A Time For Debriefing

When we interact with colleagues at the 2015 Social, Behavioral, and Educational Research Conference (SBER15), an extremely helpful insight can arrive at any time, and from any source. But it’s difficult to know in advance when we will perceive it, and how it will affect the way we address our own research responsibilities.

For instance, I had no idea that an insight from a morning presentation would affect the way that I approach a challenge that I occasionally face as IRB Chair at Providence College. From time to time, we receive applications for projects in which advance processes of informed consent are not appropriate because they would “tip off” participants and alter their behaviors.

Under such circumstances, waivers of informed consent are permissible under federal guidelines. But what else can IRBs require?

A post-study debriefing process is one obvious requirement. But federal regulations do not specify the level of effort and detail that should be included in any particular debriefing process. Would a simple text message suffice? Or would something more intensive be appropriate?

This question was farthest from my mind when I attended a morning session at the SBER conference about one of the more controversial social media projects of the past two years. Jeff Hancock of Cornell joined a colleague at Facebook and a graduate student to cull data from over 689,000 Facebook users. The researchers found that “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion.”

So why was this project considered controversial? The New York Times reported that Facebook had “manipulated the news feeds” of users “to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw.” It added “to Facebook, we are all lab rats” because “although academic protocols generally call for getting people’s consent before psychological research is conducted on them, Facebook didn’t ask for explicit permission from those it selected for the experiment.”

Other media organizations published explosive stories as well. Boston’s public radio station WBUR, for instance, issued “Facebook’s Creepy Case Of Emotional Contagion.”

Colorful coverage, eh? At the SBER Conference, Jeff Hancock appeared as the featured speaker of a workshop session. I asked Jeff the following question about my debriefing concern: if his Facebook colleagues couldn’t obtain informed consent without tipping off participants, could they have debriefed the participants afterwards?

Jeff thoughtfully responded that a debriefing activity would have been very helpful. He then suggested an optional three-step process in which participants read an informative message, click on a link to access additional information, and then send any follow-up questions to project representatives.

I agree with Jeff’s suggestion, and in the future, I’ll support multi-step debriefing activities when our IRB waives informed consent practices. Indeed, my interaction with Jeff at the SBER Conference has helped me perceive the issue more clearly, and has prepared me to more effectively assess and manage project risks.

Michael Kraten is a member of the PRIM&R Blog Squad for the 2015 AER Conference. The PRIM&R Blog Squad is composed of PRIM&R members who blogged here, on Ampersand, to give our readers an inside peek of what happened at the conference in Boston, MA.