Overview

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Social Science One implements a new type of partnership between academic researchers and private industry to advance the goals of social science in understanding and solving society’s greatest challenges. The partnership enables academics to analyze the increasingly rich troves of information amassed by private industry in responsible and socially beneficial ways. It ensures the public maintains privacy while gaining societal value from scholarly research. And it enables firms to enlist the scientific community to help them and produce social good, while protecting their competitive positions.

Social Science One's inaugural project on “the effects of social media on democracy and elections” offers researchers privacy-preserving data access from Facebook; funding from seven nonprofit foundations from across the ideological spectrum (pooled, regranted from, and administered by the Social Science Research Council, SSRC); and a new type of peer pre-review service from Social Science One designed to speed scientific progress and shorten time-to-publication.

The two-part organizational structure that makes Social Science One possible is described in this paper. A commission of senior academics, including some who sign confidentiality agreements and forego grants and publication, acts as a trusted third party with full access at the company. Partnering companies agree to provide the commission access to confidential internal information and answer relevant questions, with the exclusion of information and data which violates privacy, existing legal agreements/obligations, and ongoing investigations. The commission is obligated to report to the public any violation of this agreement by the company.

The commission identifies relevant datasets and writes a series of Requests For Proposals. After scientific and ethical peer review organized by SSRC, final decisions are made by Social Science One, with outside scholars retaining freedom to publish on agreed upon topics without company pre-approval.

Personal privacy is scrupulously protected. All research projects must pass the standard peer-review protocols of academic social science, with the addition of a special ethical review designed for the unique challenges of analyzing the types of questions and data. The proprietary, competitive interests of the companies are protected. But companies whose data is analyzed have no right to pre-publication approval of the results, thus ensuring the integrity of the scientific process.

To ensure that the scientific and ethical peer-review processes conform to best academic practices, we have contracted with a universally respected independent foundation, the Social Science Research Council, which will provide formal financial discretion and control, and make recommendations on all proposals to Social Science One.

The Social Science One commission structure aligns the incentives of constituencies that may not typically find common ground: 

  • Companies, which enlist the academic community in pursuit of the social good, while protecting their proprietary, competitive interests

  • Academics, who receive access to valuable social science data and have full freedom to publish

  • The public, who maintain individual data privacy while gaining societal value from scholarly research


More detail on the two-part organizational structure that makes Social Science possible is explained in the paper A New Model for Industry-Academic Partnerships” by Gary King and Nathaniel Persily.  Social Science One is being incubated at Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science, which is directed by Gary King.