One part of the complaint seems to be that they proposed that the people expressing certain opinions, as a group, were both climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists. Rather than disproving this, the group has responded by claiming this is part of a conspiracy, inadvertently confirming what the paper found while trying to undermine how the research was done.
It’s also worth mentioning that this case is in an even grayer zone, because the researchers are accused not of making libelous statements, but of labeling the individuals’ own statements in a libelous manner. However, labels aren’t inherently defaming or libelous. Calling someone a “climate change denier” or a “conspiracy theorist” is not necessarily defamation. Just like calling someone a “couch potato” or “radical liberal,” labels may be, to some, a badge of honor or merely accurate. Numerous court cases show that labels — from “dumb ass” to “satanist” — aren’t themselves defamatory, especially when they are used in a descriptive manner. In the case of a scientific paper, they clearly were used to describe comments and posts with shared attributes, all within a hypothesis-driven framework.
From a publishing perspective, what’s disturbing about how Frontiers is handling this is the lurching and erratic nature of its decisions. First, there was a hair-trigger when one complaint was received, and working with the authors to fix a couple of things. Fine. Not a problem, really, especially if the authors agreed. While it was tampering a bit with the scientific record, let’s cut them a little slack here. Next, a long interlude ensues, and then finally the paper is retracted after what is called an “investigation,” but only because of an “unclear legal context,” not for academic or ethical reasons. Most recently, the rationale for retraction has been publicly expanded to include ethical concerns — namely, using identifiable information without someone’s permission.
One change Frontiers could make would be to join the Council on Publication Ethics (COPE). The organization is not currently listed as a member. The flowcharts and decision trees from COPE might help guide future decision-making around thorny issues like this.
Frontiers is making a lot of noise about supporting its authors and reassuring its editors, just as it did with the first statement of retraction. However, actions speak louder than words. This latest round is sure to chill authors and editors more, as even after the retraction was official, Frontiers felt it necessary to back the car up to see what it had retracted.
This isn’t a blog about climate change, conspiracy theorists, or psychological research per se. It’s a blog about publishing. To me, Frontiers could be better positioned by joining COPE, could have held its decision until it had a full decision to make rather than stutter-stepping in public, and could have done more to reassure authors and editors that researchers won’t be thrown under the bus when things get dicey.
To me, this still smacks of a lack of backbone and author advocacy. As I wrote in February, one of the most important roles of a publisher is to protect authors from unwarranted tampering with their published results. When a paper is published, a bond of trust is forged between authors, editors, and publishers. They should stand united behind it, even if it takes time and resources to defend it. In this case, I have yet to see anything indefensible, so it’s particularly strange to have Frontiers collapsing like a wet taco.
The most worrisome aspect of this dispute is that the scientific record was intimidated into retraction by anti-science forces like those identified in this paper. For Frontiers, this could be a long-term problem, for as the quote that started this reminds us:
There’s no fresh start in today’s world. Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what you did. Everything we do is collated and quantified. Everything sticks.