On this May Day edition of “What We’re Reading,” we start off with a link to Zachary Schrag’s article on IRBs, which examines “how talking became human subjects research.” Then, we turn to kids these days: how they’re being taught history and how they’re affected by growing up in a digital world. Also included are articles about secret wartime refugees, content versus design in history web sites, an excellent work of nonfiction (that unfortunately turns out to be based on fiction), and a move to open Brazilian archives.
The federal Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) received a large response to their request for comment on research methods subject to institutional review boards (IRBs). Dr. Zachary Schrag, an assistant professor at George Mason University, reports that more than half of the 65 responses to the OHRP’s request asked for an exclusion of oral history research methods.
Staff at OHRP provided Schrag with copies of all the comments submitted (at his request), and he posted them at Institutional Review Blog last week.
The American Historical Association formally requested that oral history be excluded from the list of topics subject to "expedited review" last week, in response to a recent request for comments from the Office of Human Research Protections. The letter, approved by the Association’s executive committee, cites the profession’s "long and unhappy experience with the way these policies have been implemented," and concludes that IRB oversight is in "conflict with the essential canons of our practice."
The letter also expresses concern about a proposed change to the guidelines that removes the exemption for "Research involving materials (data, documents, records, or specimens) that…will be collected solely for nonresearch purposes." This change could potentially further extend IRB purview over gathering, archiving, and future use of oral histories and similar materials.
The federal government is inviting comments (at http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/documents/20071026.htm) on policies that lead to the intrusion of institutional review boards (IRBs) into oral history research. This provides a rare opportunity for members of our profession to register their objections. I urge every historian who conducts oral history, or is responsible for students who use oral history methods, to respond to this request and express their concerns about the inappropriate and often arbitrary way this policy has been applied to history research in many colleges and universities.
Digital is the buzzword in this edition of “What We’re Reading.” Check out articles on digitization projects at the Library of Congress as well as at libraries across the country. Then read about a Harvard Professor’s methods on integrating “digital innovation and scholarship” in his classroom. See also articles on the historical value of photos, Wikpedia’s anonymous editors, IRBs in Iraq, and more memories of Roy Rosenzweig.
- Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web
This article, from Monday’s New York Times, tellsabout libraries trying to set their own strategies for digital preservation of materials, and offers an interesting survey of the issues and players involved.
Members who are troubled about the growing intrusion of Institutional Review Boards over oral history will want to take a look at Institutional Review Blog, just started by Zachary Schrag at George Mason University.
In yesterday’s posting he offers an interesting letter from our friends at the Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP). In response to a query about whether one of OHRP’s own oral history projects had been subject to IRB review, he was told that “OHRP determined that obtaining oral histories of members and staff of the National Commission did not represent research as defined at 45 CFR 46.102(d) because the activity was not a systematic investigation, nor was it intended to contribute to generalizable knowledge.
Yesterday the AHA’s own Robert Townsend, assistant director for research and publications, led a live online discussion on the need (or lack thereof) for institutional review boards in oral history. The lively colloquy took place on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s web site and was moderated by Chronicle reporter Jennifer Howard.
Robert Townsend answered questions from academics, historians, and even an institutional review board administrator, addressing a variety of issues with IRBs. Concerns about IRBs’ lack of clear and consistent standards, its spillover into examining undergraduate projects, and the overall application of “criteria that are inappropriate to our discipline,” were just a few topics of discussion.
Students, and their advisors, working on the history of the 20th century should take a look at the article on “Oral History Under Review” in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. The Association is on record as objecting to the often arbitrary application of IRB rules, which use criteria that seem wholly inappropriate to our field. The report documents a number of troubling cases that reinforce those concerns.
As the report also suggests, however, the history profession can and should do a better job in preparing students to conduct oral history research.