Mary L. Gray, an anthropologist at Indiana University at Bloomington, described her work in graduate school, which raised all kinds of red flags with her IRB at the time: She wanted to study the way gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth develop their identities in the rural Southeast, and she wanted to base her research on interviews with such youth, under the age of 18, without their parents’ knowledge. Her project, she said, “had every imaginable red flag.”
With some regrets, she won IRB support by appealing to prejudice many have of the rural South. Although she had no evidence to make this claim, she argued that the situation in the rural South is “so awful” for the young people she was studying that she couldn’t possibly approach their parents for consent. (Actually Gray believes that the situation for gay youth is more subtle and less uniform than she suggested, but she guessed it would work with the IRB, and it did.)
Because the IRB was — like most IRB’s — oriented around medical research, not social science, the focus was on potential harm that Gray could cause her research subjects in person. Gray reported that she received relatively little questioning or guidance from her IRB on one of her major areas of research: what the young people she studied wrote about themselves online. Gray developed her own ethics rules (she wrote to the subjects to ask permission), but she was struck by what was and wasn’t considered important by the IRB.
To the IRB, “distance read as objectivity” and so was by definition “good,” she said. Never mind that what her subjects shared about themselves online was as important as the thoughts they shared in person. This points to Gray’s broader critique of the IRB process. Social scientists frequently complain about IRB’s failing to understand their studies, but Gray suggested it was time to move beyond the idea of just adding more social scientists to the panel. Rather, she said it was time to question certain underlying assumptions of IRB’s and whether they even make sense for social science. It’s not that Gray doesn’t think there are ethical issues researchers must consider, but whether the medical model can ever work for projects that don’t follow the pattern of having a hypothesis designed to lead to the dispassionate creation of generalizable knowledge.
Gray said that “IRB fatigue” is discouraging researchers — especially graduate students — from even trying to get projects approved.
I can't say that I'd want a graduate student in any field asking minors about their sex lives without some kind of supervision. But it sounds as though UC San Diego's IRB lacked the expertise to give Gray meaningful guidance. That lack of expertise is built into the system of local IRB review, and it can produce decisions that are too lax as well as those that are too strict.