Friday, February 6, 2009

Oral History Wins and Loses

Two large public universities have recently announced policies concerning IRB review of oral history. It was a split decision.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) promulgated Policy # 001: IRB Review of Oral History Projects, dated 1 October 2008. The policy is based on Columbia University's 2007 oral history policy. According to the Nebraska policy,

Oral history interviews, that only document specific historical events or the experiences of individuals or communities over different time periods would not constitute “human subjects research” as they would not support or lead to the development of a hypothesis in a manner that would have predictive value. The collection of such information, like journalism, is generally considered to be a biography, documentary, or a historical record of the individual’s life or experience; or of historical events. Oral history interviews of individuals are not usually intended to be scientific or to produce generalizable information and hence are not usually considered “research” in accordance with the federal regulations or UNL policy. Therefore, such oral history activities should not be submitted to the UNL IRB for review.

The explanatory memo borrows two explanatory examples from Columbia, without attribution. It does cite OHRP's 22 September 2003 letter to the Oral History Association and American Historical Association, in which Dr. Michael Carome promised that "most oral history interviewing projects . . . can be excluded from institutional review board (IRB) oversight because they do not involve research as defined by the HHS regulations."

So far so good. But less than four months later, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) released a policy statement, "IRB Review of Oral History and Other Social Science Projects" and an accompanying Tip Sheet: IRB Review of Oral History and Other Social Science Projects." This policy demands that "investigators wishing to perform oral histories or other social science projects must complete and submit the Determination of Whether an Activity Represents Human Subjects Research form to the [Office for the Protection of Research Subjects]."

UIC claims that "increasingly . . . the application of qualitative research methodologies may render studies that typically would not have required IRB review and approval to be submitted for IRB review or, at least, to require a determination from the IRB as to whether the study is subject to human subjects protection regulations." If anyone at UIC can show me that this statement is based on a study of trends in historical scholarship (rather than being made up to justify the policy), I will send a small box of good chocolates.

Follow a few links, and you can find the real basis for the UIC policy: Dr. Carome's December 2003 e-mail to Lori Bross of Northern Illinois University, in which he backed way from his September 2003 promise to the historians and embraced a set of nonsensical examples first proposed by the UCLA Office for Protection of Research Subjects.

In short, OHRP's perfidy of 2003 still echoes across the country. Depending on whether you believe Michael Carome's statements of September 2003, October 2003, December 2003, or January 2004, you may come away with very different understandings of the federal government's policy toward oral history, and the leeway allowed to institutions.


Anonymous said...

This might be due, at least in part, to UIC's experience with having research on campus shut down because of IRB problems that occurred a few years ago.

Still, it is disappointing. :-(

Zachary M. Schrag said...

That sounds like a reasonable hypothesis. UCLA came close to a shutdown at some point in the 1990s, which may explain the hyper-compliant culture that led to the oral history nonsense.