Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bersoff Reviews Ethical Imperialism

Donald N. Bersoff, a professor of psychology and law at Drexel University, has reviewed Ethical Imperialism for PsycCRITIQUES, the American Psychological Association's online database of book reviews.

[Donald N. Bersoff, "Common Rule or Common Ignorance? A Review of Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009 by Zachary M. Schrag," PsycCRITIQUES 56, Release 18 (4 May 2011), Article 3.]

Bersoff offers qualified praise for the book: "Schrag, as an academic historian, has an axe to grind. But he does it well. The book is exhaustively researched, drawing on articles and books from a wide array of resources, transcripts of proceedings from various governmental agencies and commissions, and personal interviews with the major (and minor) players." Bersoff concludes that there are reasons "for psychologists of all stripes to be interested in this book."

Bersoff also offers two critiques. First, he challenges my decision to exclude psychologists from the bulk of the narrative, arguing that I "mistakenly [assume] that psychologists do not engage in research involving surveys, observation, and interviews."

I should have been clearer about my thinking here. Certainly individual psychologists involved in the IRB debates did such research. For example, during the National Commission's IRB hearings in 1977, Linda Beckman, a social psychologist, complained of the way her survey research had been reviewed by UCLA's medical IRB.

But as a profession, psychologists focused mainly on research in controlled settings, such as labs or classrooms. At those same 1977 hearings, Charles Kiesler, the APA's executive director, did not discuss survey, interview, or observational research in the way his counterparts from the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association did.

Nor did the APA join those associations, the American Political Science Association, the Association of American Geographers, the American Historical Association, and the Social Science Research Council in their 1979 request that the IRB regulations not be applied to "research using legally competent subjects that involves neither deceit nor intrusion upon the subject’s person nor denial or withholding of accustomed or necessary resources."

The history of IRB review of psychological research is an important story. Laura Stark has made a valuable start telling it, and I hope that others join her. But I do not regret excluding that story from my book about the experience of scholars in the social sciences and humanities.

Bersoff's second critique is that "if you are an IRB administrator or dedicated member, you will view this work as a biased diatribe intent on undermining the rights of human subjects to be protected from undue risks and inadequate information."

I am glad to report that, in my experience so far, this has not been the case. I have angered some IRB members and staff, but this is not a universal reaction. For example, at the 2011 meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, Ethical Imperialism was the subject of a session at which an IRB chair and an IRB member both offered warm praise. Also at that conference, I met an IRB administrator who had enjoyed the book enough to order several copies for her staff.

The lesson I draw from such encounters is that many IRB administrators and members find themselves acting not to protect human subjects, but to respond to the murky regulations, inept guidance, and capricious enforcement decisions of the Office for Human Research Protections and other federal actors. Nor am I alone in such suspicions; this view has been endorsed, to a degree, by members of the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections, the federal body charged with thinking about such questions.

No, I am not a fan of IRBs. But even people who believe in the general idea of ethics review wonder why they are required to impose silly restrictions on research in the social sciences and humanities. These are among my favorite readers.

No comments: