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We had a question over at academia.se about what responsibility a PhD supervisor has for teaching students about the use of human subjects in research. In some fields it is obvious that a research methods course needs to touch on the ethical use of humans in research.

While some areas of computer science (e.g., theoretical computer science and compiler design) likely do not use human subjects, other areas may include the use of human subjects. As I am not an expert in CS, using Washington University research topics as a guide, AI, computational biology, computer graphics, data science, HCI, NLP, robotics, and ubiquitous computing all seem like they could involve the use of human subjects.

While most universities provide an IRB or similar to protect human subjects, if students are not taught about them, how will they know the issues. Do, and should, a general CS education include a component addressing the use of human subjects in research?

For example this question on academia.see is about a CS student that collected blood for testing imaging software.

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    $\begingroup$ I shudder to think what CS research might even need human subjects. $\endgroup$ – ItamarG3 Aug 1 '17 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @ItamarG3 virtual reality is an obvious one. Anything that is looking at usability is another. Signal processing/programming of medical devices is a third. I can go on if needed. $\endgroup$ – StrongBad Aug 1 '17 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ please do go on. It is needed. but try to do it in the question body. That'll make the question clearer. $\endgroup$ – ItamarG3 Aug 1 '17 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ Can you say a bit more about context? Some places permit this at the graduate level, but with strong (we hope) safeguards. It is also a fact that much of the existing "research" has proven not to be reproducible, giving some a false picture of what the "truth" is. In the US post-secondary institutions have "Institutional Review Boards" (IRB) to reduce some of the problems. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Aug 1 '17 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ A/B testing is a form of human subject research. All companies use it. $\endgroup$ – Ellen Spertus Aug 1 '17 at 18:53
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I would mention it in any class in which it is relevant, such as User Experience or where A/B testing might be used to show different users different versions of a website and measure their behavior. Because such research is ubiquitous (consider Google's testing different shades of blue), Facebook was unprepared for the backlash against their emotional manipulation study.

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  • $\begingroup$ At least they weren't testing shades of grey. $\endgroup$ – user737 Aug 2 '17 at 18:49
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Although it's unclear how human subjects might somehow be used in CS research, I think that such ethics should be taught in all fields, and not just CS.

Indeed, it is not needed more in CS than in Biology (where humans often times really are the subject). But I'll address some of the examples you gave:

The two examples you gave which I can imagine can somehow have human subjects are NLP and AI. Which is actually AI and AI (often times). Algorithms in Artificial intelligence often learn from human examples, which means humans provide examples. If this you consider this to mean that the humans is a subject, then there you have it: it's used in research.

As for education, the ethics of using human subjects in research should be taught regardless of the field of education (unless this is criminology; and it isn't). Students should be taught these ethics and as far as reason goes, they are subject (pun intended) to review. These reviews would not allow un-ethical research to be conducted without a very good reason (such as a newely discovered disease which might wipe humanity and there are 3 infected people on the planet; again, highly unlikely that something of the sort can happen in CS).

So, yes. A general education (generall, regardless of CS) in CS should include a component regarding these ethics. (as well as other ethics, like not to do plagiarism).

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    $\begingroup$ I have a personal desire to distinguish strongly between the notion "we should teach ethics" (which we should) and "we should teach people to navigate the bureaucracy which has developed around ethics compliance" (which we also should, at least at the level of knowing that it is there and where to get started) because one is the territory and the other is (at best) a map. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Feb 10 at 5:29

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