Academia

Review Board Avoidance Syndrome

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Yesterday's New York Times had an interesting story on how institutional review boards, legally required for universities that receive federal research money, compromise academic freedom. There's little question, given the ethical lapses of the past, that something like these boards is necessary to make sure researchers do not expose unwitting subjects to unjustifiable risks. But the boards range far beyond biomedical studies, where the dangers are greatest, to social science research that poses little or no risk to human subjects:

Among the incidents cited in recent report by the American Association of University Professors are a review board asking a linguist studying a preliterate tribe to "have the subjects read and sign a consent form," and a board forbidding a white student studying ethnicity to interview African-American Ph.D. students "because it might be traumatic for them."

"It drives historians crazy," said Joshua Freeman, the director of the City University's graduate history program. "It's a medical model, it's inappropriate and ignorant." One student currently waiting for a board to approve his study of a strike in the 1970s, Mr. Freeman said, had to submit a list of questions he was going to ask workers and union officials, file signed consent forms, describe the locked location where he would keep all his notes, take a test to certify he understood the standards.

One result is that graduate students and untenured faculty members tend to avoid research that involves interacting with people, which would require a board review process for which they may not have time, instead sticking to newspaper articles or other documents. The system "obliterates a lot of research," complains a professor of communications at the University of Missouri, adding that research design "should be guided by science, not whether or not it's going to get through the board."

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  1. When I was in grad school for urban planning, I once had to get people to sign human consent forms to ask them how the felt about mobile homes.

  2. And that, joe, is the reason (well, actually, just one reason) that I deal with the long since dead.

  3. Good luck getting them to sign a release.

  4. The IRBs are overboard, but one reason is that social scientists have a history of going overboard themselves.

    It’s analagous to my blaming companies for unions.

  5. Last week I was talking to somebody who has tried a few different teaching methods in different quarters and wanted to compare student performance in the different courses. All of the teaching methods are in the mainstream, nothing weird is being done to the students, and the review board agreed that it would be perfectly fine to use these different methods in her classes and then compare.

    However, the review board wouldn’t let her use grades from previous quarters, only from courses taught after it had been approved. She has the grades in her filing cabinet, she has the lesson plans in her filing cabinet, but she can’t use any of this old info for writing a paper.

    (I do have a few questions about the validity comparing the cohort who takes the class one quarter with the cohort who takes the class the next quarter, given that students who start the sequence in a different quarter might have different preparation or something, but this goes to the scientific validity of the study, not the ethics of the study. The two issues can overlap, but there are distinctions. A study can be of questionable use, but if “no students were harmed in the performance of this study” then it isn’t unethical.)

  6. “”no students were harmed in the performance of this study””

    ‘cept for students, that means no tests, papers, quizzes, and class has to start at a goodly hour 🙂

  7. “It drives historians crazy,” said Joshua Freeman, the director of the City University’s graduate history program.”

    I wonder if that explains why the better history is being written by journalists and amateurs outside of the acadamy these days?

  8. I need an institutional review to evaluate my study of this website. There is no person in authority who can tell me whether the things I am writing here are true or not. I don’t know what to do with myself.

    Any ideas?

  9. smoke more weed.

    or smoke less of it.

    one of the two.

  10. Great minds and blah, blah, blah… I gathered a bit of wool yesterday over that article and subject at (the now slightly less inactive) Inactivist.

  11. And you guys call yourselves libertarians! The obvious answer is “stop accepting Federal money and then do what you want”.

  12. Dan T.-

    It’s more complicated than that. Even if all research were privately funded and there were no laws governing the ethical conduct of research, the people running the research institutions would have to strike a balance between complete control (they assign projects that already meet whatever ethical criteria they care about, and the researchers do these assigned projects) and creative independence (they hire scientists who are allowed to design and propose experiments). As soon as the researchers have some independence, so that they can propose their own projects rather than have them assigned, the people running the institution will need to have an ethics review board to make sure that the projects are consistent with whatever guidelines the directors and funders of the institution care about.

    So now you’ve got this gatekeeper board acting to uphold the principles of the people/companies/whatever funding the research, and you’ve got researchers trying to deal with that hurdle.

    The basic problem is that one group is more concerned about rules and the other is more concerned about science, and so with the need to meet both sets of goals the party with the greater power will tend to dominate. The party with the greater power is the party that cares about rules. (And, given history, that’s probably the way it should be.) And as soon as rules matter more than the science, absurdities will happen. (Although that’s arguably the price we pay to avoid repeating certain mistakes.)

    There are certain problems that organizations of a particular size with a particular mission and a certain division of labor will inevitably be subject to, regardless of who’s writing the checks. And so it is interesting to talk about these problems. We can issue all the libertarian disclaimers that we want, but the same problems will apply, although perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent.

  13. thoreau, I agree with you. I was mostly being snarky.

    I guess as long as rules exist in a situation, some people will think they go too far and others not far enough. Such is life.

  14. One student currently waiting for a board to approve his study of a strike in the 1970s, Mr. Freeman said, had to submit a list of questions he was going to ask workers and union officials, file signed consent forms, describe the locked location where he would keep all his notes, take a test to certify he understood the standards.

    One student? Heck, I and everyone else in my 400-level sociology class required in my undergraduate days had to do all of that. That is standard. I spent way more time completing the IRB requirements than I did on the overall project, interview, and term paper. The worst part was that the teacher (nice though she was) was one of those finicky nitpickers who had me redo the requirements over and over until every last hair was in place so-to-speak. I think my project was accepted a few weeks after the semester officially ended, sometime over the summer.

    And that, my friends, is hell, in a nutshell.

  15. Dan T.’
    “I was mostly being snarky.”

    Say it so, Dan!

  16. No actually, now that I think about it, I think it actually carried over the summer and into the fall semester of the next schoolyear. That’s how bad it was. Just to fulfill a requirement…kind of made me second-guess choosing a liberal arts college.

  17. Smacky-

    You had to get IRB approval for a sociology term paper?

    When I wrote my econ term paper about souveneir t-shirt prices on Hollywood Boulevard I didn’t ask anybody’s permission, I just got a clipboard and started writing down prices.

  18. Shades of Grace Hopper.

    “It’s often easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.”

  19. You had to get IRB approval for a sociology term paper?

    thoreau,

    Yes. We had one of two options for our final term paper. One was to do an interview or poll, and I can’t remember the other one (I think maybe it was a video presentation or something), but obviously I chose the interview (mine was a questionnaire for people in the music industry about how “illegal” media downloading was affecting them economically, socially, etc.). We had no choice but to interact with people, which requires IRB approval. I think my teacher did this so we would have to go through the IRB process.

  20. When I was in grad school for urban planning, I once had to get people to sign human consent forms to ask them how the felt about mobile homes.

    I’m confused. “Human consent forms”? That sounds terribly unwieldy. And didn’t they flinch and wiggle when you wrote on them?

  21. Jacob, does the name Stanley Milgram ring a bell? It should, because his notorious psychological experiments were a primary impetus to the current research ethics protocols. His use of deception to see how far research subjects would be willing to inflict “pain” in deference to authority through supposed electrical shocks. The guilt that these subjects experienced as a consequence belies any notion that experiments outside the biomedical field pose little risk of harm. I had to submit a questionnaire to my university’s ethics committee prior to doing my master’s thesis and didn’t think there was anything unreasonable about it.

  22. Most IRBs do not require students doing class projects to comply with their requirements. In general they are required to get approval for anything that will (or may have) have published results, such as a PhD dissertation or an article.

    I wouldn’t have a problem with them if the IRB requirements were appropriate for specific fields, but the one at Indiana University takes a *clearly* medical model (I have to know about the “proper” ways to handle tissue from live subjects and so forth even though I am pursuing *folklore* topics). In short the protocols were not written with past excesses of the social sciences in mind, but rather with medical abuses in mind, so even though the protocols don’t fit my research at all (e.g., they want a submitted questionnaire even though research in my field is open ended and developed by observation so you cannot know a priori what you will ask), I have to go through an approval process…

    I once had to abandon a major part of a project on orthography reform (now there’s a topic with hih risk of making someone feel guilt…) in Central Asia because I wasn’t allowed to ask people from the region what they thought about different writing systems. When it gets to that point of absurdity, something’s got to give.

    The universities, however, love it, because if something should go wrong, they can wash their hands of the matter and deny any legal culpability and watch the student/faculty member get sued instead…

    -Fenevad

  23. Jacob, does the name Stanley Milgram ring a bell? It should, because his notorious psychological experiments were a primary impetus to the current research ethics protocols. His use of deception to see how far research subjects would be willing to inflict “pain” in deference to authority through supposed electrical shocks. The guilt that these subjects experienced as a consequence belies any notion that experiments outside the biomedical field pose little risk of harm.

    But then what it comes down to is the right to hoax persons under the auspices of a federally-supported institution, vs. doing it yourself.

  24. So? Sounds like they called this one about right.

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