[Craig Howes, "Asking Permission to Write: Human Subject Research," Profession (2011): 98-106, DOI: 10.1632/prof.2011.2011.1.98. h/t Steve Burt.]
Howes begins by warning that "A specter is stalking language and literature departments: the specter of human subject research. Or maybe not." As he elaborates, university policies leave biographers guessing about whether they need to submit projects for approval:
No institution worried about litigation will let its researchers decide unilaterally whether their research is exempt. The result? Many of us apply to the IRB for an official ruling that we don’t need to apply for. This Catch-22 can lead to confusion. At least one university IRB simply refused to accept any human subject research requests from the English department, though this policy was later rewritten by an arts, law, and science research ethics board. Conversely, some researchers refuse to seek IRB approval on ethical grounds, claiming that permission can lead researchers to believe that anything is fine, as long as they don’t violate the protocols.
Moreover, interest by IRBs in biography is just part of a broader set of liability concerns:
Pressures from beyond IRBs and the academy are also pushing language and literature departments toward interactions with human sources. On the advice of their legal departments, some publishers are requiring written confirmation from individuals, and not just sources, mentioned in a book that they won’t sue. Some granting agencies are demanding evidence that applicants have positive working relationships with the families of life narrative subjects. My center coproduces a television documentary series called Biography Hawai‘i, and these programs are expensive, so we’re always applying to private and government funding sources. One of our requests was recently turned down because we had not documented sufficiently the family’s willingness to have such a documentary made. The good news is that we got letters of support, received the grant, and completed the program (Biography Hawai‘i). Researchers might however be interested to know that our subject died in 1896. (If you’re thinking about applying for grants to work on Paul Verlaine or Harriet Beecher Stowe, they died that year too.)
And Howes sees some value to this scrutiny:
The demand that we ask permission can be beneficial to us as researchers if it prods us into rethinking some of our fundamental methodological assumptions. Reporters, biographers, and researchers who work with human subjects are fond of representing themselves as scholar adventurers, literary detectives, or even big-game hunters. Track down your elusive prey, use your cleverness and powerful will to extract the valuable secret, then take it home. In this model, the human subject is a place, and many cultural studies and indigenous research theorists have argued that this activity is inherently exploitive, even imperialist. A comment made at a colloquium at my university many years ago by the writer Susan Sheehan should give us pause. When asked what was the most challenging part of working with her subjects, she answered, “Knowing that you’re forming a relationship that will last the rest of your life.”
But not all biographers take this view. As Howes reports, Nancy Kriplen, the biographer of John D. MacArthur, wants people to see her as a a reporter. "I don’t want them to be seduced into thinking that I have become their best friend for life.”
And Howes stops short of calling for IRBs to review biography, since the regulations remain wedded "the assumption that subjects will be guaranteed anonymity and that the interviews will be destroyed after the relevant information has been extracted . . . the IRB assumption is still problematic, because for most humanities interviews granting anonymity and destroying the tapes and transcripts would make the whole exercise pointless." The problem is not that federal regulations require such destruction. It is bad enough that they take anonymity and the destruction of recordings as the norm and the creation of a historical record as deviant from that norm.
I think that Howes isn't far from the position I took in 2007 and which I still hold: learning about the ethical practices of other disciplines can help scholars think about their own ethical duties. But when governments and institutions impose foreign practices on researchers, they breed resistance and cynicism.