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."