Thursday, March 4, 2010

IRB Warns That Opinions May Vary

Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, reports a run-in with his IRB.

[Michael Bugeja, "Avatar Rape," Inside Higher Ed, 25 February 2010.]

Bugeja was interested in "avatar rape": forced, simulated sex in a virtual environment such as Second Life. As a journalism professor, he wanted to know what other university scholars and administrators thought about the problem. But his IRB imposed conditions that discouraged responses.

In researching the phenomenon, I sought viewpoints from directors of information technology and women's studies at Big XII and other peer institutions. My research assistant Sam Berbano and I spent two months working with our Institutional Review Board, seeking approval to post our survey online.

Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the IRB asked us to warn survey participants about possible harm to their reputations should their responses be published. To lessen risk, the IRB also required signed copies of consent to anyone responding to our survey. So we opted for a snail mail version with a disclaimer: "A risk of participation in this survey may arise if some may find your opinions in the free-response section at variance with their own."

My research assistant wondered how a survey measuring opinion about avatar rape could have more potential for harm than participation in a virtual environment in which such a digital act could occur.

As it turned out, only one respondent out of 43 provided comments for this essay.

Is variance of opinion the kind of risk to "reputation" against which 45 CFR 46 is supposed to protect? I don't think so, but who knows? The interagency group that inserted "or reputation" into the 1991 regulatory amendments never explained its decision, even in the face of an objection that "reputation is a subjective term that is difficult to define operationally."

What I can say is that as a scholar and educator, I strive to expose people to opinions they do not share. At Iowa State University, such an outcome is classified as a hazard.

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