[Janice M. Irvine, "Can't Ask, Can't Tell : How Insitutional Review Boards Keep Sex In The Closet," Contexts 2012 11: 28, DOI: 10.1177/1536504212446457. The story has been picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education: Dan Berrett, "Review Boards Force Sex Research Into the Closet, Survey Suggests," Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 June 2012.]
Concerned that evidence of IRB suppression of research consisted mostly of haphazardly circulating anecdotes, in 2011, Irvine surveyed the 450 members of the American Sociological Association Section on Sexualities. Close to 40 percent responded, giving her an unsually clear look at IRBs' impact on one academic speciality.
The responses suggest widespread problems. Of those who had submitted sexuality-related proposals to an IRB, 45 percent reported difficulty getting approval, and "41 percent report that other sexuality researchers at their university had also had IRB difficulties." Some were merely slowed down, while others acceded to conditions that reduced the value of their research. For example, IRB demands that interview tapes be destroyed precludes longitudinal follow-ups, or use by future historians.
Individual professors reported abandoning research on alternative sexualities and counseling students to avoid lines of inquiry likely to spook an IRB.
One junior scholar noted: “It’s made [my research] actually very difficult. I’m facing tenure review right now and needing to explain, for example, why my book’s not published yet. Well, I spent a year and a half getting IRB [approval]. It’s definitely hindered my ability to do the actual research and then write up the results, spending so much time trying to get the approval, and then all of the torturous hurdles they put in front of me as well makes it more difficult.” Another said, “By and large, the IRB is the most difficult process and insti- tution I encounter in my sexuality research. The word “sex” sets off a set of red flags that can double or triple the amount of red tape I have to go through to get approval for my research.” IRBs can shape a field of knowledge and discourage researchers, sim- ply through following their bureaucratic procedures.
Nor are IRBs a problem only for researchers; their paternalism helps silence sexual minorities.
In an alarming twist, however, my respondents reported that IRBs routinely blocked research on adult sexual minorities, particularly LGBTQ communities, because of their alleged vulnerability. For instance, one respondent noted, “Demographic surveys could not include any identifying information. I was told that because the infor- mation I was collecting was “sensitive” (life histories of black gay men), this would prevent the unanticipated “outing” of participants. Somehow the sexual identity of my participants was construed as clandestine and shameful.”
Another respondent reports, “They made me change the reporting of names to be completely anonymous even though almost all of my subjects WANTED to be identified in the study—it was a Pride organization whose entire goal was about being out and proud!!”
Irvine concludes with the central irony of the situation. IRBs rely on guesswork and prejudice about what it means for a subject to be vulnerable or a procedure to be harmful, such as when they forbid researchers to use the word "queer" to recruit participants who identify themselves as queer. The only way to combat such prejudice is to conduct research, the very research that the IRBs make so difficult.