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.

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