Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Palys and Lowman on Boston College: "Be Suspicious of Universities"

Ted Palys and John Lowman of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University provide a helpful overview of the Boston College Belfast Project oral history legal case while condeming Boston College's actions before and after the arrival of the subpoena. Though the article is marred by an incomplete understanding of U.S. human subjects regulations, it makes a strong case that universities need to practice "ethical and legal due diligence" before promising confidentiality to research participants.

[Ted Palys and John Lowman. “Defending Research Confidentiality ‘To the Extent the Law Allows:’ Lessons From the Boston College Subpoenas.” Journal of Academic Ethics 10, no. 4 (2012): 271–297. doi:10.1007/s10805-012-9172-5.]

Palys and Lowman trace the history of the Belfast Project from its conception in 1999/2000 up through about September 2012. Building on earlier work they have done concerning researchers' and universities' duty to fight subpoenas, they maintain that by prioritizing legal obedience over ethical obligation, "Boston College has provided an example that will be cited for years to come of how not to protect research participants to the extent American law allows." Moreover, they argue, "In the absence of statute-based protections for research participants, a privilege for research confidentiality is something that the academy has to fight for, with researchers and the institutions they work for leading the charge." For now, they counsel, "one of the other lessons learned from the Boston College subpoenas is to be suspicious of universities."

Though I agree with the general thrust of the article, I am unpersuaded by its claim that "independent ethics oversight should have been the institutional order of the day." Palys and Lowman mock a statement by a Boston College spokesman that the Belfast Project did not fit “the federal definition of research”; they suggest that because "the project met professional standards" it must count as "research." But U.S. officials have long held that all manner of professional investigations don't meet the regulatory definition of research. (Much more on this in Ethical Imperialism, 145-159.)

Nor am I persuaded by the article's suggestion that IRB review would have prevented the misunderstanding at the heart of the case. As I noted last year, IRBs are unreliable protectors of subject confidentiality. And as I recently noted, Boston College's IRB seems pretty clueless, even today.

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