On the evening of September 11th, The Outline reported that the editor of the Journal of Social Psychology and Personality (JSSP), which peer-reviewed and accepted Wang and Kosinksi’s paper about facial recognition technology and sexual orientation, had placed it under “ethical review.” (my original critique is here; and my resource of relevant blogs, media reports, and Kosinski tweets is here).

This smacks of the journal throwing Wang and Kosinski under the bus. There are indeed ethical concerns in the paper, but the journal could merely have said the paper was reviewing its procedures rather than citing ethics, which appears to blame the authors for the paper’s shortcomings. There are two problems with this.

The first problem is that Wang and Kosinski generously shared a pre-print version of their paper. The furore around the paper (in which I have actively participated), was only possible because the authors are complying with valuable open scholarship norms of sharing things as soon as they are available. It would be a shame if this controversy prevented other authors from sharing their work.

The larger problem is with peer review itself. JSPP let this paper through in what we can assume were normal procedures (my discipline of sociology had a scandal where expedited review pushed out Mark Regnerus’ unethical research so it could influence legal cases against same-sex marriage). The paper as it stands has several problems that peer review should have caught: a) the lack of an ethics section (Kosinski has reflected at length on ethics before, and could have done so briefly in the preprint), b) an unwarranted logical leap to outdated science of sexual orientation (prenatal hormone theory), and c) overstated research results. I have written ignorant things is papers before–part of the effort to get outside subdisciplinary silos means venturing into research areas that have their own vast research literatures, and it’s impossible to know everything. Peer review or an editor should have caught this, and suggested the authors reel in their conclusions and shed some unwarranted theoretical connections.

The last is a paradox of research on sexuality and LGBTQ studies. These are relatively low-status research topics in all disciplines, and there aren’t that many of us doing the work. It is devalued interpersonally and institutionally. One result of this devaluation is that researchers who know little about the field nevertheless feel qualified t review or comment, as if there’s no “there there.” And it means that those of us doing the research are often a) asked to review everything across the transom, or b) are not in the high-status positions in the discipline that journal editors desire (although my impression is that, these days, journals are desperate for anyone).

The ethical questions I would ask of big data projects scraping databases for information about sexuality or LGBTQ lives, as as follows. Did researchers open a false profile in order to gain access? This seems to be the way that Arhus University researchers created their database of 70,000 OKCupid users that they then released publicly. There are reasons to justify this, but they should be addressed in IRB applications and disclosed in studies. If the study is to “white hat” hack a vulnerable system to expose a danger, did the researchers work with an existing organization with expertise in this area? The Electronic Frontier Foundation or GLAAD might have been able to help beforehand.

There is simultaneously too little research on sexuality and LGBTQ people, and too much bad research. With some tweaked claims and an description of the study’s research ethics, the Wang and Kosinski preprint could have been a modest contribution to AI research showing that a trained algorithm could outperform untrained/unmotivated humans at identifying “out” gay people based on their photographs. This would have raised the ethical concerns the authors say was their primary goal, and would not have bogged them down in outdated concepts of character and hormones.

 

 

 

  • Irvine, Janice M. “Is Sexuality Research ‘Dirty Work’? Institutionalized Stigma in the Production of Sexual Knowledge.” Sexualities 17, no. 5–6 (September 1, 2014): 632–56. doi:10.1177/1363460713516338.
  • Kosinski, Michal, Sandra C. Matz, Samuel D. Gosling, Vesselin Popov, and David Stillwell. “Facebook as a Research Tool for the Social Sciences: Opportunities, Challenges, Ethical Considerations, and Practical Guidelines.” The American Psychologist 70, no. 6 (September 2015): 543–56. doi:10.1037/a0039210.
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