The Problem with IRBs

Anyone concerned about the extension of Institutional Review Board (IRB) oversight into humanities and social science research will want to read The American Association of University Professors new report on “Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board.” As the report details, the IRBs exercise virtually unchecked power, make up standards and criteria as they go along, and typically fail to provide any means of appealing their decisions.

For those who do not follow these issues, these review boards were established to protect human beings from dangerous medical or psychological experiments. This is hardly objectionable, as there are more than enough horror stories to warrant real care on these issues. Unfortunately, however, over the past few decades college and university administrators expanded the mandate and mission of the IRBs to cover methods of academic research—such as oral history—where there is no evident risk of harm.

Try as it might, the Association has not been able to stem this tide of mission creep into activities like oral history research where it seems completely inappropriate. Even after an apparent agreement with the federal office that oversees the IRB regulations in 2003, a recent AHA staff survey of review board policies at 252 colleges and universities found the policies largely unchanged.

The AAUP’s report buttresses many of the AHA’s concerns and places it in the larger context of other humanities and social science disciplines. Sadly, the report concludes on very pessimistic note. In a litigious society, with large sums of federal funding (for the science faculties) potentially at stake, risk averse college and university administrators have every incentive to set the regulators free and further fetter research.

We will continue to work on this issue in the coming months and years, and encourage historians to engage administrators and review boards at the local level, and insist that they set clear policies and appropriate criteria for their oversight of oral history and other forms of humanities and social science.

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  1. Kathleen Tobin

    It was great to wake up to this blog, and I thought it would be a nice diversion during my morning coffee. Instead, I discovered a haunting reminder that I haven’t completed my IRB forms required on yet another project.

    As an historian I believed I was safe from the bureaucratic and intrusive process, but an occasional student research project looking into Hispanic/Latino affairs on campus made me all too aware that even I couldn’t escape. Now I have a student interviewing elderly Puerto Ricans in Northwest Indiana about their immigration experiences—hardly a project that will put them in danger—and here, the forms sit in a folder on my coffee table.
    Thanks for the reminder.
    Kathleen A. Tobin
    Associate Professor
    Latin American Studies
    Purdue University Calumet

  2. claire moses

    The question for me is how and when, in actual practice, we can skip the IRB approval process. I have a grad student working on the 1950s, in the mode of a cultural studies scholar, on various representations of Ethel Rosenberg, and intends to interview Tony Kushner about his portrayal of ER in Angels in America. A 2d example: I have a colleague who did lectures in various Eastern European universities and while there interviewed faculty about the development of women’s studies programs in their institutions, with the intent of writing this up (altho’ she’s not yet certain whether this would be a full-fledge article or simply a report). These are 2 examples that were discussed in a recent department meeting. Both student and colleague were urged to get IRB approval “just in case.” Thinking back to the AHA agreement, I urged them not to… I’m personally convinced that IRB approval is ridiculous for these 2 projects, but other faculty were afraid that the student (especially) could be hurt when it’s time to publish her work. My question: how? Who even knows whether the author had IRB approval for these authors? Is it wrong, in the present circumstances, for us, as advisors, to tell our students not to ask for IRB approval?