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.

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