Universities require faculty and students planning research involving human subjects to pass formal certification tests and then submit research plans for prior approval. Those who diligently take the tests may better understand certain important legal requirements but, at the same time, are often misled into thinking they can apply these rules to their own work which, in fact, they are not permitted to do. They will also be missing many other legal requirements not mentioned in their training but which govern their behaviors. Finally, the training leaves them likely to completely misunderstand the essentially political situation they find themselves in. The resulting risks to their universities, collaborators, and careers may be catastrophic, in addition to contributing to the more common ordinary frustrations of researchers with the system. To avoid these problems, faculty and students conducting research about and for the public need to understand that they are public figures, to whom different rules apply, ones that political scientists have long studied. University administrators (and faculty in their part-time roles as administrators) need to reorient their perspectives as well. University research compliance bureaucracies have grown, in well-meaning but sometimes unproductive ways that are not required by federal laws or guidelines. We offer advice to faculty and students for how to deal with the system as it exists now, and suggestions for changes in university research compliance bureaucracies, that should benefit faculty, students, staff, university budgets, and our research subjects.
We provide an overview of PSI ("a Private data Sharing Interface"), a system we are developing to enable researchers in the social sciences and other fields to share and explore privacy-sensitive datasets with the strong privacy protections of differential privacy.
In a major development in data sharing, data providers are beginning to supplement insecure privacy protection strategies, such as "de-identification," with a formal approach called "differential privacy". One version of differential privacy adds specially calibrated random noise to a dataset, which is then released to researchers. This offers mathematical guarantees for the privacy of research subjects while still making it possible to learn about aggregate patterns of interest. Unfortunately, adding random noise creates measurement error, which induces statistical bias -- including attenuation, exaggeration, switched signs, or incorrect uncertainty estimates. We offer an easy-to-use, computationally efficient approach that corrects for these biases, can be used as researchers would use linear regression, and gives statistically consistent and approximately unbiased estimates and standard errors. We use as our running example the Full URLs Dataset recently released by Social Science One and Facebook, containing more than 10 trillion cell values.
Unprecedented quantities of data that could help social scientists understand and ameliorate the challenges of human society are presently locked away inside companies, governments, and other organizations, in part because of worries about privacy violations. We address this problem with a general-purpose data access and analysis system with mathematical guarantees of privacy for individuals who may be represented in the data, statistical guarantees for researchers seeking population-level insights from it, and protection for society from some fallacious scientific conclusions. We build on the standard of "differential privacy" but, unlike most such approaches, we also correct for the serious statistical biases induced by privacy-preserving procedures, provide a proper accounting for statistical uncertainty, and impose minimal constraints on the choice of data analytic methods and types of quantities estimated. Our algorithm is easy to implement, simple to use, and computationally efficient; we also offer open source software to illustrate all our methods.
Inference is the process of using facts we know to learn about facts we do not know. A theory of inference gives assumptions necessary to get from the former to the latter, along with a definition for and summary of the resulting uncertainty. Any one theory of inference is neither right nor wrong, but merely an axiom that may or may not be useful. Each of the many diverse theories of inference can be valuable for certain applications. However, no existing theory of inference addresses the tendency to choose, from the range of plausible data analysis specifications consistent with prior evidence, those that inadvertently favor one's own hypotheses. Since the biases from these choices are a growing concern across scientific fields, and in a sense the reason the scientific community was invented in the first place, we introduce a new theory of inference designed to address this critical problem. We derive "hacking intervals," which are the range of a summary statistic one may obtain given a class of possible endogenous manipulations of the data. Hacking intervals require no appeal to hypothetical data sets drawn from imaginary superpopulations. A scientific result with a small hacking interval is more robust to researcher manipulation than one with a larger interval, and is often easier to interpret than a classical confidence interval. Some versions of hacking intervals turn out to be equivalent to classical confidence intervals, which means they may also provide a more intuitive and potentially more useful interpretation of classical confidence intervals.
Last year was difficult for Google Flu Trends (GFT). In early 2013, Nature reported that GFT was estimating more than double the percentage of doctor visits for influenza like illness than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention s (CDC) sentinel reports during the 2012 2013 flu season (1). Given that GFT was designed to forecast upcoming CDC reports, this was a problematic finding. In March 2014, our report in Science found that the overestimation problem in GFT was also present in the 2011 2012 flu season (2). The report also found strong evidence of autocorrelation and seasonality in the GFT errors, and presented evidence that the issues were likely, at least in part, due to modifications made by Google s search algorithm and the decision by GFT engineers not to use previous CDC reports or seasonality estimates in their models what the article labeled algorithm dynamics and big data hubris respectively. Moreover, the report and the supporting online materials detailed how difficult/impossible it is to replicate the GFT results, undermining independent efforts to explore the source of GFT errors and formulate improvements.
Matching is an increasingly popular method of causal inference in observational data, but following methodological best practices has proven difficult for applied researchers. We address this problem by providing a simple graphical approach for choosing among the numerous possible matching solutions generated by three methods: the venerable ``Mahalanobis Distance Matching'' (MDM), the commonly used ``Propensity Score Matching'' (PSM), and a newer approach called ``Coarsened Exact Matching'' (CEM). In the process of using our approach, we also discover that PSM often approximates random matching, both in many real applications and in data simulated by the processes that fit PSM theory. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, random matching is not benign: it (and thus PSM) can often degrade inferences relative to not matching at all. We find that MDM and CEM do not have this problem, and in practice CEM usually outperforms the other two approaches. However, with our comparative graphical approach and easy-to-follow procedures, focus can be on choosing a matching solution for a particular application, which is what may improve inferences, rather than the particular method used to generate it.
We highlight, and suggest ways to avoid, a large number of common misunderstandings in the literature about best practices in qualitative research. We discuss these issues in four areas: theory and data, qualitative and quantitative strategies, causation and explanation, and selection bias. Some of the misunderstandings involve incendiary debates within our discipline that are readily resolved either directly or with results known in research areas that happen to be unknown to political scientists. Many of these misunderstandings can also be found in quantitative research, often with different names, and some of which can be fixed with reference to ideas better understood in the qualitative methods literature. Our goal is to improve the ability of quantitatively and qualitatively oriented scholars to enjoy the advantages of insights from both areas. Thus, throughout, we attempt to construct specific practical guidelines that can be used to improve actual qualitative research designs, not only the qualitative methods literatures that talk about them.