General FAQ

What is unique about Social Science One’s approach?

Using company data in a way that respects the scientific process requires that individual academics have two assurances that have historically been difficult for industry to provide any one researcher simultaneously: (1) Complete freedom to publish without prior review by the company and (2) privileged access to appropriate portions of the company’s data, people, platforms and processes. Social Science One’s two-part structure – with a commission of distinguished academics as a trusted third party and forego publication and outside academics with complete freedom to publish – solves this problem. This is described in the paper at GaryKing.org/partnerships.

What's "the Commission"?

"The commission" is the "trusted third party mentioned above”  In the case of the Facebook partnership, the commission is composed of (a) Gary King and Nathaniel Persily as co-chairs, acting like editors of a scholarly journal and (b) other members, acting like members of the journal's editorial board, but organized into methodological, substantive and regional committees. Different subsets of members (as needed, cross-cutting the committee structure) sign one of three levels of confidentiality agreement, with only the most restrictive of which has privileged access to proprietary information at Facebook and, as a result, foregoes grant applications and publication without pre-approval.

The commission is a unified structure and so it (although not every one of its members) has full access to the necessary datasets and information at Facebook needed to conduct research. The decision-making structure ensures that "the commission" can access whatever information it needs without unduly burdening its members or creating a security risk by having every single member access proprietary or privileged information that they don't necessarily need for a particular decision or analysis.

 

How will Social Science One touch the lives of everyday people, society at large?

Social Science One brings the efforts and talents of the scientific community to the table in studying some of the greatest challenges in modern times. In the case of the Facebook partnership, we intend for the research initiated by Social Science One to improve the understanding and operation of elections and democracy in nations worldwide. The task ahead is vast, the questions are important, the potential advances large and the range of knowledge that is possible significant.

We also plan to branch out to other subject areas and sources of data (either ourselves or by sharing insights in order that others can follow this model). We hope this enables the academic community to address some of the many other important challenges that affect humanity, including public health, medicine, wellbeing, friendship, and many others.

 

How will individuals’ privacy be protected when companies share data?

For datasets that raise no legitimate privacy concerns, data may be released publicly or with minimal safeguards, such as highly aggregated data that is already released by technology firms. For more sensitive datasets, more precautions will be put in place. For example, researchers may need to develop analysis code based on a synthetic data set and submit the code for automated (or manual) execution. We have been involved in highly intensive and extensive work covering privacy, security, legal, regulatory, technical, statistical, archival, computational, financial, and other components to make all this possible.

These procedures effectively change from a regime of individual responsibility, where scholars legally agree to follow the rules and the rest of the community hopes they comply, to one of collective responsibility, where multiple people are always checking and the risk of improper actions by any one individual is greatly limited.

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, why share sensitive data with academics?

While privacy concerns are certainly justified in the wake of recent revelations (after all, the Cambridge Analytica scandal began with misconduct by an academic), now is precisely the time to solve this problem in an effort to restore trust. Social Science One has developed a new organizational structure that protects users’ privacy, insulates the process from individual researchers violating the rules, and empowers independent academics to advance the general good in a way that all may benefit.

If no such structures are developed, both academics and society at large will be hampered in seeking answers to some of society’s most pressing challenges, including, most immediately, the impact that social media has on democracy and elections. Meanwhile, the private sector, which is already hesitant to provide transparency, will continue to face mistrust and suspicion.

 

Will nonprofit funding be the standard for all research organized under Social Science One?

The structure of diverse nonprofit philanthropic foundations pooling their funding and regranting from SSRC was especially helpful for the Facebook partnership because the topic area – the effects of social media on elections and democracy – is among the most sensitive and highly charged partisan issue areas. As such, Social Science One and SSRC have financial independence from Facebook and decision-making independence from both Facebook and any one foundation.

In less sensitive areas of research, and when appropriate, Social Science One may consider enabling private firms to fund research as well. Our two-part structure, and other procedures we will put in place, will continue to fully insulate researchers from undue financial influence by those funding the research.

 

How can my company work with Social Science One?

If you are collecting informative data on people, groups, or societies in the process of doing business, enlisting independent academics to do research can help your company, your customers, your stockholders, and all of society. Although the data was collected originally to advance your business purposes, academics can often find ways of using it to solve some of society's greatest challenges. As a trusted third party, Social Science One and its special procedures have been designed to ensure this outcome while also meeting your own business objectives.

Please contact the co-chairs Gary King and Nathaniel Persily directly.

Don’t most companies have the ability to analyze their own data?

Numerous firms employ large numbers of first rate data scientists, but these researchers must spend much of their time working on specific questions of direct interest to the company. They often also contribute to the public good, and sometimes even publish in scholarly journals when the company approves of their results, but companies have a legal responsibility to pursue their private interest and maximize stockholder value, and so employees understandably stay focused on those goals. In contrast, the freedom independent academics have to engage with the scientific community without pre-publication approval, and with far more control over questions they take on, makes the pursuit of the public good their primary goal. This is why Social Science One’s model is so important.

 

Why will companies be willing to give academic researchers access to their data?

Participating companies will have access to the best academic researchers in the world to help them solve their most difficult technical problems.  At the same time, Social Science One ensures that data access to researchers occurs in ways that do not harm an individual’s privacy or a company’s competitive position. This whole process is also a way for companies to contribute independent and rigorous insights and analysis to solve problems for the broader society.

How does the commission process protect the proprietary interests or competitive market positions of the companies that share their data?

Social Science One’s two-part structure has a commission of distinguished academics who sign confidentiality agreements, and forgo the right to publish without prior approval or apply for grants as part of the process. The commission serves as a trusted third party, ensuring the rights of outside independent academics to be able to publish without prior approval. In return, the commission will also ensure that academics act in ways that protect the interests of the company, protecting against leaks or theft of sensitive information.

How is Social Science One ensuring diversity among those involved, including involving researchers from other countries?

To ensure global participation from the academic community, Social Science One has established commission committees in different regions and are holding or attending conferences all over the world. The co-chairs, Gary King and Nathaniel Persily, have worked hard to select commission members that reflect some of the enormous regional, demographic, substantive, and methodological diversity in the academic community.