The Western Massachusetts Institute for Social Research kindly alerted me to its survey of socioogists, conducted in the summer of 2009. Of the 98 respondents who have conducted research in the past five years, 90 reported that they had undergone IRB review.
The survey found that IRBs are more likely than sociologists to judge a study risky. Only 13 respondents "said that they believe that some harm could have come to respondents as a result of their involvement in the research," but 20 reported that a member of the IRB believed there was such a risk.
This is not surprising. The premise of IRB review is that committees are better able to flag potential harms than are individual researchers, so the higher levels of risk seen by the IRBs could indicate that they are working well, or that they are overestimating the risks of research.
To distinguish the two possibilities, it would help to know why the IRB members saw risk. In 1979, for example, Lauren Seiler and James Murtha showed that IRB chairs commonly insisted on modifications even though most had never heard of harm coming to a participant in sociology research. [Lauren H. Seiler and James M. Murtha, "Federal Regulation of Social Research," Freedom at Issue, Nov-Dec 1979.] Is that still the case?
Another finding of the Western Massachusetts survey is that a minority (44 percent) of respondents reported that the IRB that reviewed their research included a sociologist. Federal regulations require IRBs to include members "with varying backgrounds to promote complete and adequate review of research activities commonly conducted by the institution." This was one of the few protections offered to social scientists worried that their research would be subject to the whims of people outside their field. But it appears that many or most IRBs have failed to meet this standard.