Monday, September 26, 2011

ANPRM Comments: Oral Historians Call for Exclusion from Common Rule

Of the 253 public submissions filed in response to the ANPRM as of 26 September 2011, 17 showed up in a search for the term "oral history."

One, submitted by Nancy M. P. King, JD, and Ana S. Iltis, PhD of the Wake Forest University Center for Bioethics, Health, and Society, calls for IRB jurisdiction over oral history and journalism. No First-Amendment champions they.

Another, from Julie Ozier, Assistant Director, Institutional Review Board, Vanderbilt University, briefly answers Question 25, "Yes, oral history since again the projects are ill defined (by design) and it take[s] a willing participant to provide their 'story.'"

The remaining 15 come from historians who have been burned by IRBs and want a way out. Just two of them, Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley and Alan Lessoff, see merit in the proposed Excused category; the rest want nothing at all to do with IRB regulations.

Edgerton-Tarpley wins the prize for best horror story, in which she relates how the San Diego State IRB proved more censorious than the Chinese government. Runner-ups are the reports submitted by James Williams and Kristin Hoganson about the chilling effects on student work .

Here are the comments, in order of their posting:

Blake Slonecker, Waldorf College, August 15

I am a historian who studies social activism in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, oral history is a vital component of my source base. The IRB process--both in graduate school and at my first academic position--has been a continual thorn in my side, without providing any of my interview subjects with additional protections. In fact, very often the IRB paperwork has made subjects far less inclined to participate in the study, despite minimal risks. Eliminating the IRB process for oral histories that meet certain basic criteria would be a boon not only to me and my colleagues, but to our interview subjects as well. Thank you for your consideration.

Thomas Scott, Kennesaw State University, August 15

I would like to argue that oral history should not be covered by the Common Rule and therefore should not be subject to IRB supervision. Oral history differs from research in scientific fields in a number of important ways. Rather than conducting anonymous surveys for the purpose of generating statistical data, oral historians concentrate on individual memories and ask narrators to sign a release, giving the copyright for the interview to the interviewer or to the library, archive, museum, or other organization that will house the interview. While medical and psychological examiners for obvious reasons need to protect the privacy of their subjects, oral historians in all but the most sensitive cases must be able to cite the names of the people they interview and when and where the interview was conducted. Otherwise, their research will have little credibility with other historians. While scientific researchers typically work from a script and ask all subjects the same questions, oral historians are trained to start with a minimal number of open-ended questions, listen to what the interviewee says, and then follow-up with unscripted questions designed to elicit more detail or to pursue a line of inquiry that was unanticipated before the interview began. I have headed an oral history project at Kennesaw State University since 1978, and it seems to me that the most important information I have gathered has come from unscripted follow-up questions after interviewees expressed opinions and provided information that were interesting, relevant, and unexpected. For several decades the Oral History Association has published a statement on “Principles and Best Practices.” The OHA guidelines say a great deal about ethical behavior and protecting interviewees from possible harm. In my own project, I have always returned edited transcripts to the interviewees to give them a chance to rethink and correct what they have said before I open the interview to the public. Following the OHA guidelines, I have always called to their attention any part of the interview that could possibly be libelous or could in any way cause them harm. While oral history is clearly a form of research, it is very different from scientific research and should not be subject to the same requirements that are needed in other fields.

Nan Mullenneaux, Duke University, August 15

I was so pleased to learn that Research Protections that govern oral history research may be streamilined. I fully support the American Historical Association's ideas for separating oral history from other more dangerous research involving human subjects., but maintaining its status as "research" to allow for financial support. As a professor, I have many students interested in oral history but put off by the complex paperwork and seemingly inappropriate instructions. I support restrictions that demand sensitivity, responsibility, and accountability, but not those that hamper rigorous investigation. Thank-you.

Robert Luckett, Jackson State University, August 15

As a historian, I am writing to ask that the application of completely inappropriate rules and criteria to historical research be reconsidered, particularly through what has constituted a growing, intrusive IRB process that discourages the pursuit of oral history. I ask that HHS consider the complete exclusion of certain forms of research such as oral histories from the “Common Rule” governing human-subject research.

Gabrielle Spiegel, Johns Hopkins University, August 15

I would like to argue that historians should be exempted from having to procure IRB approval when doing Oral history research. The goals of oral history research are often fundamentally at odds with the procedures and particular forms of protection of human subjects required for IRB approval of research. Notably, it is often the name of a person and his or her specific relation to a past historical event that makes their testimony valuable. Having to suppress such facts therefore vitiates the force , authority and authenticity of the material collected in interviews. Although this is not invariably the case, it is true enough of the time to make IRB approval a hindrance to well-conducted and reported historical research on contemporary topics, in which the existence of living witnesses provides valuable information which cannot be procured in other ways. I strongly urge the IRB to consider exempting historical work from its review procedures and protocols, which are designed for scientitic, not humanistic research. I write as a past President of the American Historical Association who worked closely with oral historians to try to amend the regulations governing their activities.

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, San Diego State, August 16

I am writing to you to express my strong support for the current proposal to re-evaluate the rules governing human-subject research. As a professor of modern Chinese history, oral history is an important part of my research on Chinese responses to and cultural constructions of famines and floods. I also supervise M.A. students who have tried to conduct oral history in China. Having been through the IRB process at my university in 2008, and having tried (unsuccessfully) to help an M.A. student negotiate the process last year (2010), I can say from experience that the policies and procedures of the IRB create significant and wholly unnecessary hurdles to conducting good oral history research.

The IRB wanted detailed information about who I would interview in China, and prior approval of the questions I would ask each interviewee. Anyone who has conducted oral history, however, knows that the historian often learns of new interviewees as he/she conducts his/her work, and that the freedom to ask new questions based on information an interviewee has raised is absolutely crucial. This meant that the questions I actually asked interviewees in China often differed significantly from those the IRB had approved before I began my work. The demand that I have interviewees fill out written consent forms also proved quite off-putting to many of my Chinese respondents. In sum, the demands of the IRB bear little resemblance to the actual process of conducting good oral history research, in China or elsewhere.

While my proposal did eventually receive IRB approval, my M.A. student’s proposal was rejected so many times that she eventually gave up her plan to conduct oral history research in China. My student had met with several visiting professors from one of my university’s sister universities in China, and had arranged to travel to that Chinese university to interview Chinese women there about their view of China’s One-Child policy. The IRB repeatedly rejected her list of questions, even though her supervising professors had approved them, and demanded more information and tighter parameters than were possible for my student to provide before she arrived in China. Because my student wanted to interview well-educated adult women about a widely-known policy, her project posed minimal risk. However, the IRB proved so slow and so unreasonable that the entire spring semester and summer passed without a resolution, and in the end my student had to cancel her trip to China and rely on text-based sources alone. In short, the intrusion of overzealous IRB oversight into a very low-risk project robbed this M.A. student of an important, exciting opportunity to conduct oral history in China and include current Chinese voices in her thesis.

In conclusion, it is time for the HHS to stop extending to oral history rules that were established to protect human subjects from dangerous medical and psychological experiments. There is no need for such intrusive oversight of projects that simply ask consenting adults to talk about their life experiences. Adult interviewees can easily choose not to answer questions that make them uncomfortable or that might in some way bring them harm. I thus urge the HHS to recommend a new category, “Excused” to cover research that poses “no more than minimal risk,” involves only “competent adults,” and includes reasonable “data security and protection standards.”

Anna Krome-Lukens, PhD Candidate, History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, August 16

As both a research assistant for UNC's Southern Oral History Program and a historian with many colleagues who use oral history in their research, I'd like to submit my opinion that oral history interviews should be exempt from IRB requirements. While IRB guidelines certainly have a valuable function in the health and social sciences, they often require things of oral historians that are impossible, given the methods of our discipline. For example, IRB regulations often require researchers to submit a list of interview questions as part of the pre-research approval process. This procedure is anathema to oral historians, who prepare assiduously for each interview but never know where the interviewee's recollections will take them. Regulation of oral history is best left to the ethical standards of the discipline; there is no reason for Institutional Review Boards to be involved.

James Williams, Albert Gore Research Center, Middle Tennessee State University, August 16

As a professional historian and practitioner of oral history for more than twenty years, I urge the Department of Health and Human Services to exempt the vast majority of oral history projects and interviews from Institutional Review Board oversight. Oral historians instead should fall under the regulations and standards promulgated by the Oral History Association and adopted by many professional historical organizations. The archive that I direct conducts one of the largest oral history projects in Tennessee. We participate in the Veterans Oral History Project (Library of Congress) and have completed oral history project for the National Park Service. Students under my supervision conduct oral history interviews for their undergraduate and graduate courses. We provide a valuable historical service to various publics by conducting these projects that, frankly, have been slowed down, impeded, and reduced in scope by the requirement to submit each and every interview and project to our IRB. As 99% of our interviewees do not come from vulnerable populations, to force regulations for that vast majority for the sake of the very occasional project that potentially could deal with a vulnerable population is a great example of administrative overreach. The federal government's interest in oral history should be negligible. I find it ironic that I can conduct oral history projects as a contractor for federal agencies who do not feel bound by HHS regulations on oral history (as they have their own policies and protocols, which are entirely less burdensome than HHS's). However, to conduct an interview on my own campus--only because of fear of the loss of federal funding--triggers hours of needless work on my part and on the part of the IRB members to rubber stamp a project. It is time once and for all for common sense to prevail, for HHS to listen to the history professionals, and to state clearly that its protections do not apply to oral history projects.

David K. Robinson, Professor of History Truman State University, August 23

Oral History projects have been unduly burdened by Institutional Review protocols that really have nothing to do with oral history. For this reason I want to support a letter, to this effect, that was sent to the Office of Human Research Protections, back in 2007. Please find that letter at the following link: I will quote only the conclusions: We believe that “oral history” should therefore be removed from category 7 and explicitly exempted from IRB review. Given our research into the way these policies are infringing on historical research that poses minimal risk of harm, we side with the recent recommendation from the American Association of University Professors, that “research on autonomous adults whose methodology consists entirely in collecting data by surveys, conducting interviews, or observing behavior in public places, be exempt from the requirement of IRB review—straightforwardly exempt, with no provisos, and no requirement of IRB approval of the exemption.”2 However well meaning and well intentioned the original decision to include oral history in Category 7, in practice, the application of these rules to oral history are not appropriate and fundamentally impede and abridge scholarly work in our discipline. The proposed changes to category 5 seem to increase the likelihood that the harm being done to current members of our profession will be extended to future generations, as the simple gathering and use of such materials will become more circumscribed and difficult. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to support our efforts to clarify this policy.

Simson Garfinkel, August 29

Regarding question 25, I have been troubled by the inconsistent application of the Common Rule to many fields not originally envisioned. The ANPRM mentions history, language, literature and journalism: these are all problem areas. As a practicing journalist I have frequently noted that I do not require IRB approval to do federally funded journalism but I do require IRB approval to do federally funded scientific interviews. I have seen problems in ethnography and anthropology as well: few IRB’s are willing to approve a multi-year protocol that say, essentially, “I’m going to live with the natives, talk to them, take notes on what they say, and publish a book in 5-10 years.” Yet this is the basis of both many journalistic and ethnographic endeavors. Today the only way to work such efforts is to argue that it is not scientific research. This has caused problems for political scientists and ethnographers, who maintain (rightly or wrongly) that they are engaged in scientific research.

Efforts to extend the Common Rule to journalism are particularly troublesome, both because of First Amendment issues, and because journalism seems to violate the “Beneficence” principle of the Belmont Report. That is, it is rarely in the interest of a politician or a business leader to speak with a journalist!

Likewise, I am troubled by the longstanding application of the Common Rule to oral history projects, as these projects are essentially journalistic in nature. The common rule should be revised to explicitly state that history, oral histories, language, literature, journalism, and ethnography are not subject to its requirements, especially when experimenters in these areas employ unstructured interviews that use journalistic methodology. Yet I have seen many oral history projects encounter IRB problems. I personally offered tapes of many oral histories that I had collected in the 1980s and early 1990s to an oral history project and had my efforts rebuffed because I did not have IRB approval when I performed the interviews.

Alan Lessoff, Professor of History, Illinois State University, September 6

I would like to add my voice to those professional historians who are calling for implementation of something like an "excused" category to apply to most oral history. I say this as a current departmental IRB representative and someone with long experience in other capacities with the issue. The research of my professional colleague, Zachary Schrag, documents what many of us have long known: that there has never been a persuasive rationale for the extension of IRB oversight to oral history or similar forms of social science and humanities research. Also, as Schrag likewise explains and as many of us have experienced directly, the overall structure, emphases, and priorities of the IRB system make the system a poor fit for the types of ethical issues that oral historians face most of the time. One could provide many, many examples gathered over the years to support this position. At my university, colleagues who run the IRB and the adminstrators who manage it are generally sympathetic to the problem and work to carry out their duties in a constructive way. But understandably, their priorities are psychological and educational research, crucial at our university. Historians submitting protocols continually face irrational amounts of frankly irrelevant work to conform to the guidelines. Unlike Schrag, I do not believe that history should be removed from human subjects protection regulations altogether. Our colleagues in other departments have a legitimate interest in monitoring the ethical character of our research. But only some sorts of oral history research--for example medical history, criminal-justice history, and some forms of family or social-welfare history--truly conform to the intention and procedures of the IRB system. The contemplated "excused" category provides a middle ground, since it requires historians to document that they are following appropropriate ethical practices, but only in relevant cases would a protocol be necessary.

Kristin Hoganson, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, September 15

My field is the 19th century, so I do not apply for IRB approval for my own work. But I have found that including History as an IRB field has a chilling effect on teaching. My students can no longer interview friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. about their service in World War II or Vietnam. They can no longer ask grandma or grandpa questions with the intention of using their answers to add an oral history component to their research papers. I have advised a student in the McNair Program (aimed at encouraging underrepresented students to become college professors) who used up most of the time he should have spent doing his research trying to get IRB approval. I have other students change their research topics so as to avoid the IRB process. Why can journalism students call me up for comments without IRB approval but my students cannot ask anybody questions? This seems like a freedom of speech violation. When I worked with my McNair student to get IRB approval, I was directed to websites full of information about medical experiments. This is completely irrelevant to what we Historians do. Like journalism students, we ask people questions, which they can choose to answer or not. My students have no power of coercion. Indeed, pre IRB days, they used to report that older people loved to have an audience for their stories. I think oral history, like journalism, should be exempt because the line between them is a blurry one indeed.

Harold Cook, Brown University, September 21

I am acutely aware of how the regulations on human subject research, when applied to oral history research, can handicap research and the presentation of research. I urge you to think carefully about whether the regulation of human subjects research, which should of course apply to biological research, also applies to research that is non-intervensionist, without even touch involved. Research that involves no biological intervention should be free of the regulations that apply to human subjects research. Thank you.

Troy Reeves, University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, September 23

As the head of a campus oral history program, I submit my comments with the hope that they can lead to a world on campuses around the country where oral history projects are as best exempted from the current IRB review or at least current IRBs are given specific language to fast track oral history projects with as minimal review as possible. As the current system stands, IRB can delay or stifle the collection of history on campus. I do not or will not argue that people doing oral history on campus need some type of guidance, oversight, or support. But this can be done using tools, such as the Best Standards and General Principles of the Oral History Association, or putting humanists on IRBs to add to the board a voice that understands and can argue for the difference in oral history or similar type interviewing that the interviews that should fall under IRB review. It can also be done by changing the language to either place oral history and similar type interviewing outside the IRB bounds.

Samuel Martland, September 26

Please put new human-subject research rules in place that are appropriate for the ethical practice of oral history. That means allowing open-ended oral history interviews, allowing historians to identify interviewees (subjects) who agree to be identified, and generally operating on the assumption that interviews and conversations have minimal risk. It is, frankly, silly that some IRBs have barred historians from undertaking the kinds of interviews that reporters, historical society members, and kids in high school do routinely without IRB review, and which practically no one has ever said are risky. I have never done oral history myself, since I am a nineteenth-century specialist, but I know that good historical research requires following the thread of the evidence and asking further questions. Sometimes I also wonder whether chatting with another historian is “human subject research,” and then I realize the absurdity of the situation. As a historian, I am most familiar with the plight of oral historians before IRBs, but I think the new rules should also extend to literary scholars talking to authors, political scientists interviewing political leaders, linguists getting samples of dialects, and pretty much any other research about people that has no reasonable chance of being any more harmful than any other day-to-day conversation. I don’t think it’s productive to say that oral history isn’t covered because it does not produce generalizable results. The rules should be based on what the researcher is asking the human subjects to do, or what kind of information s/he’s asking them to reveal, not on what the final product of the research will look like.

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