Tuesday, October 23, 2012

IRB Demands and Forbids that Survey Researchers Collect E-Mail Addresses

Andrew Gelman revisits IRB nightmares at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

He links to Andrew Perrin's lament:

I just got back a response from our IRB asking for changes to a protocol for my semiannual telephone poll of NC voters. Note the “semiannual” – essentially the same poll, with the same protocol, is submitted twice a year. And twice a year, like clockwork, the ethics cops at the IRB take a break from deciding whether or not radioactive isotopes can be administered to prison populations to cure restless-leg syndrome to dream up some fancy new way in which participating in an automated telephone poll might cause harm.

Last year, it was that people needed an email address to contact if they had questions about their rights as “subjects.” This year — it was that if they were to take advantage of said email address, then we would have their email address, which could cause a breach of confidentiality.

These people are nuts. Grr.

Gelman then adds another story.

Recently a high school student contacted me about a research project he has, involving online surveys. He had some interesting ideas and it looked like a great project. But it might never get done. Why? His high school has no IRB. But he can’t do it through the Columbia IRB because he’s not a Columbia student (and it’s his project, not mine, so it doesn’t help that I work here.)

Gelman concludes, "Bottom line: Everybody’s afraid of getting sued. That’s the problem with living in a country that’s run by lawyers."

Two points. First, it's not clear to me why the high school student would have any trouble. If he's not receiving federal funds and doesn't live in a state with crazy unconstitutional laws like Virginia's, who's to stop him from running his surveys?

Second, I think Gelman is wrong to blame IRB troubles on lawyers. The regulations were written by medical researchers who ignored the objections of lawyers (notably HEW Deputy General Counsel Peter Hamilton) and thus failed to adhere to statutory limits. To fix them, we may need more lawyers, not fewer.

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