Monday, March 31, 2008

IRBs "Jerk Around" Education Research

Debra Viadero reports on the recent conference of the American Educational Research Association: "Security Checks of U.S. Education Contractors to Change," Education Week, 2 April 2008.

She includes the following description of one session:

Under federal human-protections laws, studies that involve human subjects—a category that includes most research in education—first have to be approved by institutional review boards, or IRBs, based at researchers’ home universities or research organizations.

But that process can sometimes be fraught with frustration and distrust . . . .

“While I was behind the curtain, it seemed to me that our board was quite reasonable,” said Frederick D. Erickson, a professor of anthropology in education at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has served on three institutional review boards over the course of his career. “Now, I’ve got a project of my own in expedited institutional review,” he added, “and it’s being jerked around in ways that make my blood boil.”

Some problems with the process, said Melissa S. Anderson, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities who has studied IRBs, is that researchers often disagree with the boards’ judgments or may be skeptical of their authority.

“It’s, ‘What right do they have to tell me whether or not I can do research?’ ” she said. “The issue of peer review when peers aren’t seen as peers is … a sticking point.”

“This can lead to IRB shopping,” Ms. Anderson added, which is what occurs when researchers working on a study involving multiple universities try to figure out which one’s board is most likely to approve their project. “That’s becoming increasingly common and problematic.”

In a national survey of scientists that Ms. Anderson and her colleagues conducted last year, 5 percent of respondents admitted to having ignored or circumvented human-research requirements sometime in the previous three years. When medical researchers were removed from the sample, that percentage rose to 8 percent.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Trauma-Based Research Is Less Risky Than Imagined

The March 2008 issue of the Journal of Empirical Research in Human Research Ethics is out. As with previous issues of this journal, several articles present empirical evidence that challenges the assumptions used by many IRBs.

The lead editoral, Joan E. Sieber's "Protecting the Vulnerable: Who Are They?" provides a good summation of some of the the findings:

In this issue of JERHRE, five articles demonstrate the importance of applying an empirical approach to understanding vulnerability. Each article demonstrates a fallacy of using a simple subpopulation approach, and the importance of a more reasoned, nuanced and empirical evaluation of vulnerability.

Luebbert, Tait, Chibnall, and Deshields show how the labels we apply to subpopulations can mislead. They found that ethics committee members view psychiatric subjects as having greater vulnerability to coercion and less decisional capacity than medical subjects, even when the medical illness is of a severity likely to engender serious psychiatric comorbidities.

Three articles (DePrince and Chu; Chu, DePrince and Weinzierl; and Schwerdtfeger and Goff) evaluate the vulnerability of trauma victims, including children and young pregnant women, to research that focuses on their past traumas. Some have argued that such research “retraumatizes” the victims. However, all three studies found that trauma victims experience such research participation as distinctly beneficial.

In their article, "The Effects of Trauma-Focused Research on Pregnant Female Participants," Kami L. Schwerdtfeger and Briana S. Nelson Goff conclude from their review of the existing literature that

although trauma-based research may produce intense emotions, it is not re-traumatizing nor does it cause harm to participants. Studies involving a variety of trauma survivors found that participation in the research was not overwhelming or distressing and was generally an experience that participants would be willing to repeat.

Their own study found this also to be true of pregnant women.

The possibility that interviewing may traumatize narrators has been used as a chief justification for IRB review of oral history. (See, for example, Taylor Atkins's comments in Kanya Balakrishna, "Humanities Research May See More Rules," Yale Daily News, 17 April 2007.) But empirical research suggests that this possibility is rather small. It is therefore probable that by deterring interviews with trauma survivors, IRBs are significantly more likely to deny them a positive experience than to protect them from harm.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Perceptive readers may have noted a slight change in this blog. I have moved it to the custom domain, The old domain,, should still work as well.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Maureen Fitzgerald's Ethics Project

Anthropologist and George Mason University alumna Maureen Fitzgerald, now affiliated with the University of Sydney, is the director of "An Analysis of Research Ethics and the Ethical Review Process as Culture and Cultural Process," an ongoing investigation more succinctly named "The Ethics Project."

Between 2001 and 2005 she and her associates observed the workings of 29 ethics committees in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States--not finding significant differences across national boundaries. They have published several papers based on this work, most of which are available on the project's website. Since the themes of many of these publications overlap, I will focus my comments on three articles that I found particularly helpful.