[Mitch Librett and Dina Perrone, "Apples and Oranges: Ethnography and the IRB," Qualitative Research 10 (2010): 729-747, DOI: 10.1177/1468794110380548.]
IRB Demanded that Boss Be Informed
At the heart of the article of the article are the authors' accounts of IRB interference in their own criminal justice research.
The first concerns Librett's dissertation research, which he began while still a serving police officer. Librett wanted to interview five serving officers about the effects of undercover work, including "work-related psychological disorders [especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)], or any other difficulties (i.e., alcohol or other substance abuse)." (Brackets in original.) Since the disclosure of some of these effects could get a police officer fired or even prosecuted, Librett wanted to offer his narrators "an absolutely ironclad guarantee that any revelations would never be traceable to an identifiable person." Thus, he planned to interview them outside of their work settings and to avoid publishing any information that could identify them or even their agencies.
Librett describes the resulting exchange with the IRB:
IRB: You've presented a very persuasive argument. However we are unable to approve your request. We absolutely must have letters of cooperation from the agencies involved, there's too much liability involved here.
M.L: But sir, if I ask for official participation from the agencies, then the participants' identities might be compromised. We are talking about very small agencies here, and it wouldn't take an intimate knowledge of quantum physics for a police chief to figure out which undercover officer I was interviewing – when there is only one in the department.
IRB: Well, we just can't approve it without official permission.
Librett eventually settled for interviewing two retired police officers at significant cost to his research. He preferred to sacrifice his findings rather than accede to an IRB demand that would have put his narrators at risk.
IRB Demanded that Researcher Disclose Names and Tapes
Perrone had less trouble getting initial approval for her study of "club drug" users, but she was frustrated by her IRB's demand that she get signed consent forms. As she and her narrators understood, such consent forms posed more threat than protection, since they would create a document stating, in effect, that the signer used illegal drugs.
[Yes, I know that 45 CFR 46.117 allows IRBs to "waive the requirement for the investigator to obtain a signed consent form for some or all subjects if it finds . . . that the only record linking the subject and the research would be the consent document and the principal risk would be potential harm resulting from a breach of confidentiality." The problem here is that Perrone's IRB didn't understand that, and the rule itself requires the investigator to offer subjects forms that will endanger them.]
Perrone got around this by giving each informant the "option to sign any name she/he chose." How this process boosted trust or protected subjects is anyone's guess.
Perrone's IRB more seriously threatened her subjects when it investigated her research as part of an audit of randomly selected projects.
As part of the audit, the IRB demanded "the keys linking the pseudonyms the participants had chosen to their biographical information" and "an actual audiotaped recording of an interview session held with informants." Both demands raised the chances that the narrators' illegal drug use would become known in ways that hurt them, and forced Perrone to violate the promises she had made to them. Still, she gave in.
Perrone was perplexed and stressed that she had assured her participants that no one would listen to the tapes but her. Therefore, the IRB's 'audit' violated the trust participants had in Perrone, and breached confidentiality. The auditors stressed that as members of the IRB, they have the legal authority to listen to the tape. Perrone conceded, however there was not much choice here. As in all cases, refusal to comply with requests from IRB results in cancellation of projects, failure to complete dissertations, and the resultant damage to careers. Perhaps more importantly, disinformation and grapevine anecdotal evidence may prevent some projects from ever being attempted in the first place.
Questioning the Model
Reflecting on such experiences, Librett and Perrone assert "a fundamental disconnect between what the typical Institutional (or Ethical) Review Board will perceive as essential to safeguard the rights of human subjects and critical ethnographers' interest in maintaining a high degree of trust and partnership with their research participants."
They note that ethnographic projects "are by definition open-ended and unpredictable as far as the sort of questions that will be asked, the activities that will take place in the field, and the direction of interview protocols" and that "Ethnographers are hardly psychic. They are unable to accurately predict possible events with any degree of certainty in the field. While psychologists or hard scientists are not psychic either, their research is often conducted in closed and controlled laboratory environments."
Because the course of research is so hard to predict, Librett and Perrone note that "the greatest potential for harm to participants in an ethnography is the release of the participants' true names and/or identifying information. Thus, the IRBs' focus on research plans is quite beside the point."
They do not say so explicitly, but a logical next step would be to replace prospective review of field research with "ethical proofreading" of manuscripts just prior to publication to make sure that they did not violate any promises of confidentiality. [See Carole Gaar Johnson, "Risks in the Publication of Fieldwork," in Joan E. Sieber, ed., The Ethics of Social Research: Fieldwork, Regulation, and Publication (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1982).]
Librett and Perrone also pose some minor points, which perhaps could use elaboration. They write that "ethnographies may not fall within the definition of research, as it is currently defined in federal regulations. Ethnographies are by nature decidedly unsystematic. There is no testing and whatever knowledge is generated is heuristic. While ethnography most certainly is science, in that it informs our understanding of significant phenomena, it is not systematic or generalizable; it lies beyond the realm of positivism." Given the history of the National Commission, which specifically mentioned anthropological research in its IRB report, it's bold to claim that ethnography does not fit the regulatory definition of research. But perhaps there is a case to be made.
The authors also claim that "if a legal authority – police or court – had asked for [tape-recordings of interviews] Perrone would have certainly been free to state that the records had been 'lost' (without consequence) . . ." A researcher who receives a subpoena for her recordings may indeed seek to quash the subpoena, but falsely claiming that the records had been lost, or destroying the records, could in fact have very unpleasant legal consequences.