Getting Free of the IRB: A Call to Action for Oral History

The federal government is offering a significant opportunity to weigh in on the intrusion of institutional review boards (IRBs) into history work, as part of a major re-evaluation of the rules governing human-subject research. Any historian who uses oral history methods, or supervises students who conduct interviews, should speak out and demand change.

The request comes as part of a much larger proposal from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to revise the oversight regime for federally funded research (and by extension, all forms of research at institutions that receive federal funds). According to the Washington Post, these proposals will extend “protections to a larger number of people while simultaneously streamlining the oversight and paperwork required of scientists.”

As many historians have learned to their peril over the past decade, vague federal policies and administrators’ instinct to avoid potential liabilities fostered an ever-widening regime of IRB oversight. As a result, at many colleges and universities, rules established to protect “human subjects” (living people) from dangerous medical and psychological experiments now often extend to history.

The policies and procedures of the IRBs often reflect their origins in the health sciences, with demands for confidentiality of sources and prior approval of all questions that may be asked in an interview. This is antithetical to many of the basic principles of history work, where clearly identifying a source and flexibly pursuing questions wherever they lead is essential. But the consequences of ignoring the rules can be quite severe. Universities have withheld doctoral degrees, suspended research projects, and threatened history teachers and students with thousands of dollars in fines for conducting interviews without approval. Over the past decade, the AHA actively tried to reverse these policies with mixed success (at best).

The new proposal recognizes that scholars in the social sciences and even the humanities often get swept up in the standard IRB procedures, and offers two different possible remedies.

First, the HHS proposal offers a specific set of alternatives for researchers in the social and behavioral sciences, recommending a new category (“Excused”) to cover research that poses “no more than minimal risk,” involves only “competent adults,” and includes reasonable “data security and protection standards.” Researchers would still need to submit a one-page description of their research to an IRB, but generally would not need to have any further contact with a review board.

That would be better than the often arbitrary or inappropriate rules currently applied at many colleges and universities, but the proposal opens the door to a more general solution—the complete exclusion of certain forms of research from the “Common Rule” governing human-subject research. The request for comments does not offer a specific proposal, but does ask:

Are there certain fields of study whose usual methods of inquiry were not intended to or should not be covered by the Common Rule (such as classics, history, languages, literature, and journalism) because they do not create generalizable knowledge and may be more appropriately covered by ethical codes that differ from the ethical principles embodied in the Common Rule? If so, what are those fields, and how should those methods of inquiry be identified? Should the Common Rule be revised to explicitly state that those activities are not subject to its requirements?

That seems like a wide open invitation to us, but there are some potential dangers here as well. In 2004, the AHA and Oral History Association worked with HHS on the formulation proposed here (that history does not constitute “research that creates generalizable knowledge”). Unfortunately, the argument prompted some derision from outside the field, from academics who interpreted the phrase to say simply “history is not research.” (As a case in point, the vice president for research at my own university, after a fairly contentious meeting on the subject, wished me well on my “non-research dissertation.”)

We also received a number of complaints from within the discipline. Some historians argue that history does contribute generalizable knowledge, even if it bears little resemblance to the scientific definition of the word. And faculty members at history of medicine departments and in the social science side of history warned that this position undermined both their institutional standing and their ability to obtain grants. They made it clear that however finely worded, stating that history did not constitute research in even the most bureaucratic terms could have some real financial costs to the discipline.

Given that, anything the AHA writes will need to walk a fine line to represent all members of the discipline, perhaps by reframing the question to address the fundamental problem: the application of completely inappropriate rules and criteria to historical research. That was the approach taken in our most recent letter to the federal government on the issue. Over the coming months we plan to work with other history organizations and experts in the field of oral history research to craft a response to this proposal. As always, we welcome comments and suggestions from our members.

Equally important, we encourage you to consider writing HHS with your own thoughts and observations on the issue. Comments are due by September 22, and can be submitted online (click on “Submit a Comment” and follow the instructions) or by mail to Jerry Menikoff at jerry.menikoff@hhs.gov or Office of Human Research Protections, 1101 Wootton Parkway, Suite 200, Rockville, MD 20852.

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  1. Zachary Schrag

    I want to make it clear that the term “generalizable” does not appear in the statutes underlying the regulations. Rather, those statutes refer to “biomedical and behavioral research.”

    Thus, a reconsideration of the regulations gives historians the opportunity to suggest that our work may be generalizable, but because it is not biomedical or behavioral research it should not be subject to these regulations.

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  2. Gene B. Preuss

    Part of the problem here is the phrase, “research that creates generalizable knowledge”. What does this term mean. It is awkward and vague. So, when oral historians argue that oral history isn’t generalizable knowledge, academics quibble, but often reveal their own ignorance of our field when doing so.
    First, is any history “generalizable” knowledge? History is about specific incidents; the effort to arrive at some general history of the world or the human condition that is marked more by exceptions to the rules than absolute adherence.
    Does it mean “quantifiable” information? If so, then while there are many quantative historians who do excellent work, does oral history fit into this category? Although many of my statistically inclined colleagues do believe you can “quantify everything”, I remain unconvinced that you can or should. I’m reminded of the problems with Time on the Cross.
    There is also some concern with what some who use oral history have purported oral history can do: especially its therapeutic benefits.
    According to the ethical standards the Oral History Association, oral history should be done with consent of the interviewee, who retains authorship, copyright, and editorial privilege. These important characteristics separate oral history from other methods of historical research and medical and psychological research as well.

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  3. Sharon Karpinski

    “research that creates generalizable knowledge” is advanced gobbledygook even if you are doing scientific, rather than historical, research. I think an overhaul of the applicable jargon is the first step needed to remove historians from IRB standards. IF IRB standards will continue to be applied to historical research, than the rules need to be revised for historians to reflect what we do and with whom. Several years ago, I spent a month trying to figure out how to apply science-oriented IRB standards to a bunch of 80 year old research subjects who lived in a community so small that they all would be instantly recognizable to anyone reading the paper who knew the area. That situation is a no-no for laboratory subjects but sometimes unavoidable in oral history. This situation needs to change.

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