Research Ethics in the Big Data Era: Addressing Conceptual Gaps for Researchers and IRBs

by Michael Zimmer

Attempts to fill the policy vacuums and clarify the conceptual gaps created in the wake of big data have already begun, stemming largely from concerned computer scientists, social scientists, and legal scholars. This essay helps push forward the growing discourse on the ethics of big data research by disclosing critical conceptual gaps that often hamper how researchers and IRBs think about privacy, personal information, consent, and harm in the context of big data. In doing so, this essay follows a disclosive approach to computer ethics research, uncovering ethical issues in big data analytics and research that have not yet gained sufficient attention, and making visible the conceptual gaps that have emerged. Through such attempts to address and clarify these conceptual gaps we can strive to ensure that ethical guidelines and policies are properly formulated to support the central concerns of research ethics and human subject protection amid the rise of big data research.