Machine bias, the ethical implications of technology companies policing content on social media, the need for transparency when designing location-based augmented reality games, and ethical issues surrounding mentor and mentee relationships were some of the topics SC&I faculty discussed during the Spring 2019 SC&I Scholarly Incubator.
The half-day incubator, organized by Associate Dean for Research Mark Aakhus and Associate Dean for Programs Dafna Lemish, was titled “Ethics: Probable, Plausible, Possible, Preferable.” Held on March 13 in Alexander Library, the event brought together SC&I faculty members to collectively hear and discuss examples of ethical quandaries and issues presented by panels of their SC&I faculty colleagues.
Aakhus kicked off the 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. event by explaining the over-arching focus of the day’s discussions. “Today we ask how our ethics – the ways that we relate to each other and the world around us – are being disrupted by our emerging mediated, informational, and communicative conditions. Let’s speculate about what is ethically preferable by considering what is probable, plausible, and possible in these conditions. Let’s consider the implications for how we frame and shape our scholarship and how we shape our academic lifeworld.”
The origins of the idea for this year’s conference, Aakhus said, began last spring with the School’s Research Development Committee discussing the need for attention to ethics and the wide array of work by SC&I scholars addressing the gaps. There were other key moments such as a discussion in a SC&I wide meeting about the challenges in developing new programs for students and the work of PTLs that amplified the need for a focus on this topic. The content and structure of the event was built around faculty expertise and interests.
Members of the SC&I community provided vignettes from their research and work experience to stimulate and focus discussions. These were organized into three themes followed by discussion with members of the audience.
The first session was titled “Current and emerging disruptions to how humans relate to each other and the world around them.” First, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science Vivek Singh, and Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Caitlin Petre focused on “The Algorithmic.”
Singh highlighted “Machine Bias,” by illustrating our “transformative moment in terms of how data impact our society.” He pointed to the inherent bias in determining prison sentences for black Americans versus whites, how Google directs our searches, and the ways Amazon recommends products. Algorithms impact decisions about the kinds of people who are allowed into our country, who will get loans, and how cars drive. He said the problem of bias is getting deeper and deeper, and encouraged the audience to consider not only the “the emergence of bias but can algorithms be de-biased? What does fair mean in this context?”
Petre’s discussion vignette centered around the ethical implications of the ways technology companies control conversations on social media platforms. For example, Petre said, in the wake of the recent measles outbreak, Facebook and YouTube abruptly decided to suppress content posted by people opposed to vaccination. While Petre voiced agreement with the platforms' decision in that case, she challenged the audience to reflect on the ethics of a privately controlled public sphere. Petre asked, “What public health issues will they tolerate/not tolerate? They are enacting values in the public sphere" with no democratic governance or accountability.
Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Melissa Aronczyk and Associate Professor of Communication Matthew Matsaganis focused on “The infrastructural.” Aronczyk highlighted the ethical implications of private companies using data as capital and their engagement in data philanthropy. The upshot of these activities is that data becomes proxies for individual and public life in decision making. “We are not our data,” Aronczyk said to invite the audience to challenge emerging conventions about the status of personal data and its consequences for understanding public problems.
Matsaganis used the location-based augmented reality game named Pokémon GO (owned by Niantic) to illustrate ethical issues surrounding public health. The game partners with McDonald’s and Starbucks as locations to play while children eat. Matsaganis highlighted how the underlying architecture of this data and media revealed racial bias in terms of the neighborhoods where the games are played. He encouraged the audience to recognize the need for transparency on issues such as who participates in the design of location-based games.
The final round of vignettes focused on “The invisibility” and featured Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Amy Jordan and Chair and Professor of Communication Craig Scott.
Jordan spoke of the challenges of overcoming bias in research about children’s relationship to media, when so much of the data available represents only the experiences of children from western, industrialized, wealthy, democratic and English-speaking societies. Her examples from research on children and media invited discussion about the choices in research design that can render groups and communities invisible.
Scott highlighted how ethics depends on transparency in certain situations, but on the flip side, there is an ethical need to maintain invisibility under certain circumstances, such as anonymity in the FBI Witness Program, the blind review process journals use, and voting on hiring and promotion issues. He opened up discussion about the need for invisibility to make our research work ethical.
Lemish opened the second session of the day focused on “Ethics in our everyday academic life.”
The first panel led off with a vignette by Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies and the President of the Faculty Union Deepa Kumar and Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Todd Wolfson, who discussed “The Ethics of Academic Labor.”
Kumar highlighted the invisibility of some kinds of labor in the academy, and asked, “What ethical obligations do we have to those whose labor is not valued?” Kumar’s discussion focused on issues of job security, pay equity, and benefits for part-time lecturers.
Wolfson discussed the changing relative sizes of the part-time and full-time faculty workforces at SC&I and at Rutgers. “This problem is bigger than any of us," Wolfson said. "It’s part of the corporatization of the University.”
The next panel was comprised of four presenters: Qun Wang, a Ph.D. student, Associate Dean for Administration Karen Novick, Professor of Communication, Jen Theiss, and Lemish.
Wang discussed the perils and benefits of sharing scholarly work before publication. She explained the quandary: Academia encourages sharing – that’s how knowledge develops – but different scholarly venues have different standards on what must be shared, creating a potentially confusing landscape for graduate students who want to protect their work from potentially unethical use.
Novick discussed the ethics of academic integrity cases. In cases of academic dishonesty, she said, it is potentially unethical when one individual is both the accuser and the judge of the situation. In those cases students’ right for due process and the chance to defend themselves are critical. Novick pointed out that many students aren’t even aware that they can appeal. Novick also discussed ethics in “the changing ways in how we work,” in terms of the conditions under which plagiarism could be judged differently for students versus professionals.
Mentoring, Theiss said in her presentation, is another area of academic life that can be fraught with ethical complications because of “personal relationships and unique power dynamics.” While there are clear ethical violations such as sexual harassment, Theiss said, there are also the “broader moral obligations of how we train and mentor” students, such as the obligations faculty have to create a protected space for them, care for them, and be responsible for their growth as independent scholars. The discussion following touched upon the structural conditions and issues in university settings that can impact ethics.
Lemish reflected on the ethics of editorship, sharing that 10 SC&I faculty are ongoing editors and associate editors of journals, and many more are editorial board members and reviewers. She mentioned some of the more commonly known potential issues of ethics in the editing sphere, ideas such as assigning appropriate reviewers, steering contributors to cite their journal, and boost their own work with citations. Lemish then focused on the bigger picture structural “dilemma” of the academic publishing business and the fact that publishers are exploiting the free labor of editors, reviewers, and authors. She acknowledged that it is a transactional relationship, since editors also enjoy the many benefits of their positions, including networking and prestige, and that everyone is caught in this transactional relationship given the need to publish academic research. She reflected on the possibilities of alternative models for academic publishing.
For more information about the School of Communication and Information (SC&I) at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, click here.