In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act. This act required researchers in biomedical or behavioral fields who received federal funds and who conducted experiments on humans to submit their work to the oversight of “institutional review boards,” or IRBs. These boards, established by universities, hospitals, and other institutions, were required to judge the ethics of a project before it could proceed. This step, Congress hoped, would prevent researchers from denying treatment to or otherwise harming the people who participated in their studies.
At some point (and I hope to learn more about this history), university IRBs around the nation began insisting that researchers in the humanities and social sciences also submit their projects for review. Ever since, many of those scholars have questioned the legality and wisdom of these demands. This blog is designed to inform the debate over IRBs by collecting breaking news, commentary, and background information on the subject.
I first became interested in this issue in July 2000. I had received a grant from the National Science Foundation to support my dissertation on the history of the Washington Metro. The grant required that if I involved human subjects in my research, I had to get approval from my university IRB. Since the definition of human subjects research seemed to include the oral-history interviews I was conducting, I accordingly gained approval for my research from Columbia University’s Human Subjects Research Committee. I kept that approval active until I had completed my research, which has now been published as The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (Johns Hopkins University Press). More recently, I gained the approval of George Mason University’s Human Subjects Research Board for a series of interviews on the history of riot control.
At neither university did the review process do much to aid my research, and, on the whole, I consider the applications to have been a poor use of my time and that of the staff doing the review. Based on my own experience and that of other scholars, I am skeptical of the application of IRB oversight to non-experimental research. On the other hand, I do believe that historians and perhaps other scholars in the humanities and social sciences could learn from IRBs’ practices of mandatory training, careful documentation, and the review of consent forms. I therefore hope to find ways in which scholars in the humanities and social sciences can learn from IRB practices without being subjected to standards and practices never meant for them.