Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Systematic Threat to Academic Freedom

Lisa Rasmussen kindly alerted me to her essay, "Problems with Minimal-Risk Research Oversight: A Threat to Academic Freedom?" IRB: Ethics & Human Research 31 (May 2009): 11-16. The essay mostly seeks to rebut the AAUP's 2006 report, "Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board." Rasmussen identifies some important shortcomings in that report, and she raises key questions about the relationship between IRBs and academic freedom. But I am unpersuaded by her central arguments.

Before I address them, I should note the repeated disclaimers within the essay. "I will not settle here the fundamental issue of whether a convincing argument exists that IRB review poses a threat to academic freedom," Rasmussen writes. "A longer explanation of the [AAUP report's] failures is beyond the scope of this paper, but a brief outline is possible." I am disappointed by these limits. Rasmussen devotes significant space to matters peripheral to the question of academic freedom, such as her assertion that researchers whose work was approved by a department--rather than a central IRB--would necessarily merit less legal protection, a claim whose weakness she acknowledges in a footnote. Given only six pages, Rasmussen would have done better to focus on the question posed in her title.

Rasmussen's main argument is that the AAUP report "does not demonstrate that IRBs pose a threat to academic freedom." As she notes, such a demonstration would require a definition of academic freedom, something lacking in the AAUP report. So she offers a passage from the AAUP's "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure": "Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition." Emphasizing the grounding of this argument in the search for the "common good," Rasmussen then concludes that "there is a prima facie claim that research can be subjected to assessment regarding whether it threatens to harm the common good via harm to individuals."

I believe this is a misreading of the 1940 Statement, for it suggests that any policy aimed at safeguarding the common good is consistent with academic freedom. For example, she could have written, "there is a prima facie claim that research can be subjected to assessment regarding whether it threatens to harm the common good via the promotion of communist overthrow of the government," and that therefore a prohibition on the use of Marxist analysis is consistent with academic freedom.

A more relevant definition of academic freedom can be drawn from the AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure":

The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language . . .

It is, however . . . inadmissible that the power of determining when departures from the requirements of the scientific spirit and method have occurred, should be vested in bodies not composed of members of the academic profession. Such bodies necessarily lack full competency to judge of those requirements; their intervention can never be exempt from the suspicion that it is dictated by other motives than zeal for the integrity of science; and it is, in any case, unsuitable to the dignity of a great profession that the initial responsibility for the maintenance of its professional standards should not be in the hands of its own members. It follows that university teachers must be prepared to assume this responsibility for themselves.

As Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post write in their new book, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom, freedom of research depends on "a framework of accepted professional norms that distinguish research that contributes to knowledge from research that does not." (54) While these two experts on academic freedom decline to offer a firm opinion on the legitimacy of IRBs, they take the AAUP's concerns far more seriously than does Rasmussen (69).

The question, then, is whether IRBs, like the boards of trustees that concerned the authors of the 1915 statement, "lack full competency to judge of [scholarly] requirements." Rasmussen suggests that IRBs merely maintain scholarly standards: "The source of the threat to academic freedom via oversight by one’s colleagues is far from clear," she writes, "especially since researchers undergo peer review for research funding and when submitting their manuscripts for publication." But IRB review is not peer review, since it is conducted mostly by people ignorant of the scholarly methods they are reviewing. (See "Why IRBs Are Not Peer Review," and other posts tagged "peer review.")

To make this a bit more concrete, we can examine the exemplary "horror stories" included in the 2006 AAUP report. Rasmussen rejects these as "unelaborated anecdotes with no documenting citations," rather than examining their implications for academic freedom.

Here's one: "A Caucasian PhD student, seeking to study career expectations in relation to ethnicity, was told by the IRB that African American PhD students could not be interviewed because it might be traumatic for them to be interviewed by the student." Or another: "A campus IRB attempted to deny an MA student her diploma because she did not obtain IRB approval for calling newspaper executives to ask for copies of printed material generally available to the public." No peer review process would impose such conditions. If these are not infringements of academic freedom, then nothing is.

Rasmussen is quite right that we should not equate "inconvenience and hassle with abridgement of academic freedom." Yet nor should we dismiss the abridgement of academic freedom as mere inconvenience and hassle. When IRBs impose conditions on research that prevent researchers from conducting the basic tasks of scholarship--talking to people of varied backgrounds, recording interviews, or telephoning for information--they abridge academic freedom. The more interesting questions are how often this occurs, and why it happens.

Rasmussen presents IRB abuse as a somewhat random process: "IRBs can function well or poorly, and which is true for a given IRB depends on many factors, not least of which are institutional support and member training." This suggests that IRB abuses are individual anomalies, rather than a pattern.

By contrast, the AAUP detects a systematic bias toward the infringement of freedom. This is better developed in the AAUP's 2000 report (cited by Rasmussen), "Institutional Review Boards and Social Science Research." That report includes such observations as "no one is likely to get into trouble for insisting that a research proposal is not exempt" and "no university is likely to want to explain to either the government or the public why its commitment to avoid harming the human subjects of research is limited by the source of funding for the research." In these and other cases, the AAUP recognizes that the IRB system punishes individuals and institutions only for approving research, not for restricting it.

The design flaws in the system have yielded a pattern of abuse. Read Maureen Fitzgerald and Laura Stark, both of whom observed repeated abuses by the IRBs they studied. Read Linda Thornton, whose work was thwarted at 15 of 24 institutions she contacted. Read Jack Katz, who shows that IRBs are particularly likely to pounce on controversial topics. IRBs can function well or poorly, but the system is weighted toward poor function.

Rasmussen acknowledges that poorly designed systems can lead to systematic problems. She concedes that the "lack of an [IRB] appeals process may threaten academic freedom." She also details the way that departmental-level review might systematically hamper research. And she ends her essay with a promising proposal for “template review:"

Disciplines at the national level might formulate templates to guide very common research approaches. For example, a research template for oral historians could stipulate that the researcher will interview individuals, record their answers, refer them to counselors if the questions have provoked strong emotions, procure consent forms, lock the transcripts securely, and identify what will happen to the transcripts at the close of research. IRBs at individual institutions would review the template once and approve it (or even decide to accept any templates from given professional societies). Thus, a researcher would simply submit a form to the IRB stating her agreement to abide by the format of the template. Upon receipt of the form, the IRB would approve the protocol.

If IRBs are not threatening academic freedom, why propose this reform? Inside this proposal is an acknowledgment that disciplinary experts and professional societies in the social sciences and humanities have been excluded from the present IRB system. While such exclusion does not automatically threaten academic freedom, we should not be surprised when it does. For all her skepticism of the AAUP report, Rasmussen has presented her own suggestion that the current system is rotten at the core.

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