The history of human experiments often focuses on biomedical research and the gradual changes in acceptable practice and ethical considerations. But another class of human experiments that has had its own share of controversies is the study of human behaviour.
Internet Mediate Human Behaviour Research (IMHBR) is primarily defined by its use of the internet to obtain data about participants. While some of the research involves active participation with research subjects directly engaging with the research, for example through online surveys or experimental tasks, many studies take advantage of “found text” in blogs, discussion forums or other online spaces, analyses of hits on websites, or observation of other types of online activity such as search engine histories or logs of actions in online games.
It’s big business and the pervasive use of these methodologies is not only by academics but also corporations and governments seeking to support evidence-based policy decisions or to nudge societal behaviour.
Even though the basic principles of “respect for the autonomy and dignity of persons”, “scientific value”, “social responsibility” and “maximising benefits and minimising harm” are the same for this type of research method as for any other, the following issues often pose particular challenges for internet-mediated research: the distinction between public and private information, confidentiality, and informed consent. There is an urgently need to establish clear codes of ethical conduct for IMHBR.
Whose information is it?
The distinction between public and private domains is vitally important since this greatly affects the level of responsibility and obligation of the researcher. For human behaviour research online, however, it is often difficult to determine if participants perceive an online forum as “private” or “public”. While almost all internet communication is recorded and accessible to the mediating platform, such as Facebook and Twitter, and much of it even publicly accessible, users of these platforms may nevertheless consider those communications to be private, despite click-signing the terms and conditions of the service provider.
People treat social media a bit like they treat the pub. They feel that if they go into a pub and have a private conversation, it does not belong to the pub; it is their conversation. They interpret Twitter or Facebook in the same way – as a place to have a conversation.
On your website you [Samaritans] say that ‘all the data is public, so user privacy is not an issue. Samaritans Radar analyses the tweets of people you follow, which are public tweets. It does not look at private tweets.’ It is our view that if organisations collect information from the internet and use it in a way that’s unfair, they could still breach the data protection principles even though the information was obtained from a publicly available source.
Anonymisation is one of the most basic steps for maintaining confidentiality and showing respect for the dignity of research participants. It is also a requirement imposed by the Data Protection Act 1998 when dealing with personal data. The need to protect the anonymity of participants is even more pressing when the research uses data from online sources where access to the raw data cannot be controlled by the researcher.
At the same time, the wealth of secondary information sources that can be mined in connection to any hint at the identity of a participant is making it increasingly easy to de-anonymise data. This was publicly shown by journalists for the New York Times who followed the web tail of user No. 4417749 in the AOL Search Log in 2006 and were able to identify her – and also by the lawsuit against Netflix for insufficient anonymisation of information disclosed in a prize competition database.
Terms and conditions that no one reads
In order for informed consent to take place, it is vital that the participant is fully aware of what is being consented to. Unfortunately, current online business practice has heavily eroded the concept of informed consent by habituating people to click-sign terms and conditions forms that are too long and unintelligible to understand.
Sometimes driven by social pressure to join the network their peers are using, people readily skip over the details and give their consent for allowing corporations to access their data for a wide range of purposes. A hint at the dangers of normalising such attitudes towards the concept of informed consent was given by the statement in the controversial 2014 “Facebook news feed manipulation experiment” – a secret study on “emotional contagion” that involved changing what 689,000 users saw from their friends’ feeds to see if it influenced mood.
One of the researchers attempted to defend the study, saying that participants had provided consent because “it was consistent with Facebook’s data use policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research”. The data use policy, however, does not provide any information about the nature of that specific study, instead speaking only of “research” in general terms.
As part of this work we are currently running a survey to ask citizens which conditions they would like to impose on researchers for making their social media data available to research studies. Ultimately, without clear guidelines and transparency, we’re hiving out decisions about us and our information to companies, governments and researchers, without us knowing what it will be used for.
At the age of 29, Brittany Maynard was newly married and thought that she had her whole life ahead of her. That was when she was diagnosed with grade II astrocytoma, a serious brain tumor giving her ten years to live. Shortly after, she was told she had glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the deadliest type of brain cancer there is. She was told that patients live an average of six months with the condition, and those final months are painful. That’s when she and her husband made the decision to move to Oregon, one of the five states that allow doctor-assisted suicide, so that she could choose her own passing.
“Seize the day. What’s important to you, what do you care about, what matters. Pursue that–forget the rest.”
Wise words from a brave woman.
For more information about The Brittany Fund, check out its website here.
Seen above in a photo from the museum’s collection, the Meteorite of Serooskerken was recovered from a rare fall in 1925 in the province of Zeeland. Only five meteorites have ever been found in the Netherlands, making the Serooskerken specimen somewhat of a national treasure – not to mention a valuable piece of our Solar System’s history!
About 5–6% of all the meteorites found on Earth are thought to be from Vesta, the second-largest world in the main asteroid belt. (Source)
It doesn’t sound like the meteorite was the target of the burglary, but rather it just happened to be included with other things taken from the museum’s safe.
New research has shown that there was liquid water on Mars as recently as 200,000 years ago. The results have been published in the prestigious international scientific journal ICARUS.
“We have discovered a very young crater in the southern mid-latitudes of Mars that shows evidence of liquid water in Mars’ recent past” says Andreas Johnsson at the University of Gothenburg.
The southern hemisphere of Mars is home to a crater that contains very well-preserved gullies and debris flow deposits. The geomorphological attributes of these landforms provide evidence that they were formed by the action of liquid water in geologically recent time.
Evidence of liquid water
When sediment on a slope becomes saturated with water, the mixture may become too heavy to remain in place, leading to a flow of debris and water as a single-phase unit. This is called a debris flow. Debris flows on Earth often cause significant material destruction and even human casualties, when they occur in built-up areas. During a debris flow, a mixture of stones, gravel, clay and water moves rapidly down a slope. When the sediment subsequently stops, it displays characteristic surface features such as lobate deposits and paired levees along flow channels.
It is these landforms that Andreas Johnsson has identified on Mars. The research group has been able to compare the landforms on Mars with known debris flows on Svalbard with the aid of aerial photography and field studies. The debris flows on Mars provide evidence that liquid water has been present in the region.
“Our fieldwork on Svalbard confirmed our interpretation of the Martian deposits. What surprised us was that the crater in which these debris flows have formed is so young,” says Andreas Johnsson of the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Gothenburg.
After the ice age
Crater statistics allowed Andreas Johnsson and his co-authors to determine that the age of the crater to be approximately 200,000 years. This means that the crater was formed long after the most recent proposed ice age on Mars, which ended around 400,000 years ago.
“Gullies are common on Mars, but the ones which have been studied previously are older, and the sediments where they have formed are associated with the most recent ice age. Our study crater on Mars is far too young to have been influenced by the conditions that were prevalent then. This suggests that the meltwater-related processes that formed these deposits have been exceptionally effective also in more recent times,” says Andreas Johnsson, principal author of the article.
Impact in wet ground
The study crater is situated in the mid-latitudes of Mars’ southern hemisphere, superposed on what is known as the rampart ejecta of a nearby larger crater. A rampart ejecta display a “flowerlike” form around the host crater, and scientists have interpreted this as being the result of an impact in wet or ice-rich ground.
“My first thought was that the water that formed these debris flows had come from preserved ice within the rampart ejecta. But when we looked more closely, we didn’t find any structures such as faults or fractures in the crater that could have acted as conduits for the meltwater. It is more likely that the water has come from melting snow packs, when the conditions were favorable for snow formation. This is possible, since the orbital axis of Mars was more tilted in the past than it is today,” says Andreas Johnsson.
Neuroscientists have discovered a brain pathway that underlies the emotional behaviours critical for survival.
New research by the University of Bristol, published in theJournal of Physiology today [23 April], has identified a chain of neural connections which links central survival circuits to the spinal cord, causing the body to freeze when experiencing fear.
Understanding how these central neural pathways work is a fundamental step towards developing effective treatments for emotional disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks and phobias.
An important brain region responsible for how humans and animals respond to danger is known as the PAG (periaqueductal grey), and it can trigger responses such as freezing, a high heart rate, increase in blood pressure and the desire for flight or fight.
This latest research has discovered a brain pathway leading from the PAG to a highly localised part of the cerebellum, called the pyramis. The research went on to show that the pyramis is involved in generating freezing behaviour when central survival networks are activated during innate and learnt threatening situations.
The pyramis may therefore serve as an important point of convergence for different survival networks in order to react to an emotionally challenging situation.
Dr Stella Koutsikou, first author of the study and Research Associate in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Bristol, said: “There is a growing consensus that understanding the neural circuits underlying fear behaviour is a fundamental step towards developing effective treatments for behavioural changes associated with emotional disorders.”
Professor Bridget Lumb, Professor of Systems Neuroscience, added: “Our work introduces the novel concept that the cerebellum is a promising target for therapeutic strategies to manage dysregulation of emotional states such as panic disorders and phobias.”
The researchers involved in this work are all members of Bristol Neuroscience which fosters interactions across one of the largest communities of neuroscientists in the UK.
Professor Richard Apps said: “This is a great example of how Bristol Neuroscience brings together expertise in different fields of neuroscience leading to exciting new insights into brain function.”
Parts of ancient Antarctica were as warm as today’s California coast, and polar regions of the southern Pacific Ocean registered 21st-century Florida heat, according to scientists using a new way to measure past temperatures.
The findings, published the week of April 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, underscore the potential for increased warmth at Earth’s poles and the associated risk of melting polar ice and rising sea levels, the researchers said.
Led by scientists at Yale, the study focused on Antarctica during the Eocene epoch, 40-50 million years ago, a period with high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and consequently a greenhouse climate. Today, Antarctica is year-round one of the coldest places on Earth, and the continent’s interior is the coldest place, with annual average land temperatures far below zero degrees Fahrenheit.
But it wasn’t always that way, and the new measurements can help improve climate models used for predicting future climate, according to co-author Hagit Affek of Yale, associate professor of geology & geophysics.
“Quantifying past temperatures helps us understand the sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gases, and especially the amplification of global warming in polar regions,” Affek said.
The paper’s lead author, Peter M.J. Douglas, performed the research as a graduate student in Affek’s Yale laboratory. He is now a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology. The research team included paleontologists, geochemists, and a climate physicist.
By measuring concentrations of rare isotopes in ancient fossil shells, the scientists found that temperatures in parts of Antarctica reached as high as 17 degrees Celsius (63F) during the Eocene, with an average of 14 degrees Celsius (57F) — similar to the average annual temperature off the coast of California today.
Eocene temperatures in parts of the southern Pacific Ocean measured 22 degrees Centigrade (or about 72F), researchers said — similar to seawater temperatures near Florida today.
Today the average annual South Pacific sea temperature near Antarctica is about 0 degrees Celsius.
These ancient ocean temperatures were not uniformly distributed throughout the Antarctic ocean regions — they were higher on the South Pacific side of Antarctica — and researchers say this finding suggests that ocean currents led to a temperature difference.
“By measuring past temperatures in different parts of Antarctica, this study gives us a clearer perspective of just how warm Antarctica was when the Earth’s atmosphere contained much more CO2 than it does today,” said Douglas. “We now know that it was warm across the continent, but also that some parts were considerably warmer than others. This provides strong evidence that global warming is especially pronounced close to the Earth’s poles. Warming in these regions has significant consequences for climate well beyond the high latitudes due to ocean circulation and melting of polar ice that leads to sea level rise.”
To determine the ancient temperatures, the scientists measured the abundance of two rare isotopes bound to each other in fossil bivalve shells collected by co-author Linda Ivany of Syracuse University at Seymour Island, a small island off the northeast side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The concentration of bonds between carbon-13 and oxygen-18 reflect the temperature in which the shells grew, the researchers said. They combined these results with other geo-thermometers and model simulations.
The new measurement technique is called carbonate clumped isotope thermometry.
“We managed to combine data from a variety of geochemical techniques on past environmental conditions with climate model simulations to learn something new about how the Earth’s climate system works under conditions different from its current state,” Affek said. “This combined result provides a fuller picture than either approach could on its own.”
The paper is titled “Pronounced zonal heterogeneity in Eocene southern high-latitude sea surface temperatures.”
Other co-authors are Alexander J. P. Houben, Willem P. Sijp, Appy Sluijs, Stefan Schouten, and Mark Pagani.
Support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation, Statoil, and the European Research Council.