October 12, 2006
By Robert B. Townsend
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.