Updated below: 17 April 2014
When Frontiers retracted our paper “Recursive Fury” (available at uwa.edu.au/recursivefury) they were very clear that the journal “…did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.”
The journal has since issued several conflicting positions, and their latest statement raised a concern about identification of ‘human subjects’ that can only be considered an ethical issue.
Not only does this latest statement depart from journal’s previous public stance and signed agreements, but it also deviates from the opinions of Frontiers’ own expert panel that they appointed last year to examine the issues surrounding Recursive Fury.
Concerning the subject and consent issue, that expert panel concluded:
Participant Status and Informed Consent
The question of participant status is an important and complex one. It turns on the question of whether an individual’s (identifiable or not) postings to blogs comprise public information and therefore do not fall under the constraints typically imposed by ethics review boards. The issue is currently under debate among researchers and publishers dealing with textual material used in scientific research. Advice was sought from the leading researcher on web-based psychological studies and his response was that “among psychological and linguistic researchers blog posts are regarded as public data and the individuals posting the data are not regarded as participants in the technical sense used by Research Ethics Committees or Institutional Review Boards. This further entails that no consent is required for the use of such data.” Although this view is held by many researchers and their ethics boards, it is by no means a unanimous judgment and it is to be expected that legitimate challenges, both on ethical and legal grounds, will be raised as web-based research expands in scope. But to the charges that Fury was unethical in using blog posts as data for psychological analysis, the consensus among experts in this area sides with the authors of Fury.
The consensus among experts is further reflected in the fact that the research was conducted with ethics approval by the University of Western Australia.
The consensus among experts in the area is that scholarly analysis of public speech can be conducted without requiring consent.
The University of Western Australia agreed with this consensus.
Frontiers publicly agreed with this consensus.
Update 17 April 2014:
Some commenters have, quite reasonably, asked me to release the entire expert report. I cannot do so because it is still strictly confidential.
I released the above section of the report because it spoke directly to an issue on which Frontiers made public statements that were irreconcilable with both an agreement they signed and their own expert report. This was done after extensive legal consultation and after inviting the journal to correct its latest public statements. I posted this unabridged relevant section only after the journal declined the invitation to set the record straight.
If it weren’t for these special and legally vetted circumstances, I would have honoured the confidentiality of this report as I have honoured all other agreements. The confidentiality of the remainder of this report remains in full force.