I’ve never been a fan of the I.R.B. Few professor are. I don’t think that overt non-experimental academic researchers should need approval to observe and interact with most human subjects. We’re not giving out experimental drugs. We’re not running experiments. We’re watching and talking and living. I don’t even like the term “human subjects.” It’s dehumanizing. They're people, damnit! It’s condescending to think that adults aren’t smart enough to make their own decisions about what to say to whom. And if they’re not, well, such is life.
Nor am I convinced that research subjects who harm others deserve institutional protection. I believe academics should act under a code similar to journalists. But federal law disagrees with me. And the press has explicit constitutional protection that professors don’t.
In a comment on his blog, I pressed him to elaborate on these points, and he graciously responded with a second posting, "More on IRBs." I recommend reading the whole post, but here are some key points:
1. An IRB doesn't have to reject a proposal to stifle research. As Moskos notes, "the simple nuisance and fear of conflict with an IRB limit social-science research."
2. IRBs are set up to review protocols in advance, but that's not how ethnography works. Moskos is grateful to Harvard's IRB for requiring him, at the outset of his fieldwork, to announce to his academy classmates who he was and what he was doing. But as his work progressed, he found keeping his IRBs informed about every change to be so tedious that it wasn't worth the effort. And now that his book is out, he is still in touch with some friends from the department. When does oversight end?
As I noted in August, the University of Pennsylvania has addressed some of these concerns in its policy on evolving research. I would like to learn how that policy is working.
3. IRBs apply the wrong ethical standards. They seek to ensure that no harm comes from research, when, in cases like Venkatesh's, the "risk of some harm from his research was so great as to be virtually inevitable." And IRBs "want a guarantee of confidentiality," which is not appropriate in all circumstances; Moskos did not witness any serious crimes, but he writes that "if, hypothetically, I witnessed a police officer rob and kill, or sexually abuse a 10-year-old child, or anally violate an innocent man with a plunger, I would feel little compunction legally and ethically to violate a vow of confidentiality."
This third argument is the one that most intrigues me, since it accepts the notion that good research can be harmful. Theoretically, IRBs can approve such research, so long as the benefits of the research are commensurate. But Venkatesh eloquently describes the ethnographer's uncertainty that his research will matter, either to the individuals studied or to society as a whole. Thus, it would be hard for most ethnographers to present the kind of cost-benefit analysis required by the Belmont Report.
Moskos' acceptance of harm seems fully consistent with the ethics of the American Sociological Association, but not with the code of the American Anthropological Association, which states that "anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities." Thus, Moskos's eloquent statement of his principles illustrates why folklorists, historians, sociologists, and others should reject being lumped together with anthropologists as "social scientists," lest they find themselves subjected to ethical standards not their own.
At the end of his post, Moskos shares some of the language that he used to get IRB approval without compromising his ethical principles, and he encourages other researchers to use this language to avoid promising written consent forms or absolute confidentiality. Whether or not a researcher is subject to IRB oversight, such thoughtful statements about the ethics of research in specific contexts are valuable--far more so than the standardized ethical training mandated by most IRBs. I hope that other researchers will both read Moskos's statement and consider writing their own.