Should university research policies apply to Facebook surveys by students?

Students walk through the Rose Garden on Friday, Feb. 5, 2015. Darlene Wendels/the Collegian

Who knew that moderating polls or surveys on a Fresno State-oriented Facebook group could get so controversial? I found out the week before spring break how contentious it can get.

Recently, the Collegian ran a story about the final ASI Senate vote on its contribution to the proposed Mandela statue in the Peace Garden. The piece mentioned that Sen. Travis Childress, Greek Affairs, was basing his proposal to reduce the amount of the donation directly on a poll he had done on the Fresno State Book Trade and Advice Facebook group.

It just so happened I’m one of the moderators of that group. I had seen the poll posted and had participated in it. After reading the Collegian story, I went back and looked at Childress’ post again. Nowhere did he mention he was going to use the results for official Associated Students, Inc. business.

Students were sandbagged. I had been sandbagged.

During the Senate meeting, ASI president Blake Zante criticized the poll, saying it didn’t represent students on campus. He added that participants had not been verified as current students. Those were and are valid concerns. The Facebook group includes current students, alumni, faculty, staff and administrators. Not every member is a current Fresno State student.

Polls and surveys are posted all the time on the Facebook page. The majority generally will say what they’re for and how the results will be used. That generally conforms to campus policy regarding research using human subjects. I won’t bore the reader with all the details—the policy runs 22 pages—butt in sum, it requires full disclosure.

Childress’ poll did not provide full disclosure. Several students who participated later remarked to me that, if they had known how their answers would be used, they would have answered differently.

I commented that Childress had been out of line and in future polls that didn’t fully disclose why they were being done and how the data might be used might be deleted. I was surprised at the reactions at my response.

It appeared many students have no difficulties with what some might consider unethical behavior and potential violations of common research policies and practices. Some argued that class research wasn’t covered by campus policy, that they were free to do whatever they wanted to. A few even claimed I was making it all up, to scare people.

Now, I do research all the time. Because I do, I must be familiar with all the policies and rules affecting how it’s done. Because I typically use archival material and to be sure of my facts, I double-checked the human research policy. While the campus committee on research using human subjects doesn’t routinely review work done for classes, the policy makes it clear the research must conform to the rules.

Our Facebook group occupies a no-man land of sorts. We’re not an official part of the university, but to a greater or lesser degree, we should reflect its values. That includes being transparent about what’s posted there.

In a response to my comment, Childress said I had a case of “sour grapes” over the Senate vote. I assured him that I had no vested interest in the proposal (unlike the new University Student Union), so how he voted was of no importance to me. Rather, it was a question of ethics and common courtesy.

Dan Waterhouse writes The Collegian’s Campus Column, which prints on Wednesdays. Waterhouse  is a lifelong Fresnan. He has written for the Fresno City College and Fresno State student newspapers over the years, including other local publications. Follow him on Twitter: @WaterhouseDan

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