Chapter 20. Statement On Oral Histories
The U.S. Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), working in conjunction with the American Historical Association and the Oral History Association, has determined that oral history interviewing projects in general do not involve the type of research defined by HHS regulations and are, therefore, excluded from Institutional Review Board oversight.
A decision whether oral history is subject to the policies and regulations outlined in an institution’s FWA and HHS regulations for the protection of human research subjects is based on the prospective intent of the investigator and the definition of “research” under HHS regulations at 45 CFR 46.102(d), i.e., “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.”
i. Oral history activities, in general, are designed to create a record of specific historical events and, as such, are not intended to contribute to generalizable knowledge. Only those oral history projects that conform to that regulatory definition of research need to submit their research protocols for IRB review.
ii. Researchers are urged to contact the IRB if in doubt about whether a project requires review.
iii. Some oral history interviewing projects may meet the definition of research. Other activities involving open-ended interview that have similar characteristics can involve research as defined by the HHS regulations when the activities are part of a systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.
iv. The evaluation of whether oral history activities require IRB review hinges upon whether the person is engaged in the creation of “generalizable knowledge.” In other words, does the activity represent a systematic investigation in which the historian intends to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge?
While this is not the clearest policy I've seen, at least it establishes that it is up to the researcher to decide whether to consult the IRB at all.