Yesterday I read a sobering paper, "Ethical and Strategic Issues in Organizational Social Network Analysis," by Steve Borgatti and Jose Luis Molina, two leaders in the field.
The authors consider ethical problems unique to social network analysis (SNA): foremost that anonymity is impossible when researchers are asking who knows whom. Related to this, SNA differs from typical social science research in that the typical report reveals detailed individual responses (in a network diagram) rather than boiling all the data down to summary statistics.
The dangers to participants in SNA studies are therefore significant. A study may compromise their private information or even threaten their careers depending on the questions asked and who reads the results.
The authors note that without immediate action on this issue, the future of SNA is in jeopardy. To protect the interests of the public and preserve the viability of their own academic field, they propose a basic set of ethical guidelines. For starters, they suggest providing full disclosure of the ramifications of any SNA study to all potential participants, making participation voluntary, and providing all pariticipants with direct feedback.
They also note that current SNA practitioners live in a "golden age" when the general public is still naive about SNA. When the public understands the implications of SNA, then we can expect that participants in SNA studies will be much more likely to lie (aka "respond strategically") in order to put themselves in a better light.
By aggressively facing the ethical concerns of SNA now, we can hope to preserve the viability of this valuable research tool.