Friday, February 13, 2009

AAUP's Rhoades Takes Soft Line on IRB Training

In an essay on compulsory sexual harassment training ("Sexual Harassment and Group Punishment," Inside Higher Ed, 12 February 2009), the new AAUP general secretary, Gary Rhoades, offers side comments on human subjects research training:

In research universities (where professors’ work routinely involves human subjects, though even there literary and some other scholars are not required to undergo such training), perhaps the most obvious example of this is the human subjects training surrounding research grants and activity. Prior to getting grants approved by the sponsored projects division of a university, an investigator must have undergone human subjects training. Although the training varies by university, there are common patterns nationally. Typically, for example, such training is online, and is not particularly rigorous, to put it mildly. Indeed, the format involves investigators taking an exam by reading some written passages and then answering questions about them. After each section or module the person finds out whether he or she missed too many questions in a section, and proceeds. If they have missed too many questions in a section they simply backtrack, get the same questions in a different order, and retake the quiz, until they pass. A widely used set of exams (which are specified to social/behavioral and biomedical research) are those offered by the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative, which over 830 institutions and facilities (including a very large number of research universities, and indeed including the University of California at Irvine) utilize. The modules for the CITI quiz typically include three to six questions.

For the most part, although faculty complain about the inconvenience and irrelevance of the training, I do not know of anyone who would suggest that such training should be required only of investigators found to have violated the rights of human subjects. The more important questions of process and principle surround the institutional review board activities that regulate the approval of an investigator’s proposal. Here, serious questions have been raised about compromising investigators’ academic freedom to engage in certain types of research and to research certain subject matter. But the controversy is not, for the most part, about the human subjects training per se. Indeed, I would venture to say that for colleagues in the social and behavioral sciences, among the most common comments and complaints about human subjects training are that it is ineffective, that it does little by way of actually protecting human subjects and seems to be geared more to protecting the institution.

Apparently, Dr. Rhoades is unfamiliar with the widespread, principled opposition to CITI and other online training programs. That is worrisome, if it signals the retreat of AAUP from its longtime leadership in the fight against overly broad human subjects regulations and requirements.


Gary said...


Let me assure you that I am fully aware of the opposition your refer to, which exists on my own campus, the University of Arizona. But the larger point I was making about these exams, which is a major point in the link you provided in your comment, has to do with the inadequacy of these exams in protecting human subjects, in addition to the restrictions the IRB process provides with regard to academic freedom. So rest assured that neither I nor the AAUP are backing down on overly broad regulations that compromise academic freedom. Indeed, we have ongoing activities underway in quite the opposite direction.
Gary Rhoades

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thank you for your comment.

You are quite right that many scholars and public officials deride human-subjects training programs as ineffective. But your essay downplayed the threat to academic freedom posed by such programs. As Professor Baron, the author of a book on bioethics, described his training, "it was more like brainwashing than education. I had to take a test, and, in order to pass the test, I had to express agreement with ethical statements that I thought were wrong."

I am delighted that the AAUP will continue to oppose overly broad regulations. I hope that this effort will include opposition to stupid training programs, not just because they are ineffective, but also because they force scholars to abjure their ethical principles.