Harvard Study Under Fire for Facebook Mining

To the list of organizations struggling to adapt to the new social media world, add social science researchers and their institutional review boards.

A massive project to collect data on Harvard's graduating class of 2009 has been put on hold after questions arose about the researchers' use of semi-privileged student data culled from Facebook, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

The four-year study was aimed at using the classes' Facebook posts, profiles and preferences as a dataset for sociologists studying culture, race and public health. The dataset, which the undergraduates did not know they were participating in, was meant to be anonymous. But a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher cracked the code and began raising other ethical concerns about the study, the Chronicle reported.

Most importantly: the study was ostensibly based on publicly available data, but the student research assistants who gathered it were also Harvard undergraduates and so had access to some portions of their classmates' Facebook profiles that non-Harvard affiliated researchers would not have.

The researcher, Jason Kaufman, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, has not said whether research assistants gathered information that was only available to them because they were "friends" with the students, the Chronicle reported.

The study was approved by Harvard's institutional review board, the Chronicle said. Institutional review boards are university boards tasked with overseeing and approving research projects with human and animal subjects to ensure compliance with ethical standards.