Thursday, August 27, 2009

Survey Seeks Ethnographers' Experiences with Ethics Oversight

Lisa Wynn of Macquarie University has posted an online survey asking for ethnographers' "subjective experience of ethics oversight – their memories of when and how they first became aware of ethics oversight, what they think and feel about it, whether and how they comply with it, and whether they think it makes ethnographic research more ethical or not."

Since I will publish Wynn's findings in the special issue of the Journal of Policy History I am editing, I naturally hope that researchers embrace this opportunity to help us understand the evolving role of IRBs and other ethics oversight bodies in the social sciences.

Note that Wynn defines ethnography broadly to include "any discipline that uses ethnographic research methods, including, but not limited to, anthropology, sociology, political science, history, geography, linguistics, Indigenous studies and area studies."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Psychologist Blasts "Taxonomic Chaos"

John J. Furedy, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto, has posted, "Implications for Australian Research of the Taxonomic Chaos in the Canadian Bioethics Industry: Après Moi le Deluge," originally presented at a June 2009 ethics conference in Australia. Though Furedy's expertise is in experimental psychology--a field outside the scope of this blog--his paper is relevant to the social sciences and humanities as well.

Furedy, who himself served for decades on ethics committees, argues that Canadian research ethics boards worked pretty well until the early 1990s. But since then bioethicists "have created taxonomic chaos by conflating such distinctions as the distinction between ethical and epistemological issues, or the differences among medical drug evaluation studies, psychological experiments, and sociological surveys."

He offers three specific complaints:

1. "REBs have taken it upon themselves to judge not only whether the proposed research is ethical, but also whether it is scientifically valid. But research-design issues for a particular piece of research require a specific sort of epistemological expertise which most REB members do not possess."

2. "The Tri-Council committee has succeeded in persuading governments and universities to treat a sociological opinion survey and a drug evaluation study, as if they were all part of 'human subject research,' that can be evaluated by the same all-knowing REB, using criteria that may apply to medical treatment-evaluation studies, but that do not apply to most social science research."

3. Though the Tri-Council agreed to drop the term "code" (with its suggestion of mandatory rules), "it was made clear to REBs, that if a researcher did not follow the so-called "statement", the right to apply for funding would be denied, because the REB would refuse to accept the proposed research."

Furedy stresses that all of this is relatively new, but that new scholars may not understand that. He writes,

senior investigators are likely to be able get their research proposals through, even though they know, in their heart of hearts, the significance of distinctions such as the one between ethical and epistemological or research-design issues. But for younger researchers, and especially those who are currently students, the distinction between ethical and epistemological issues has been conflated, and so they lack a memory of how research used to be conducted. So researchers of the future are likely to succumb to the bioethics industry. They will, in the epistemological sense, be corrupted by these developments. Current senior researchers, then, who are in control to-day, are acting like France's Louis XV, who was said to have said "Après moi, le deluge."

As a historian, I applaud both the reference to the Bourbon monarchy and Furedy's emphasis on the need for historical consicousness. If younger researchers understand that scholars did not always operate under today's restrictive conditions, they are more likely to imagine alternatives.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

UT Knoxville's IRB Joins "Collective Mobbing"

Over at Counterpunch, anthropologist David Price reports on the case of Janice Harper, an anthropologist recently dismissed from the University of Tennesee Knoxville.

According to Price, Harper's troubles began in 2007, when she reported sexual harassment by a colleague. Despite a unanimous vote from her college's tenure and promotion committee and strong outside letters of support, her associate dean opposed her bid for tenure. Worse still, she was accused of mental instability. As Price reports, "like a textbook discussion of collective mobbing behavior, the act of investigation brought more accusations," including student allegations that Harper planned to build a hydrogen bomb. This led to an FBI investigation, which found no criminal activity.

All of this would be bad enough, but then the IRB decided to make it worse. As Price explains,

Dr. Harper says that in early June, the University of Tennessee’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) revoked her standing research clearance on the grounds that the police and FBI investigations and the seizure of her research materials exposed her informants to risks. She was told that she "could not use my data until I had assurance from the FBI and university that I was no longer under surveillance." As these investigations continued, however, they found nothing to indicate that she had made threats or was somehow building a hydrogen bomb. Yet, Dr. Harper was caught in a classic double-bind. Although the FBI did not find that she had done anything wrong, she could not complete her work simply because this investigation had opened her private research records up to FBI scrutiny. This, of course, seriously imperiled her professional activity and development. Last fall, Dr. Harper learned that the faculty in her department voted to deny her tenure application.

Price suggests that the IRB's action was a major element in the collapse of Harper's career. He writes that "the loss of a scholar’s IRB clearance because of an FBI investigation that found no wrong doing ought to be an issue of central importance to such professional organizations, and I would hope that the AAUP, AAA and SFAA would recognize the need for them to weigh-in on this and other procedural aspects of her case. This is a case that impacts us all."

Price complains about the heavy hand of the "National Security State," and he titles his post "Trial by FBI Investigation." But in his account, the FBI was not Harper's biggest problem; it investigated a threat of nuclear terrorism and closed the case with reasonable efficiency. The IRB, by contrast, apparently offered no such resolution. Perhaps Price needs to worry less about the National Security State and more about the Human Subjects Protection State.

[Editor's Note: The Institutional Review Blog opposes letting anthropologists acquire thermonuclear weapons.]