Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I See Dead People

A history professor at Central Connecticut State University and one of his graduate students, a retired corporate lawyer, spent months persuading the state Freedom of Information Commission to release medical records from hospitalized Civil War soldiers and veterans.

[Thomas B. Scheffey, "A Legal Skirmish Over Civil War Records," Connecticut Law Tribune, 26 April 2010. Thanks to Josh Gerstein for the reference.]

The case is a reminder that ethics rules can interfere with the scholarly study of not only the living, but also the dead. For an excellent introduction to this issue, see Susan C. Lawrence, "Access Anxiety: HIPAA and Historical Research," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 62 (2007): 422-460.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chronicle Readers Vent IRB Complaints

The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Chronicle Forums" features a discussion of the question, "Do IRB's Go Overboard?" Unsurprisingly, several off the discussants answer yes. Among the angriest:

1. "I supervised an MA student a few years ago whose ethics proposal was sent back seven times. By the end they were asking questions like "what if you become really famous from this research and then the police decided to subpeona your records and the confidentiality of your sources was comprised?". Sadly, that's not even a made up question (and this was for an MA in English lit, btw). Obviously, the student was freaked and the process took seven months and almost scuttled her plans. We were drawing up a Plan B for her thesis to become about the review process, since she wouldn't have time to do the actual research. In the end she got what she wanted, did an excellent thesis and kissed academia good-bye rather than pursue a PhD since she thought the whole process of doing research is clearly deranged."

2. "IRBs are better some places than others, and it depends on the discipline. At my current institution, humanities scholars are subject to an IRB that only makes sense for scientists collecting blood and doing life-threatening experiments on small children. Yet, most of the major ethical concerns that are well known and of the greatest importance and concern in my discipline, those aspects of tangible risk resulting from research, are outside the purview of the IRB forms/processes. The policies change every year without notice, meaning it's very hard to teach our grad students how to successfully navigate the IRB process. It's become an arbitrary affair."

3. "ARGH YES. A network ("snowball") sample (so I don't know exactly who or how many yet!), semi-structured exploratory interview protocol that will evolve during the course of data collection--it was just too much for them. In principle, I'm OK with them watching out for ethical stuff, of course, but when they start questioning my research methods, they've gone too far. Back off. You're a chemist. The advice to be as vague as possible--yes. What I really want is exempt status when I'm talking to professionals about their professional roles--I've heard of it at other universities."

4. "My subjects are often powerful people doing bad things. It is quite reasonable to suppose that as a result of my research they could lose their jobs (it hasn't happened so far, but it could). And I wouldn't necessarily think that was a bad thing. From my own perspective, research ethics means making sure interviewees understand the implications of being interviewed, know the potential uses to which the data could be put, and that any deals I make with them about anonymization, or not writing about certain topics, or whatever, are kept. If they don't want to be interviewed, sometimes I use other ways to find out about what they are up to, and write about them anyways. Which often makes them prefer to be interviewed, because at least then they can put their view across.

"It seems to me that in an environment where the standard assumption is that no harm can come to research subjects as a result of the research, this kind of research is right out. Which pretty much means that I can't come back to the USA. Which is ok, since its not like there are any jobs there anyways."

5. "A new pernicious IRB trend is to need to get targeted organizational sign off on research about an organization, even if you interview individuals who work for it in their homes or in a coffee shop off campus. Clearly, this is to protect one's own campus from lawsuits, but I'm not sympathetic. (Key is the more important and latent function of IRBs-- protecting one's organization, not the subjects.)"

The discussion also features some defenses of IRBs, but they are vaguer and less eloquent. In particular, none tells a story of an IRB review that proved necessary.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More Universities Deregulate Oral History

The University of Texas at Austin has ruled that "Biography or oral history research involving a living individual is not generalizable beyond that individual. Therefore, it does not meet the definition of research and does not require IRB review and approval." This is based on the recommendations of a University of Texas System task force report whose public release I am trying to secure. It is a stronger than Texas's earlier statement that oral history "in general" did not require review.

Also deregulating oral history are Brigham Young University and Princeton University. Princeton's policy is particularly clear:

Proposed research including journalistic interviews, oral histories, biographical profiles, or other forms of nonfiction narratives, normally does not fall within the jurisdiction of the IRB. In these cases, the individuals being interviewed understand that they are being quoted, and have every expectation that their views will be made known. The interviewees are advised of their right to remain anonymous, to have their remarks printed without attribution, or kept 'off the record'. If the interviewee is directly quoted, they are allowed to read or hear the quotations attributed to them. The interviewee will also be advised of any publication plans for the project. Most projects from Humanities meet the above criteria; therefore they do not qualify for the IRB review, and do not need to submit their project to the IRB for approval.

Other colleges and universities that have cleared oral history include Amherst College, Columbia University, University of Missouri-Kansas City, the University of Michigan, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

This is still not a long list, but the field is shifting from early 2006, when the American Historical Association struggled to find such unambiguous statements.

Update, 4 May 2010: I have posted a copy of the Texas report.