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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation



Social scientists are increasingly engaging in experimental research projects of importance for public policy in developing areas. While this research holds the possibility of producing major social benefits, it may also involve manipulating populations, often without consent, sometimes with potentially adverse effects, and often in settings with obvious power differentials between researcher and subject. Such research is currently conducted with few clear ethical guidelines. In this paper I discuss research ethics as currently understood in this field, highlighting the limitations of standard procedures and the need for the construction of appropriate ethics, focusing on the problems of determining responsibility for interventions and assessing appropriate forms of consent.
JGD 2015; 6(1): 87–112
Open Access
Macartan Humphreys*
Reflections on the Ethics of Social
Abstract: Social scientists are increasingly engaging in experimental research
projects of importance for public policy in developing areas. While this research
holds the possibility of producing major social benefits, it may also involve
manipulating populations, often without consent, sometimes with potentially
adverse effects, and often in settings with obvious power differentials between
researcher and subject. Such research is currently conducted with few clear
ethical guidelines. In this paper I discuss research ethics as currently understood
in this field, highlighting the limitations of standard procedures and the need for
the construction of appropriate ethics, focusing on the problems of determining
responsibility for interventions and assessing appropriate forms of consent.
Keywords: consent; ethics; field experiments; human subjects.
JEL classification: C90; C93.
DOI 10.1515/jgd-2014-0016
1 Introduction
Social science researchers are increasingly using field experimental methods to
try to answer all kinds of questions about political processes and public policies.
Unlike traditional “observational” methods, in which you observe the world as
it comes to you, the idea right at the heart of the experimental approach is that
you learn about the world by seeing how it reacts to interventions. In interna-
tional development research these interventions can sometimes take the form of
researchers from wealthy institutions manipulating citizens from poorer popula-
tions to answer questions of little interest to those populations.
These studies raise a host of ethical concerns that social scientists are not
well equipped to deal with. US based social science researchers rely on principles
*Corresponding author: Macartan Humphreys, Department of Political Science, Columbia
University, e-mail:
©2015, Macartan Humphreys, published by De Gruyter.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License.
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 Macartan Humphreys
such as respect for persons, justice, and beneficence that have been adopted by
health researchers and institutionalized through formal review processes but
that do not always do the work asked of them by social scientists.
Consider one example where many of the points of tension come to a head. Say
a researcher is contacted by a set of community organizations that want to figure
out whether placing street lights in slums will reduce violent crime. In this research
the subjects are the criminals: seeking informed consent of the criminals would
likely compromise the research and it would likely not be forthcoming anyhow (vio-
lation of respect for persons); the criminals will likely bear the costs of the research
without benefitting (violation of justice); and there will be disagreement regarding
the benefits of the research – if it is effective, the criminals in particular will not
value it (producing a difficulty for assessing benevolence). There is no pretense at
neutrality in this research since assessing the effectiveness of the lamps is taking
sides, but despite the absence of neutrality no implicit contract between research-
ers and subjects is broken. The special issues here are not just around the subjects
however. Here there are also risks that obtain to non-subjects, if for example crimi-
nals retaliate against the organizations putting the lamps in place. The organiza-
tion may be very aware of these risks but be willing to bear them because they
erroneously put faith in the ill-founded expectations of researchers from wealthy
universities who are themselves motivated in part to publish.
The example raises a lot of issues. It is chosen because despite the many
issues raised, the principles that are currently employed provide almost
no guidance to deal with the issues raised. It is not however a particularly
unusual case and many of the features of the case are shared by other projects
including work in spheres such as reduction of violence against women, efforts
to introduce democratic institutions in rural communities, job training pro-
grams for ex combatants, efforts to alter electoral behaviour of constituents,
and efforts to stamp out corruption by politicians [for a discussion of many
relevant cases see Baele (2013)]. Unlike classic health and education interven-
tions, these projects routinely deal with interventions that have winners and
losers, create risks for some, and are done without the consent of all parties
affected by them.
The absence of clear principles to handle these issues leaves individuals and
the professions in a difficult situation, at least if they care about the ethical impli-
cations of their research designs above and beyond whether they receive formal
research approval.
So how should researchers proceed in these cases? At present there are no
satisfactory answers. To make progress I discuss three sets of problems raised by
research designs like this, which I call the problem of audience, the problem of
agency, and the problem of consent.
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
The audience question is about determining what the professional ethical
issues are. My focus throughout will be on professional ethics rather than more
metaphysical questions of what is right or wrong in some objective sense. Thus
in Section 2, I highlight a conceptualization of the problem not as a problem of
normative ethics – whether any of these designs are right or wrong in any fun-
damental sense – but as a question of audience. A key purpose of professional
ethics is to clarify expectations of members of a profession for relevant groups
that are important to their work. For medical ethics the key audience is patients,
or particularly subjects: those patients with which medical professionals engage.
The current guidelines used by social scientists are inherited from medical ethics,
which place a primary focus on human subjects. While subjects perhaps repre-
sent the primary audience for medical interventions, this may not be the case
for social science interventions for which the key audience can be the general
public or policy. This section highlights the need for the construction of an ethics
that addresses the preoccupations of social scientists engaging in this type of
research. It also highlights the more thorny nature of this problem for interven-
tions in which there are winners and losers, as in the motivating example above.
The agency problem is the problem of determining who is responsible for
manipulations. I discuss this in Section 3, describing an argument – which I
call the “spheres of ethics” argument – that researchers sometimes employ as
grounds for collaborating in partnerships in which subjects are exposed to risks
to an extent not normally admissible in the course of research projects. The key
idea is that if an intervention is ethical for implementing agencies with respect to
the ethical standards of their sphere – which may differ from the ethical stand-
ards of researchers – then responsibility may be divided between researchers and
implementers, with research ethics standards applied to research components
and partner standards applied to manipulations. Put crudely this approach can
be considered a way of passing the buck, but in fact the arguments for employ-
ing it are much more subtle than that. In a way, the buck-passing interpretation
fundamentally misses the point of professional ethics. Even still, this argument is
subject to abuse and so this section outlines protections related to agency auton-
omy and legitimacy which in turn depend on the conceptualization of profes-
sional ethics described in Section 2.
The third problem is the critical problem of consent. The bulk of this essay
focuses on consent and the role it plays in research ethics. Current norms for
informed consent are again inherited from medical ethics and reflect answers in
the medical community to the first two questions. Yet alternative conceptualiza-
tions of consent are possible, and may be more appropriate for social scientists,
given the different answers to questions of audience and agency in social science
research. I outline a range of these in Section 4.
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 Macartan Humphreys
I close with reflections on implications for practice and for the development
of ethical standards that can address the issues raised by experimental research
in social science.
2 Problem 1: Audience
What are we worrying about when we worry about whether implementing
experiments like that described above is ethical? It often seems as though we
are worrying about whether in some fundamental sense these research activi-
ties are right or wrong. But framing the question in that way renders it largely
unanswerable. The more practical approach of professional ethics is to deter-
mine whether one or another action is more or less consistent with the expecta-
tions of a relevant “audience” regarding the behaviour of the members of the
While the response that ethical action is action that is in line with expecta-
tions of a relevant audience is not technically question begging, it does require
the existence of some recognized set of norms for a profession. In practice,
social scientists largely work within the ethical framework provided by the
human subjects protection system.
The systems was devised primarily with
a view to regulating medical research, but now covers all research involving
human subjects, at least for US based researchers or researchers receiving
federal funding.
The principles embedded in the Belmont report
and that permeate the work
of Institutional Review Boards in the United States self-consciously seek to pre-
scribe a set of common expectations for a community of researchers and their
patients and clients. Indeed, sidestepping the question of ethical foundations
seems to have been a strategy of the US Commission that produced these reports.
The pragmatic approach adopted by the commission is a strength. As argued by
Jonsen (1983), medical ethics, as captured by the documents produced by the
1 For some scholars, e.g., Binmore (1998), DeScioli and Kurzban (2013), the normative question
is also a problem of consistency between actions and expectations, even if it is not always rec-
ognized as such.
2 At least for US based researchers. Elsewhere authorities have set up more directly focused on
social science research. See for example CONEVAL in Mexico.
3 Harms (1978).
4 Abram and Wolf (1984) cite Congress as expressing a distaste for establishing a substantive
morality; they argue that the “structure Congress gave the commission helped prevent the adop-
tion of any highly abstract ethical theory… agreement on a fundamental moral system was not
sought or needed.”
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
Commission, is “a Concord in Medical Ethics,” a concord “reached by a responsi-
ble group drawn from the profession and from the public.”
But this pragmatic approach also limits the pretensions to universality of
research ethics in an obvious way. The principles of the Belmont report were
developed to address particular problems confronting the medical profession
that carry authority because they were developed through a deliberative process
that sought to reach consensus in the profession around conventions of behav-
iour. The result is both elegant in sidestepping the unanswerable questions and
messy in its result. The final principles are a mixture of deontological and conse-
quentialist principles, with no overarching principle to refer to to determine what
kinds of tradeoffs should be made in cases where interventions that benefit one
group harm another. The practical solution is to outsource the problem of making
these determinations to the judgments of individuals placed on university insti-
tutional review boards. While effective for some purposes, there is ex ante no
reason to expect that the principles developed provide the appropriate guidelines
for social science.
The poor fit stems in part from the fact that medical research differs from
social science research in various ways.
Unlike many health scientists, social scientists are commonly working on
problems in which:
1. researchers are interested in the behaviour of institutions or groups, whether
governmental, private sector, or nongovernmental, and do not require
information about individuals (for example if you want to figure out if a
government licensing agency processes applications faster from high caste
applicants than from low caste applicants)
2. those most likely to be harmed by an intervention are not the subjects (for
example when researchers are interested in the behaviour of bureaucrats
whose decisions affects citizens, or in the behaviour of pivotal voters, which
in turn can affect the outcome of elections)
3. subjects are not potential beneficiaries of the research and may even oppose
it (for example for studies of interventions seeking to reduce corruption in
which the corrupt bureaucrats are the subjects)
4. consent processes can compromise the research (for example for studies that
seek to measure gender or race based discrimination by landlords or employers)
5 There are, in additional to the differences in ethical considerations, there are practical con-
cerns. The arrangement whereby social scientists fall under this collective agreement put to-
gether by health researchers is in some respects an unhappy one. Levine and Skedsvold (2008)
note for example the common complaint that IRBs do not understand the methods used by social
scientists and that reviews for non sensitive research are onerous on social scientists.
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 Macartan Humphreys
5. there is disagreement over whether the outcomes are valuable (compare
finding a cure for a disease to finding out that patronage politics is an
effective electoral strategy); indeed some social scientific interventions are
centered on the distributive implications of interventions: when different out-
comes benefit some and hurt others, the desideratum of benefitting all that
are implicated by an intervention is unobtainable
6. there is no expectation of care between the research subjects and the
These features can sometimes make the standard procedures used by Institutional
Review Boards for approving social science research irrelevant or unworkable.
The first two differences mean that formal reviews, as currently set up, can
ignore the full range of benefits and harms of research or do not cover the research
at all. Formal reviews focus on human subjects: living individuals about whom
investigators obtain data through intervention or interaction or obtain identifi-
able private information.
The third and fourth, which again focus on subjects rather than broader
populations, can quickly put the principles of justice and respect for persons –
two of the core principles elaborated in the Belmont report (upon which standard
review processes are based) at odds with research that may seem justifiable on
other grounds.
The fifth difference can make the third Belmont principle, beneficence,
unworkable, at least in the absence of some formula for comparing the benefits
to some against the costs for others (see Baele 2013 on the difficulties of applying
beneficence arguments).
The sixth difference means that the stakes are different. If a health researcher
fails to provide care for an individual in a control group, this may violate their
duty of care and break the public trust in their professions. This may not be true
for social scientists however.
Thus, standard considerations inherited from the human subjects protection
system can be blind to the salient considerations for social science researchers
and their primary audiences. The focus on private data and the protection of sub-
jects may sometimes seem excessive; but the blindness to the risks for non-sub-
jects may be more costly. Specific risks, beyond welfare costs, are that researchers
gain a reputation for providing unsound advice to government officials on sensi-
tive issues, encourage the withholding of benefits from the public, interfere with
judicial processes, or put vulnerable (non-subject) populations at risk, in order to
further research agendas.
Refocussing on the question of audience however can give some guidance
here. A preoccupation of medical ethics is the maintenance of relations of trust
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
between medical professionals and patients. In this sense, patients are a key audi-
ence for medical ethics.
Patients can expect care from medical professionals no
matter who they are. But the nature of social science questions puts researchers
in different relations with subjects, most obviously when interventions are inter-
ventions aimed against subjects. It seems improbable that social scientists can
maintain relations of trust with corrupt politicians, human rights abusers, and
perpetrators of violence when the interventions they are examining are designed
precisely to confront these groups.
What audiences are most critical for social scientists? Subjects are of course a
key audience for social scientists also, not least because for much data collection
depends on the trust, generosity, and goodwill of subjects. But two wider audi-
ences are also critical and the fashioning of social science research ethics for field
experimentation should focus closely on these. The first are research partners
and the second are research consumers.
2.1 Partner Matters
As in the example above, much field experimentation can involve partnerships
with local governmental or nongovernmental groups. Partnering in experimental
research can be very costly for partners however. And if they do not have a full
understanding of the research design, partners can be convinced to do things not
in their interests which is a risk when the interests of partners and researchers
diverge. One point of divergence is with respect to statistical power. For a partner,
an underpowered study can mean costly investments that result in ambiguous find-
ings. Underpowered studies are in general a problem for researchers too with the
difference that they can still be useful if their findings can be incorporated into
metaanalyses. Researchers may also be more willing to accept underpowered
studies if they are less risk averse than partners and if they discount the costs of the
interventions. Thus to account for global beneficence, researchers need to establish
some form of informed consent with partners. At a minimum this requires establish-
ing that partners really understand the limitations and the costs of an experiment.
One useful practice is to sign a formal Memorandum of Understanding
between the researcher and the partner organization at the beginning of a
project laying out the roles and responsibilities of both parties. However, even
when they exist, these rarely include many of the most important elements that
6 As highlighted by Alderman etal. (2013) the distinction between medical and social science
researchers may not be so clear for subjects and so subjects that are asked health related or other
questions by social scientists may in fact expect that questioning will be followed up by action.
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 Macartan Humphreys
researchers are required to provide to subjects during the informed consent
process, such as the potential risks or alternatives to experimentation. These
documents could even include discussions of the power of a study to ensure
that partners are aware of the probability that their experiment will result in
unfavourable findings, even if their program has a positive impact. Having
clearer standards for what information should be required before a partner
consents to an experiment could facilitate continued positive relationships
between researchers and partners.
In addition, concern must be given to how researchers explain technical
information to partners. The informed consent process with research subjects
defines additional precautions that must be taken to obtain consent from people
with limited autonomy. Similarly, there is a burden on researchers to explain the
risks and benefits of technical choices to partners in layman’s terms. Alderman
etal. (2013) highlight the false expectations that subjects can have when they
engage with researchers coming from privileged institutions and the respon-
sibilities that this can produce. A similar logic can be in operation for partner
organizations. Sharing (and explaining) statistical power calculations is one way
of ensuring understanding. Another is to generate “mock” tables of results in
advance so that partners can see exactly what is being tested and how those tests
will be interpreted.
A second concern relates to the researchers’ independence from partners.
The concern is simple, that in the social sciences, as in medical sciences, part-
nering induces pressures on researchers to produce results that make the partner
happy. These concerns relate to the credibility of results, a problem I return to
below. The problems are especially obvious when researchers receive remunera-
tion; but they apply more generally and may put the quality of the research at
risk. But the lack of independence cuts the other way also: if staff in partner
organizations depend on researchers for access to expertise or funding, this may
generate conflicts of interest for them in agreeing to implement some kind of
research or other.
One way that independence can be increased is through separation of
funding: when researchers are not remunerated for conducting experimental
evaluations, they may be freer to report negative results. Another is to clarify from
the outset that researchers have the right to the data and the right to publish the
results no matter what the findings are. However, even when these measures are
taken, there may be psychological or ideological reasons that researchers might
still not be fully independent from partners.
7 We used this approach in our Congo study. See:
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
2.2 Users: Quality of Research Findings
Given the fact that field experiments can impose costs on some groups, includ-
ing subjects, assessing the beneficence of a study is especially tricky. A part
of the consideration of beneficence however involves an assessment of the
quality of the work and the lessons that can be drawn from it. If an argument
in favor of a research design is that the lessons from the research produce
positive effects, for example by providing answers to normatively important
questions, then an assessment of beneficence requires an expectation that
the design is capable of generating credible results (Baele 2013).
In practice
though researchers sometimes defend research that involves potential risks on
the basis of the gains from knowledge there is rarely any kind of systematic
accounting for such gains and rarely a treatment of how to assess these gains
when there are value disagreements. Moreover researchers, given their inter-
ests in the research, are likely the wrong people to try to make this determi-
nation. Nevertheless, any claim based on the value of the findings needs to
assume that the findings are credible.
The credibility of research depends on many features. I would like to draw
attention to one which is the loss in credibility that can arise from weak ana-
lytic transparency. Post hoc analysis is still the norm in much of political science
and economics. Until recently it has been almost impossible to find a registered
design of any experiment in the political economy of development (in the first
draft of this paper I pointed to one study; there are now close to 200 pre-regis-
tered designs housed on the EGAP registry (109), RIDIE (37), and AEA registry
(49)). When experiments are not pre-registered there may be concerns that results
are selected based on their statistical significance or the substantive claims they
make, with serious implications for bias (Gerber and Malhotra 2008; Casey etal.
As research of this form increases in prominence, there will be a need to develop
principles to address these questions of audience. For this, social scientists might
8 This line of reasoning is contestable, although it appears important to claim beneficence. Ar-
guably researchers should not be in the business of trying to estimate the outcome costs and
benefits of the impact of their work beyond the participation and process costs and benefits.
Thus for example the injunction to go where the truth leads scorns such weighing of costs and
benefits, on the optimistic presumption that the truth is in league with the good. [For a classic
articulation see Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia: “This institution will be based on
the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it
may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Cited in Lipscomb
and Bergh, (1903)].
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 Macartan Humphreys
follow the lead of the National Commission that established the principles for
health research and seek not to root assessments of what is or is not ethical
research in conflicting moral intuitions or on normative theories that may or may
not be broadly shared. Instead in response to the issues raised by field experi-
ments, social scientists could initiate a public process to decide what should
constitute expected practice in this field in light of the interests of the audi-
ences specific to their research – notably partners, governments, and the general
3 Problem 2: Agency
In the example above of an experiment on street-lighting the intervention was
initiated and implemented by a local organization and not by the researchers. Is
this fact of ethical relevance for researchers taking part in the experiment?
Currently many social science experiments are implemented in this way by
political actors of various forms such as a government, an NGO or a development
agency. In these cases, and unlike many medical trials, research often only exists
because of the intervention rather than the other way round.
This approach
can be contrasted with a “framed field experiment” in which the intervention
is established by researchers for the purpose of addressing a research question
and done in a way in which participants know that they are part of a research
In practice, of course, the distinction between these two types of
9 One could imagine this being done either within or outside the current framework. Levine and
Skedsvold (2008) propose further IRB decentralization to allow disciplines to take a lead in making
determinations for their fields. This proposal has the advantage of ensuring that determinations
are more likely to be made by members of the profession in question, but has the disadvantage
perhaps of rendering co-ordination of expectations difficult. Falling within a large scheme has ad-
vantages since it helps clarify expectations not just among researchers, but also for the public. If
there is a problem, it is not so much that the guidelines inherited from the human subjects protec-
tion system do not co-ordinate expectations, but that they do not do so in the most useful ways.
The principles of the Experiments in Governance and Politics network (EGAP) provide one example
of such collectively formed principles.
10 The term “randomized control trials” can be misleading for the simple reason that these are
often not trials.
11 In health research the distinction maps partially to the distinction between research, qual-
ity improvement, and programme evaluation. As discussed for example by Tolleson-Rinehart
(2008), however, these distinctions are fraught since they depend on the notion that is it possible
to generate systematic evidence for reliable relations but that the knowledge generated not be
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
experiment is often not clear,
even still it raises an important point of principle:
can things be arranged such that the ethical responsibility for experiments can
be shared with partners?
Assume heroically that there is agreement among researchers about appro-
priate standards of research. Say now, still more heroically, that there are other
standards of behaviour for other actors in other spheres that are also generally
accepted. For NGOs for example we might think of the INGO Accountability
Charter; for governments we might think of international treaty obligations. One
might think of these ethical principles in different spheres as stemming from a
single theory of ethics, or simply as the possibly incompatible principles adopted
by different communities. In either case, these different standards may specify
different behaviours for different actors. Thus for example by the ethical princi-
ples of research, a researcher interviewing a genocidaire in Rwanda should seek
fully informed consent prior to questioning and stop questioning when asked
by the subject or if they sense discomfort on the part of the subject. However, a
government interrogator might not, but still act ethically according to the princi-
ples adopted by governments by eschewing other behaviour, such as torture. In
this example, the ethical constraints on the researcher seem more demanding.
There may be more intractable incompatibilities if constraints are not “nested.”
For example a researcher may think it unethical to give over information about a
subject suspected of criminal activities while a government official may think it
unethical not to.
The question then is whose ethical principles to follow when there are collab-
orations? One possibility is to adhere to the most stringent principle of the part-
ners. Thus researchers working in partnerships with governments may expect
governments to follow principles of research ethics when engaging with sub-
jects. In some situations, discussed below, this may be a fruitful approach. But
as a general principle it suffers from two flaws. The first is that in making these
requirements the researcher is altering the behaviour of partners in ways that
may limit their effectiveness. The second is that, as noted above, the constraints
may be non-nested: the ethical position for a government may be to prosecute a
criminal; but the researcher wants to minimize harm to subjects. In practice this
might rule out appending research components to interventions that would have
happened without the researcher and that are ethical from the perspective of
12 An intervention may be established for non-research reasons, but still shaped by research
considerations in various ways; an implementing organization may in practice be dependent on
researchers, in which case researchers may be the de facto designers. A “framed experiment”
may be implemented without knowledge of subjects. See for example, Bertrand etal. (2007),
Wantchekon (2003).
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 Macartan Humphreys
implementers; it could for example prevent the use of experimental approaches
to study a large range of government strategies without any gain, and possibly
some loss, to affected populations.
An alternative approach is to divide responsibilities: to make implementers
responsible for implementation and researchers responsible for the research.
This is what I call above the “spheres of ethics” argument. The principle of allo-
cating responsibility of implementation to partners may then be justified on the
grounds that in the absence of researchers, partners would be implementing
(or, more weakly, that they could implement) such interventions anyhow, and
are capable of bearing ethical responsibility for the interventions outside of the
research context.
Quite distinct rationales for this approach are that partner organizations may
be better placed to make decisions in the relevant areas and may be more effec-
tively held to account if things go wrong. In addition partners may be seen by
others as having legitimacy to take actions which might (correctly) be seen as
meddling by outsiders (see Baele (2013) on the “Foreign Intervention problem”).
As a practical matter researchers can do this in an underhand way by advis-
ing on interventions qua consultants and then returning to analyse data qua
researchers; or by setting up an NGO to implement an intervention qua activist
and then return for the data qua researcher. But this approach risks creating a
backdoor for simply avoiding researcher responsibilities altogether.
Instead, by appealing to spheres of ethics, researchers collaborating with
autonomous partners can do something like this in a transparent way by formally
dividing responsibility. Although researchers play a role in the design of interven-
tions it may still be possible to draw a line between responsibility for design and
responsibility for implementation. Here, responsibility is understood not in the
causal sense of who contributed to the intervention, but formally as who shoul-
ders moral and legal responsibility for the intervention.
An argument against the spheres of ethics approach is that it is simply passing
the buck and not engaging with the ethical issues at all. But this response misses
the point of professional ethics; professional ethics is not about what outcomes
should obtain in the world but about who should do what. Allocating responsi-
bility to partners is no more buck-passing than calling on police to intervene in a
threatening situation rather than relying on self-help.
The sphere of ethics approach is consistent with ideas in medical research
for assessing non-validated practice. On this issue the Belmont report notes:
“Research and practice may be carried on together when research is designed to
evaluate the safety and efficacy of a therapy. This need not cause any confusion
regarding whether or not the activity requires review; the general rule is that if
there is any element of research in an activity, that activity should undergo review
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
for the protection of human subjects.” In terms of the standards to be applied in
such a review, however, Levine (1988) notes: “the ethical norms and procedures
that apply to non-validated practice are complex. Use of a modality that has been
classified as non-validated practice is justified according to the norms of practice.
However, the research designed to develop information about the safety and effi-
cacy of the practice is conducted according to the norms of research.”
Levine’s interpretation of the division of labour appears consistent with the
spheres of ethics approach. But the approach raises at least two critical difficul-
ties. The first is a problem of implementer autonomy. In practice implementers
may not be so autonomous from the researchers, in which case the spheres of
ethics argument may simply serve as a cover for avoiding researcher responsibili-
ties. The second is deeper: the argument is incomplete insofar as it depends on an
unanswered normative question: it requires that the researcher have grounds to
deem actions that are ethical from the partner’s perspective are indeed ethical
perhaps in terms of content or on the grounds of the process used by partners to
construct them. This is the partner legitimacy concern. A researcher adopting a
spheres of ethics argument may reasonably be challenged for endorsing or ben-
efitting from weak ethical standards of partners. Indeed without an answer to this
question, any collection of people could engage in any action which they claim
to be ethical with respect to their “sphere;” a version of this argument could for
example serve as grounds for doctors participating in medical experimentation in
partnership with the Nazi government.
In line with the principle of socially constructed professional ethics,
described in Section 2, a solution might be the formal recognition by the profes-
sions of classes of legitimate partners for various spheres – such as all govern-
ments, or all governments satisfying some particular criteria. The incompleteness
of the spheres of ethics argument then adds urgency to the need for an answer to
the problem of audience.
4 Problem 3: Consent
Medical ethics places considerable focus on the principle of informed consent,
and indeed consent can in principle allay the twin concerns of audience and
agency discussed in Sections 2 and 3: If the relevant audience provides consent
then the expectations of the audience are arguably met and there is also a clearer
allocation of responsibility for action. Both of these arguments confront difficul-
ties however. Moreover different conceptualizations of audience and agency have
different implications for consent.
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 Macartan Humphreys
The US National Commission motivated the principle of consent as follows:
Respect for persons requires that subjects, to the degree that they are capable, be given the
opportunity to choose what shall or shall not happen to them… there is widespread agreement
that the consent process can be analyzed as containing three elements: information, compre-
hension and voluntariness.
In promoting the concept of consent, the commission also sought to produce defi-
nitional clarity around it. Whereas the terms can mean many things in different
settings, as described by Levine (1988), “the Commission […] abandoned the use
of the word “consent,” except in situations in which an individual can provide
“legally effective consent” on his or her own behalf.”
In practice however in many social experiments, consent is very imperfect.
imperfect consent is routinely sought for measurement purposes, for example
when survey data is collected. It is sometimes sought at least implicitly for inter-
ventions, although individual subjects may often not be consulted on whether for
example they are to be exposed to particular ads or whether a school is to be built
in their town. But even if consent for exposure to a treatment is sought, individual
level consent may not be sought for participation in the experiment per se, for
example subjects are often not informed that they were randomly assigned to
receive (or not receive) a treatment for research purposes.
To assess how great a problem this is, it is useful to consider the rationales for
informed consent that inspired medical professionals and other rationales that
may be relevant for social scientists.
4.1 The Argument from Respect of Persons
The argument provided for informed consent in the Belmont report and related
documents is the principle of “respect for persons.” Manipulating subjects
13 Critical elements of consent are that subjects understand treatments they will receive and
have freedom to agree or not to those treatments. In some accounts consent requires providing
subjects with very extensive detail about what will happen to them. According to the Nuremberg
code for example, a subject should have “sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the ele-
ments of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened
decision. This latter element requires that before the acceptance of an affirmative decision by the
experimental subject there should be made known to him the nature, duration and purpose of
the experiment; the method and means by which it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and
hazards reasonably to be expected; and the effects upon his health or person which may possibly
come from his participation in the experiment.”
14 Moreover it is in general not known, even if consent is sought, to what extend informed con-
sent is achieved. Even in non-research settings for major or invasive operations, the quality of
informed consent is likely very poor. Cassileth etal. (1980).
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
without their consent diminishes their autonomy and instantiates a lack of
respect. Consent, conversely, can serve two functions.
The first is diagnostic: that consent can provide a test of whether people are in
fact being used “merely as ends.”
Critically, this diagnostic function of consent
can in principle be achieved without actual consent; though actual consent elimi-
nates the need for guesswork.
The second is effective: that consent may enhance autonomy (or conversely,
forgoing consent reduces autonomy). Thus the Belmont report advises the impor-
tance of maximizing the autonomy of subjects: “Respect for persons requires that
subjects, to the degree that they are capable, be given the opportunity to choose
what shall or shall not happen to them.” There are multiple aspects of autonomy
that may be affected by engagement with an experiment, with somewhat differ-
ent implications for what is required of consent. I distinguish here between three:
participation autonomy, behaviour autonomy, and product autonomy.
The first, participation autonomy, relates to the decision of whether or not to
be involved with the research. The absence of choice reduces subject autonomy
at least with respect to the decision to take part. Behavioural autonomy may be
compromised due to lack of consent because of information deficits (see example
below) resulting in subjects making decisions that they would not otherwise
make, given the options available to them. Behavioural autonomy can also be
compromised if individuals’ choice sets are constrained because of the manipu-
lation. Third, as a subject’s actions yield a research product, a lack of consent
means that the subject loses control over how their labour is to be used, or a loss
of product autonomy.
To illustrate: say an intervention broadcasts information
15 Note I emphasize a diagnostic interpretation rather than a definitional interpretation. As
noted by Pallikkathayil (2010), there is a risk of inducing circularity in the definition of being a
means to an end, at least if we seek to impute consent on the basis of what a person would ration-
ally consent to. Pallikkathayil invokes the example of determining whether shoving someone out
of the way is using them as a means to an end. Answering the question requires determining if
the person would rationally consent to this action which they should only do if it is not treating
them merely as a means to an end.
16 In principle it is possible to have one of these types of autonomy without the other. I may not
give consent to a treatment but nevertheless feel that the treatment has no bearing on my ac-
tions; in this case the loss in autonomy stems only from the lack of consultation. Alternatively a
subject may feel adequately consulted but nevertheless feel that a treatment infringes on agency;
and this may be the case even if the subject provides continuing consent. Or a subject might suf-
fer participation and behaviour losses in autonomy but, when if consent is sought post factor,
product autonomy may be restored.
17Product autonomy seems at once the most important and the least important of these. On the
one hand the complicity in producing a research product is what appears in some settings to
invoke the need for consent. Consider an experiment in which organizations vary which political
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 Macartan Humphreys
about political performance on the radio in order to assess how the information
alters voting behaviour by the politician’s constituents. Done without consent,
the listeners had no option but to take part in the study (participation auton-
omy), their subsequent actions are affected by the treatment and might have been
different had they known the information was provided for research purposes
(behavioural autonomy) and they will have no say in the publication of knowl-
edge that is derived from their actions (product autonomy).
A problem with this formulation is that consent, or even notional consent,
is not clearly either a necessary or sufficient condition for respect for persons.
That is, unless respect for persons is defined in terms of consent (rather than,
for example, a concern with the welfare or capabilities of others), the diagnostic
function of consent as described above faces difficulties. There is a logical discon-
nect between consent and respect since determining respect requires informa-
tion about the disposition of the researcher but consent provides information on
the disposition of the subject. Consent might not be a necessary condition for
establishing respect for persons since it is possible that the subject would never
consent to an action that is nevertheless taken by a researcher with a view to
enhancing their welfare or their capabilities. And of course, subjects may consent
to actions not in their interests and not consent to other actions that are, or they
may unknowingly take actions that limit their autonomy. The specific markers
sometimes invoked to indicate that respect for persons is violated, such as the
use of deceit or force, also suffer difficulties since one can construct instances
in which a deceived person can recognize that deceit was necessary to achieve a
good in question.
In addition, consent might not be sufficient since it is possible
that a subject consents to an action that is not being done because it is in their
interest, but nevertheless has their welfare as a byproduct.
ads are aired in different locations. If this is done without any engagement with researchers but
just as part of political campaigning then under current norms no consent issues arise. If this is
done as part of research the consent requirement arises because the individuals are being used to
make a product but not being consulted along the way. Thus lack of product autonomy appears
to be at the heart of the matter. On the other hand there is generally no expectation that consent
is required for using “found” information from behaviour observed in a public setting. Although
people’s histories are being turned into products consent is generally not called for. One key dif-
ference is that in the second case the product is in fact a byproduct.
18 In practice in everyday interactions we expect deceit in specified fora. I tell a car salesman
that I am only willing to offer US$5000 and she agrees to the sale. But she would not have con-
sented to the sale at that price had she known that I would have been willing to go as high as
US$6,000. Kant (1788) would have disapproved of my lie to the car salesman (I am abusing the
institution of language) but my bargaining strategy is consistent with a position in which I have
respect for the salesman, but as a strategic actor.
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
Consider again the three types of autonomy that are threatened by an incom-
plete consent process. Loss in participation autonomy does not necessarily imply
that individuals are treated simply as ends. Holding a surprise birthday for a friend
deliberately compromises participation autonomy in order to provide a benefit
for the friend – one that they might consent to if only the consent did not destroy
the surprise.
In some situations, where providing consent may put individuals at
risk, not seeking consent may even increase participation autonomy by providing
the choice to participate de facto or not even if risks make formal consent impos-
sible. Even in the absence of consent however it is possible that participation in
an experiment enhances behaviour autonomy either by expanding information or
by expanding choice sets. Product autonomy can be restored by ex post consent,
for example allowing a subject to determine whether they want data collected
from them to be used in an analysis. Thus consent, as currently required, does not
seem to be necessary or sufficient for the work asked of it.
4.2 Other rationales for Consent
Beyond respect for persons there are at least three other rationales, one nonethi-
cal and two ethical, for seeking consent for research with human subjects (not
counting the desire to abide by current norms):
1. Legal protection from charges of abuse: A nonethical reason for seeking
consent is to protect researchers from civil or criminal charges of abuse. For
medical trials, the need for protection is obvious since actions as simple as
providing an injection involve physical injury, which would under normal
circumstance have criminal implications.
Consent clarifies that the action
is non-criminal in nature (although this depends on the action – consent
to be killed does not generally protect the killer). The rationale for docu-
menting consent is primarily legal. As noted by Levine, HEW regulations
“require that if there are risks associated with research then ‘legally effective
informed consent will be obtained… The purpose of documenting consent
19 The birthday surprise example is also of interest because the action could possibly also fail
the diagnostic text even though it treats someone as an end in themselves. You might know that
under no circumstance would your friend consent to having people go to the trouble of organ-
izing a party for them, but still be very pleased when it happens.
20 The recognition of the importance of legal protection has a long history. When the Neisser
scandal broke in 1899, government inspection of the case focused on consent processes from an
ethical perspective; in addition however, according to Vollmann and Winau (1996), the minister
responsible, “also sought legal advice on the Neisser case. Lawyers stated that conducting non-
therapeutic research on a subject without consent fulfilled the criteria for causing physical injury
in criminal law.”
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 Macartan Humphreys
on a consent form is […] to protect the investigator and the institution against
legal liability” (Levine 1979).
2. Information aggregation/subject filtering: Consent may also provide
researchers with information regarding the relative costs or benefits of an
intervention. If a researcher discovers that an individual is unwilling to
take part in a study, this provides information on the perceived benefits of
the study. In such cases there are double grounds not to proceed, not just
because it compromises autonomy but also because it violates beneficence.
As discussed below however, this goal of information aggregation may be
met at a population level by seeking consent from a subset of potential
3. Maintaining the reputation of the academy: A third rationale for consent
is that consent preserves the reputation of the academy. It clarifies to the
public the nature of relations between researchers and populations, that
this relation is based on respect, and that populations should not expect
that their trust in researchers will be abused or that they will be put at risk
without consent. Though clearly of pragmatic benefit to the academy this
argument is ethical insofar as it reflects a standard of behaviour that is
expected of a particular group. Note that this argument, more than any of
the others, provides a rationale for ethical standards specific to researcher-
subject relations that maintain higher standards than is expected of general
In the context of naturally occurring field experiments, there are also arguments
for why consent might not be sought.
One is that because the intervention is naturally occurring, an attempt
to gain consent would be intrusive for subjects and especially damaging for
research. Consider for example an experiment that focuses on the effects of
billboard ads. In this experiment it is precisely because seeing government
ads is a routine event that preceding (if that is possible) viewing of the ad with
an announcement that the ad is being posted to understand such and such an
effect will have particularly adverse consequences. Preceding the ad with a dis-
claimer may moreover falsely suggest to subjects that some unusual participa-
tion or measurement is taking place, even if a purpose of the disclaimer is to
deny it.
A second, more difficult reason is that the withholding of consent may not
be within the rights of the subjects. Consider for example a case where a police
force seeks to understand the effects of patrols on reducing crime. The force
could argue that the consent of possible criminals (the subjects in this case) is
not required, and indeed is undesirable, for the force to decide where to place
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
police. This argument is the most challenging since it highlights the fact that
consent is not even notionally required by all actors for all interventions, even if it
is generally always required of researchers for subjects. In this example the police
can argue that the subject has no rights over whether or how the intervention
is administered (participation autonomy). One might counter that even if that is
correct, the subject may still have rights regarding whether his responses to the
interventions can be used for research purposes (product autonomy). However,
one might in turn counter that even these concerns might be discounted if the
actions are public information.
In Section 2, I noted that maintaining the trust of subjects is of paramount
concern to medical researchers. This provides a basis for insisting on informed
consent by subjects. As argued in Section 2, for social scientists, the confidence
of the general public and of policy makers in particular are also critical. More-
over the welfare of non-subjects may be of critical importance. These considera-
tions have two implications: first that depending on the treatment of the problem
of audience, the form of consent needed may differ from the current standard;
second that depending on the population affected, the focus on subjects as the
locus of consent may not be appropriate: the informed consent of practitioner
partners and affected third parties may be just, or perhaps more, critical.
4.3 Varieties of Consent
Given the multiple desiderata associated with consent we may expect that vari-
ations of the informed consent process might succeed in meeting some or other
of these.
For example, if what is valued is participation autonomy, then this seems to
require actual ex ante consent. The loss in autonomy consists of the absence of
choice to be subjected to a treatment. The demands of product autonomy, unlike
participation or behaviour autonomy, can be met with ex post consent. The
demands of the diagnostic test can in principle be met by notional consent, and
so on.
With this in mind, Table 1, considers how eight approaches to the consent
process fare on different desiderata.
1. Ex ante informed consent: Ex ante informed consent fares well on auton-
omy principles as well as on legal protection of researchers (if documented)
21 In addition one can imagine various combinations of these strategies: e.g. delegated superset
consent or superset package consent.
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 Macartan Humphreys
Table 1: Consent Strategies.
Proxy (delegated) consent Superset
(ex post)
Inferred (surrogate)
Spheres of ethics:
Illustration/description: Subject
and asked for
consent before
holds arm
out to doctor
to provide
[Statistical] Subject asked
to appoint someone who
they trust to receive
information about
experiment A and provide
consent on their behalf
[Authoritative] Perhaps:
representative used that is
not specifically appointed
by subject for this purpose
Subject asked
in advance of
experiment A
if they would
be willing
to take part
in each of
A, B, C
Subject asked
in advance of
experiment A
if they would
be willing to
be assigned
to take part in
one of a set of
takes part
in study
and asked
after the
fact if data
may be
Sample of
nonsubjects that are
“like” the subject are
asked if they would
be willing to take
part in experiment
A. Inferences on
hypothetical consent
of subject are drawn
A researcher
partners with a
practitioner to
implement a study.
The practitioner is
responsible for the
intervention and
the researcher for
Application of diagnostic test ++ + + ++ + +
Individual participation autonomy ++ + + ++ +
Individual behaviour autonomy ++ + + ++ +
Individual product autonomy ++ + + ++ + ++
Researcher gains knowledge about
likely felt costs of intervention
++ + + ++ + ++ ++
Researcher gain prior knowledge
about particular risks facing individual
++ + + ++ +
Legal protection of researchers
(assuming documentation)
++ + + ++ ++ +
Reputation of discipline ++ + + ++ ++ + +
Beneficence (towards subjects) ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
Avoids Hawthorne and related biases ? ? + + + ++ ++ ++
Low cost ? + ? + +
Source: Author.
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
and the reputation of the discipline. As argued above however it is not a
necessary or sufficient condition for respect for persons, in addition it may
impose costs on subjects, weaken the quality of some kinds of research, and
be costly to achieve.
2. Implied consent: An alternative is implied consent which arises when
there are grounds to think that consent is given even if consent is not for-
mally given or elicited. Implied consent might include cases in which vol-
untary participation is itself considered evidence of consent to be in a study.
Implied consent can reduce costs to subjects and researchers but may leave
researchers in a legally weaker position and may put their reputation more
into question.
3. Proxy (delegated) consent: Both ex ante consent and implied consent
suppose that subjects are informed of the purpose of the experiment ex ante.
In some settings, this can threaten the validity of the research. An approach
to maintain a form of participation autonomy but keep subjects blind to treat-
ment is to ask subjects to delegate someone who will be given full informa-
tion and determine on their behalf whether to give consent.
Insofar as the
subject sees the delegate as their agent in the matter, proxy consent inher-
its the benefits of ex ante informed consent, but with reduced risks to the
research. A weaker alternative – the “authoritative” approach – is to seek
consent from a proxy that is not specifically delegated for the purpose by a
subject. In some settings for example the consent of community leaders is
sought for interventions that take place at a community level; this procedure
invokes the principles of proxy consent but assumes that individuals that
are delegated for one purpose inherit the authority to be delegates for the
consent process. Baele (2013) for example recommends this form of consent.
4. Superset (Blanket) Consent: Another way to protect research integrity
while preserving subject autonomy is to seek what might be called “Superset
consent.” Say a researcher identifies set X of possible experiments, including
the experiment of interest. The researcher then asks subject to identify set
CX of interventions for which the subject is willing to take part.
Given this
procedure, if set C includes the experiment of interest, a researcher can
22 The Institutional Review Board Guidebook argues that “the ‘proxy consent’ of someone other
than the subject is not the same as the subject’s own consent, although it may be an acceptable
substitute when a subject is unable to give informed consent.” Indeed in general the commission
refers to proxy consent as permission so as not to confuse it with consent.
23 A practical complication arises here in that subjects can make inferences on x given that
they learn xCX; in the extreme case if x=CX the subject knows the nature of the treatment
for sure; moreover their final beliefs depend not just on their prior belief about x but their prior
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 Macartan Humphreys
conclude that consent has been given for the experiment of interest even
though the experiment has not been specified as being the one of interest.
In practice, abstract descriptions may suffice to generate consent for large
classes of experiments (for example a subject may consent to any experiment
that seeks to answer some question in some class for which there is no more
than minimal harm); greater coarsening of this form implies less specific
information (see Easton on waived consent).
5. Package consent: An alternative to superset consent is a process in which
subjects are asked whether they are willing to take part in an experiment that
will involve some intervention in set X, including the intervention of inter-
est. If the subject agrees, then consent for the intervention is assumed. This
differs from superset consent insofar as it is possible that a subject would
be willing to accept the package but not accept the individual component if
offered that component alone. For example if X contained experiment A in
which I could expect to win $1000 and experiment B in which I expect to lose
US$10 I might consent to set X, but only in the hope that I will be assigned to
experiment A. To enhance informedness, the subject may be provided with
the probabilities associated with the implementation of each possible experi-
ment. Critically, this approach may be inconsistent with a desire to have con-
tinuous consent – in the sense of consent not just at study outset but in the
course of the study also. In a sense under this design a deal is struck between
researcher and subject and the subject is expected to follow through on their
side of the deal; this limitation runs counter to common practice but is not
inconsistent with respect for persons.
beliefs about all the interventions that might be implemented. In principle it is even possible
that willingness to provide consent might depend on certainty about the true treatment – for
example I might benefit more from an experiment if I know what the experiment is about (for
example perhaps I could then game it, or simply steel myself to the emotional turmoil the inter-
vention might produce), in which case the set C itself depends on prior beliefs. In principle these
problems could be reduced if proceeding depended on characteristics of C other than xC, for
example that C contain at least, or exactly, n elements.
24 It is possible to generate mechanisms for systematizing superset consent. For example one
could create an exchange where prospective subjects provide ex ante consent to participate in
various classes of experiment; they might elect experiments that address topics they care about,
or that are accompanied with varying degrees of risk, and they might rule out participation in
certain types of trial also. In addition, prospective subjects could specify the maximum number
of experiments that they would like to take part in per year and perhaps a fee for participation.
Such a mechanism, though creating obvious risks of weak external validity that need to be as-
sessed, might allow for the implementation of research like that conducted by Milgram and oth-
ers with participants that are blind to treatment but supportive of the research goals and willing
to take on risks.
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
6. Deferred (retrospective, ex post) consent: When consent is not sought
before the fact, it is common to provide a debriefing after the fact. In some
cases this might be important to avoid harm. In the Milgrom experiments
debriefing could help remove guilt, if subjects find out that they did not in
fact torture the confederates. But beyond debriefing it is possible to seek
consent after the fact (Fost and Robertson 1980). For some purposes this is
too late: it does not restore participation or behaviour autonomy,
but it does
provide product autonomy and it does satisfy the diagnostic test. In some
situations, retrospective consent might impose costs on subjects however
and generate a sense of lost autonomy.
7. Inferred (surrogate) consent:
Consent is inferred (sometimes, “pre-
sumed”) if there are empirical grounds to expect that consent would be given
were it elicited. As described above, the diagnostic test for respect for person
is not that consent has been obtained but that it would not be refused if
sought. This question is partly answerable. A number of different approaches
might be used. For example one might describe an experiment to a random
subset of subjects and ask them if they would be happy to take part in this
experiment, or if they would be happy to take part in this experiment, even
if their consent were not sought. One could also combine this with ex post
consent by implementing the experiment with a subset of actors and then
ask them if they are happy that they took part, even though they were not told
the purpose; or alternatively if, knowing what they know now, would they
have been willing to give their consent to take part ex ante? Inferences may
then be made to the willingness of the larger population to provide consent.
This might be called the statistical approach.
Again a weaker, authoritative
alternative may be invoked by seeking consent from a third person that does
not have legitimacy to speak on behalf of the subject but who is believed to
have insight into the subject’s disposition.
25 As noted by Gray (2001): “Deferred consent allows researchers to breach the subject’s au-
tonomy by making the enrolment decision themselves, then asking for retrospective approval.
If the patient … objects to the study, it is possible to withdraw from the study but not to ‘undo
the exposure to the study intervention. Deferred consent cannot be seen as a substitute for full
informed consent.”
26 See Love and Fost (1997).
27 A natural question arises regarding what to do if, as is likely the case,  < 100% of sampled
subjects provide consent. One approach would be not to proceed if there are any objections.
Another is to use a rule of thumb. For a related problem of determining how much information
to provide for informed consent a 95% satisfaction rate has been proposed. See Veatch (2007) for
more on this issue.
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 Macartan Humphreys
The final approach marked in column 8 Table 1, is the spheres of ethics
approach, described in Section 3.
Thus although currently researchers use a very narrow operationalization of
the principle of consent the broader menu of possibilities is quite large. As of
now, researchers could test and develop these in settings in which consent is not
routinely sought. Though most of these fall short of fully informed consent, many
meet the principles of respect for persons more effectively than consent as some-
times practiced. Looking forward, collective answers to the question of audience
and agency can help determine which type of consent is optimal when.
5 Conclusion
I have described the primary problem of assessing the ethical implications of
social experiments as a problem of audience. Medical ethics have been devel-
oped in large part to regulate relations between medical researchers and patients.
Social scientists have adopted the framework created for medical researchers but
their audiences are different: at least in the area of experimental research on
public policy, relations with policy makers, practitioner organizations, and the
general public can be just as important as the relationship with research sub-
jects. Moreover the interests of these different groups often diverge, making the
problem of constructing ethics more obviously political.
These considerations suggest two conclusions.
First, rather than seeking some fundamental answer to ethical dilemmas or
seeking to address the practical problems facing social scientists using the tools
generated for another discipline, there is a need for a social process of construc-
tion of ethical principles that address the preoccupations of social scientists in
this field, especially in settings in which there are power imbalances between
lead researchers and research partners and in which there are value disagree-
ments regarding what constitutes beneficent outcomes. Such a process will be
inherently political. Just as social scientific interventions are more likely to have
distributive implications – generating costs for some and benefits for others – so
ethical principles of engagement, if there is to be engagement at all, may require
the principled taking of sides, that is, the choice of an audience. The importance
of constructing an appropriate ethics for this field is of some urgency since there
is no reason to expect that all researchers working in this domain will indepen-
dently converge on consistent standards for experimental research in grey areas.
Second, depending on answers to the problem of audience, it may turn out
that answers to the questions of agency (Section 3) and consent (Section 4) will be
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Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation 
different for social scientists than for medical researchers. I have sketched some
possible answers to the questions of agency and consent that diverge somewhat
from standard practice. Currently when researchers engage in studies that gen-
erate risks, they defend the research on the basis of its social value. But they
do so often as interested researchers and without equipment to weigh benefits
in the presence of value disagreements. Greater efforts to share the responsibil-
ity of research, whether through more carefully crafted relations of agency with
developing country actors or more diligent focus on consent may reduce these
pressures on value assessments and may also reduce risks to both populations
and the professions.
Acknowledgments: Warm thanks to the WIDER research group on Experimental
and Non-Experimental Methods in the Study of Government Performance. Earlier
version presented at UCSD conference on ethics and experiments in compara-
tive politics. My thanks to Jasper Cooper and Lauren Young for very generous
comments on this manuscript. This paper draws on previous work titled “Ethical
Challenges of Embedded Experimentation.”
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... Before the simulation, participants will sign an informed consent letter composed of eight elements (Bordens & Abbott, 2013;Hegtvedt, 2014;Humphreys, 2015;McDermott, 2002): 1. Essential information about the nature and purpose of the research project. 2. ...
... 8. Guarantee that data will be stored only for the time required for analysis and subsequently destroyed. Additionally, after the debriefing, participants will be introduced with the option to withdraw their data from the research (retrospective consent) (Humphreys, 2015). ...
... Ethical considerations are essential in experimental studies (Duflo & Banerjee 2017;Humphreys 2015) and worthwhile to discuss within the presentation of a research design. All aspects of the study were deliberated about extensively regarding its potential ethical harm before study implementation and approved by the university's institutional ethics committee. ...
... Prior work based on qualitative field research (Dean et al. 2018) has focused primarily on aspects of individual identity, particularly the role of researcher identity and positionality (Foote and Bartell 2011;Rowe 2014;Savin-Baden and Major 2013), as opposed to organizational positionality. Similarly, existing scholarship on field experimental ethics traditionally revolves around compliance with the Belmont Report principles; however, issues stemming from the positionality of OPs do not necessarily overlap with Institutional Review Board considerations (Gueron 2002;Humphreys 2015). ...
... Large-scale data generation, including empirical data from LMICs, has gained prominence in the past decades spurred by the 'evidence revolution' that cuts across disciplines and that is linked to the rise of impact evaluations. 13 14 While the quest for more evidence may be justified by the ultimate goal to improve the living conditions of research subjects, the required data collection in LMICs often takes place in settings marked by extreme poverty, political instability and highly vulnerable study participants. 15 16 The ethical complexities of research projects are likely more pronounced in these contexts. ...
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Introduction Primary data collection in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) is associated with a range of ethical complexities. Considerations on how to adequately ensure the well-being of research staff are largely neglected in contemporary ethics discourse. This systematic review aims to identify the ethical challenges that research staff across different hierarchical levels and scientific disciplines face when conducting research in LMICs. Methods We searched 13 electronic databases and handsearched publications in six selected journals as well as the reference lists of all included studies. No restrictions were applied with respect to the publication date, research design, and target population. Results 23 151 studies were retrieved, 183 of which met our inclusion criteria. We identified nine different types of ethical challenges that research staff may be exposed to during field research, including (1) role conflicts that can emerge from participants’ help requests and the high level of deprivation found in certain study settings, (2) feelings of guilt and (3) detrimental mental health impacts. Further challenges were (4) sexual harassment (5) safety risks and (6) political repression, particularly in postconflict, disaster-ridden or autocratic study contexts. Additionally, studies reported (7) inadequate working conditions and (8) power imbalances within research teams, while (9) ethics boards were found to be ill equipped to anticipate and address emerging risks, thus increasing the ethical liability of researchers. Conclusion This review revealed several complex ethical challenges that research staff may face during data collection. In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 8.8 on ‘safe and secure working environments’ and to protect research staff from harm, amendments must urgently be made to current ethical standards. PROSPERO registration number CRD42019131013
The lack of consent or debriefing in online research has attracted widespread public distrust. How can designers create systems to earn and maintain public trust in large-scale online research? Procedural theories inform processes that enable individuals to make decisions about their participation. Substantive theories focus on the normative judgments that researchers and participants make about specific studies in context. Informed by these theories, we designed Bartleby, a system for debriefing participants and eliciting their views about studies that involved them. We evaluated this system by using it to debrief thousands of participants in a series of observational and experimental studies on Twitter and Reddit. We find that Bartleby addresses procedural concerns by creating new opportunities for study participants to exercise autonomy. We also find that participants use Bartleby to contribute to substantive, value-driven conversations about participant voice and power. We conclude with a critical reflection on the strengths and limitations of reusable software to satisfy values from both procedural and substantive ethical theories.
What are the potential harms from elite audit experiments? Such studies seem genuinely harmless and all in a day’s work for elites. In addition, such studies may provide valuable information about elites’ performance and service to their publics. However, there are a number of potential harms of such studies which are generally not captured by the standard human subjects framework. In this essay, I consider the various harms that can result from excessive experimentation on elites. I identify several previously ignored public harms, including aggregate and response delay harms. I offer several potential strategies to assuage and avoid these harms.
Over the past 20 years, cash transfers have become increasingly widespread within international development and global social policy. Often, their roll out is preceded by a trial or pilot phase aiming to check feasibility and effectiveness. These pilots can involve thousands of people. However, there is limited discussion within the literature (and even less in practice) of how and whether cash transfer trials and the research that they involve can respect ethical standards. This paper represents an initial step towards filling that gap. It does so by reviewing the latest literature pertaining to the ethics of cash transfers and social experimentation. It concludes by advancing a series of proposals that could support cash transfer trials to take place with greater respect for research ethics norms and in the best interests of participants.
Mass emails are frequently used by advocacy groups to mobilise supporters to lobby legislators. But how effective are they at inducing constituent-to-legislator lobbying when the stakes are high? We test the eefficacy of a large-scale email campaign conducted by the UK's main anti-Brexit organisation. In 2019, the group prominently displayed a \Write to your MP" tool on their website, and assigned 119,362 supporters represented by legislators with incongruent views to one of four email messages encouraging them to write to their MP or a control condition (no email). Messages varied across two factors: whether the MP's incongruent position was highlighted, and if urgency was emphasised. We nd that 3.4% of treatment subjects contacted their representative, compared to 0.1% of those in the control, representing an additional 3,344 emails sent to MPs. We show that there was no substitution away from the most frequently used online legislator contact platform in the UK. While, on average, position and urgency cues had no marginal effect above the standard email, the most engaged supporters were more mobilised when informed that their MP held incongruent views. This study shows that advocacy groups can use low-cost communication techniques to mobilise supporters to lobby representatives when the stakes are high.
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This essay discusses practical issues confronted when conducting surveys as well as designing appropriate field trials. First, it looks at the challenge of ensuring transparency while maintaining confidentiality. Second, it explores the role of trust in light of asymmetric information held by the surveyor and by the respondents as well as the latter's expectations as to what their participation will set in motion. The authors present case studies relevant to both of these issues. Finally, they discuss the role of ethical review from the perspective of research conducted through the World Bank.
Kant's Formula of Humanity famously forbids treating others merely as a means. It is unclear, however, what exactly treating someone merely as a means comes to. This essay argues against an interpretation of this idea advanced by Christine Korsgaard and Onora O'Neill. The essay then develops a new interpretation that suggests an important connection between the Formula of Humanity and Kant's political philosophy: the content of many of our moral duties depends on the results of political philosophy and, indeed, on the results of actual political decision making.
Research with human subjects is an essential part of modern medicine. Since the 1960s, when knowledge of research abuses surfaced and federal regulation of human subject research began, it has been a focus of ethical and regulatory controversy. Today, a regulatory system of prior review by mixed-peer bodies, called "institutional review boards" (IRBs), is firmly in place in every hospital, medical school, and research facility in the country.Robert Levine's Ethics and Regulation of Clinical Research is an excellent summary of the key ethical and regulatory issues that arise in running the IRB system. The author draws on his wide experience in human subject research as chair of the Human Use Committee of the Yale University School of Medicine, as consultant and member of various national commissions, as editor of Clinical Research and IRB: A Review of Human Subject Research, and as a prolific writer and speaker on the subject.
EXPERIENCE is something of which we are conscious. It is the first result of our comprehension, but it is not the limit of our understanding, since it stimulates our faculty of reason, but does not satisfy its desire for knowledge. While all our knowledge may begin with sensible impressions or experience there is an element in it which does not rise from this source, but transcends it. That knowledge is transcendental which is occupied not so much with mere outward objects as with our manner of knowing those objects, that is to say, with a priori concepts of them. All our knowledge is either a priori or a posteriori. That is a posteriori knowledge which is derived from sensible experience as including sensible impressions or states; while a priori knowledge is that which is not thus gained, but consists of whatever is universal or necessary. A complete Transcendental Philosophy would be a systematic exposition of all that is a priori in human knowledge, or of 'all the principles of pure reason.' But a Critique of Pure Reason cannot include all this. It can do little more than deal with the synthetic element or quality in a priori knowledge, as distinguished from the analytic elements. We perceive objects through our sensibility which furnishes us, as our faculty of receptivity, with those intuitions that become translated into thought by means of the understanding. This is the origin of our conceptions, or ideas. I denominate as matter that which in a phenomenon corresponds to sensation; while I call form that quality of matter which presents it in a perceived order. Only matter is presented to our minds a posteriori; as to form, this must inevitably exist in the mind a priori, and therefore it can be considered apart from all sensation.
ABSTRACT We examine,the APSR and the AJPS for the presence of publication bias due to reliance on the 0.05 significance level. Our analysis employs a broad interpretation of publication bias, which we define as the outcome that occurs when, for whatever reason, publication practices lead to bias in the published parameter estimates. We examine the effect of the 0.05 significance level on the pattern of published findings using a “caliper” test, a novel method for comparing studies with heterogeneous effects, and find that we can reject the hypothesis of no publication bias at the 1 in 32 billion level. Our findings therefore raise the possibility that the results reported in the leading political science journals may be misleading due to publication bias. We also discuss some of the reasons for publication bias and propose reforms to reduce its impact on research. A key objective of political science research is the accurate measurement,of causal effects.
In recent years, there has been increased discussion and even debate about how to reconcile a commitment to the ethical conduct of research in the social and behavioral sciences with a regulatory apparatus for the protection of human subjects that seems too often to fall short of its own aspirations and ideals. The gap between regulations and their implementation whether at the federal, state, or local levels is typically grist for the mill in political science. When, however, the issues are more in our own backyard—in our academic and research institutions—insight, interventions, and even empirical study are harder to come by. The purpose of this essay is neither to applaud what is right nor to decry what is wrong with the current system for the protection of human subjects as practiced. Our goal is to help further catalyze through this PS symposium a conversation about the need to produce system reform, illustrate some readily doable steps for doing so, and entice social science colleagues to work at their own institutions and at a national level for system change.
Atul Gawande is a surgeon who began creating vivid word paintings of the performance of the American health care system in The New Yorker's pages while he was still a resident. Those of us who are immersed in, and charged with measuring, that system—as I have been for the last decade—find his “Annals of Medicine” column's evocations of heroic system successes and frightening system failures true to the processes we more prosaically try to analyze and evaluate. In December 2007 Gawande published a New Yorker essay called “The Checklist,” followed just days later by an op-ed piece in the New York Times (Gawande 2007a; 2007b).