Thursday, December 8, 2011

This Time, Vote as If Your Whole Research Agenda Depended on It

Alice Kessler-Harris, president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), devotes her column in the November OAH Outlook to the question of "Historians and the Institutional Review Board."

Naturally, much of the piece introduces the IRB controversy to those historians who may not be familiar with it:

For several chaotic years, IRBs have exercised what, in my view, seems like unwarranted influence over the research agendas of historians. Resentful professors have been asked to tell IRBs who they want to interview and why. Assistant professors who have not asked for prior permission have been told they cannot publish articles on which they have worked for years. Graduate students have been told to alter the questions they want to ask. In an illustration of the treacherous slippery slope, IRBs--claiming "information risk"--have suggested that archivists require researchers who want to access transcripts of interviews and data sets to acquire IRB clearance first.

Kessler-Harris frames this warning in an interesting way, noting that when the ANPRM was released this summer, the OAH Executive Board was able to "make its voice heard" by consulting with other historians' organizations and submitting a formal response. She then uses these actions to stress the importance of member participation:

So why should you vote in this year's OAH election? Because next year, your elected board will be called upon to take anther equally important step. If you want to be sure that you will have an active and engaged executive board to represent your interests, look for your ballot and vote when it arrives.

I am still working my way through the ANPRM comments, but I suspect that many organizations took a similar approach, relying on existing ethics committees or executive boards to speak for the members. This approach balanced the wish to represent a broad membership with the need to act during the brief window for comment--originally 60 days, extended to 90. So I think Kessler-Harris is quite right to use the ANPRM as an example of the need for elected representatives within a scholarly discipline.

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