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.

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