There are 3 fundamental principles for conducting human-subject research that were established in the Belmont Report to ensure guidelines for basic ethical principles, as well as informed consent, the assessment of risks and benefits, and subject selection. The 3 principles are:
- Respect for persons – individuals should be treated as autonomous agents/persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection
- Beneficence – benefits should be maximized and harm should be minimized for human subjects
- Justice – no person should be taken advantage of for research — fair treatment is central
These principles set up an excellent foundation for researchers to adhere to. Luckily IRBs serve as a way to protect human subjects, however, researchers have the power to do more to ensure that human subjects aren’t being mistreated and/or being taken advantage of. As Marie Wallace mentioned in The Ethics of Collecting Data Ted Talk, data can be used either as a way to exploit or manipulate individuals, or it can be used as a way to enrich our lives. So often in the digital age, the data and privacy of individuals are breached with little to no control given to human subjects. According to Wallace, there is no one solution for privacy and different scenarios require different approaches. However, one overarching theme that can be applied to address the protection of human subjects is TRANSPARENCY. In the digital age, transparency is everything — it can break or build trust between individuals and researchers. Digital users need to understand how their data is being used, what benefits or burdens are presented to them, and ultimately how they may disengage from the digital sphere if their data is being misused. In other words, the power needs to go back into the hands of the human subjects to ensure that they are empowered and respected. In the long run, when researchers, companies, and social media are transparent with human subjects, it builds trust, respect, and open communication on both sides. This is the way to maximize the protection of individuals in the digital world. Ethical digital research puts an emphasis on discovery through research while at the same time respecting the privacy and needs of the research subjects. Although IRB measures may protect human subjects from being taken advantage of, it seems that the IRB process may be outdated. It takes into account traditional forms of research but there is much more room needed for safety measures in the digital sphere. Just as human subjects have the right to be protected in traditional research, it’s crucial that they are protected in the digital environment.