Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Plea for "Networked Learning"

Alexander Halavais reports on a recent workshop sponsored by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, which brought together experts to discuss the challenges that IRBs pose to research in digital media.

Having agreed that IRB review sometimes produces unnecessary delays, particularly when multiple IRBs must sign off on a collaborative project, the workshop participants

found that while there might be some fairly intractable issues, as there are for any established institution, some of the difficulties that IRBs and investigators encountered were a result of reinventing the wheel locally, and a general lack of transparency in the process of approving human subjects research. The elements required to make good decisions on planned research tend to be obscure and unevenly distributed across IRBs. From shared vocabularies between IRBs and investigators, to knowledge of social computing contexts, to a clear understanding of the regulations and empirical evidence of risk, many of the elements that delay the approval of protocols and frustrate researchers and IRBs could be addressed if the information necessary was more widely accessible and easily discoverable.

Rather than encouraging the creation of national or other centralized IRBs, more awareness and transparency would allow local solutions to be shared widely. Essentially, this is a problem of networked learning: how is it that investigators, IRB members, and administrators can come quickly to terms with the best practices in DML research? Not surprisingly, we think digital media in some form can be helpful in that process of learning.

That is not an implausible idea. Plans for IRBs to share problems and solutions date back to the early 1970s, and they resulted in such institutions as PRIM&R and the journals, IRB: Ethics & Human Research and, more recently, the Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics. But these are fairly low-bandwidth channels: infrequent conferences and journal issues, with a few dozen sessions or articles per year, and devoted primarily to biomedical research. Hardly enough to generate a sustained discussion of an issue like social computing.

Alternatively, there exist online exchanges, like the IRB Forum. But these may lack the rigor of the journals. Rather than offering "empirical evidence of risk," as Halavais wants, they can amplify unrealistic fears. As Norman Bradburn testified before the National Bioethics Advisory Commission in 2000:

What is bothersome to me is that -- and the trend that I see in IRB's -- is that they are becoming more and more conservative, that is there is a kind of network at least in the ones that -- there is a kind of -- I do ont know what you call it -- ListServ kind of network that administrators of IRB's communicate with one another and they sort of say here is a new problem, how do you handle that, and then everybody sort of responds. And what happens is the most conservative view wins out because people see, oh, gee, they interpret it that way so maybe we better do it too. So over time I have seen things getting more and more restrictive . . .

May I suggest, then, that without proper supervision, digital media can be a liability rather than an asset. The challenge for Halavais and his colleagues is to build a conversation that combines immediacy and scholarly care.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

NYU IRB Withdraws Demand that Field Notes Be Shared

Professor Deborah Padgett of the Silver School of Social Work, New York University, posted a query on H-MedAnthro concerning her IRB's demand that she allow her informants to review her ethnographic field notes.

Readers of that forum encouraged her to resist the demand. Simon Lee, a medical anthropologist and an IRB member, was particularly emphatic:

Field notes are raw data, much like a lab notebook in bench science. Raw data is private and not appropriate to share, precisely because lay people draw conclusions from looking at fieldnotes that pre-empt the anthropological analysis. Sharing raw field notes during an active (in process) study is really only appropriate for a safety/audit process: that is, the IRB can request to review your field notes for example if there was a concern about confidentiality and you needed to explain what precautions you were taking. But generally field notes should not be available for review by informants on a required or routine basis. The whole point of protecting raw field notes is so that ONLY the anthropological team sees the raw data and no one makes assumptions about their observations: not informant's colleagues, not informant's supervisors etc. To make them available creates both a chilling effect on your ability to collect data, and can in fact promote misunderstanding because it is raw data.

Others pointed out that sharing the notes would allow informants to see what their coworkers had said, perhaps in confidence, thus adding rather than decreasing risk.

Having read these replies, Padgett

crafted a response to the IRB asserting that this was not appropriate and a troublesome precedent for other ethnographers. The Chair (a psychologist) replied graciously and said that the committee was in error as they had assumed field notes were the equivalent of a video (which the 'subjects' are allowed to view and amend/erase).

While this story has a happy ending, it is still troubling that an IRB at a leading research university would make such an inappropriate, ill-informed demand. A less self-assured, perhaps less senior, researcher might well have bowed to the requirement, at the expense of both the research and the welfare of the people being studied.

Monday, June 7, 2010

It Can Happen to Anyone

On Saturday, my Journal of Policy History article, "How Talking Became Human Subjects Research: The Federal Regulation of the Social Sciences, 1965–1991," was honored with that journal's Ellis Hawley Prize. In presenting the prize, Professor Hawley--one of the leaders of my profession--mentioned that he himself used to ask his students to interview someone who had lived through the Great Depression. On being told that he would have to submit to IRB review, he abandoned the assignment. If IRBs can deter Ellis Hawley from learning more about the 1930s, we have a problem.