Thursday, December 13, 2012

Northeastern U. IRB Makes Sex Research Untenable

Carey Noland, associate professor of communcation studies at Northeastern University, complains that "many IRBs . . . seem to have difficulty accurately assessing the potential harm involved with qualitative research on sex."

[Carey M. Noland, “Institutional Barriers to Research on Sensitive Topics: Case of Sex Communication Research Among University Students.” Journal of Research Practice 8, no. 1 (November 24, 2012): Article M2,]

Noland writes,

As a sex researcher, like many other sex researchers, I am continuously denied approval or asked to compromise my research process so radically that the original study becomes untenable. While I fully acknowledge that the IRB is an important entity and that research subjects ought to be protected, I contend that when it comes to sensitive topics, many IRBs err on the side of caution, to the detriment of research quality.

She is particularly frustrated that the IRB blocks her students' proposals as well:

I often encourage the students to choose research topics in my area of expertise (communication about sex) for obvious reasons: it is easier for me to mentor them in the project if I have expertise in the area. In the ten years I have been doing this, whenever the class proposed doing anything related to sexual relationships, the protocol would go to the full IRB review process and rarely pass. Each time the IRB recommended that, rather than have qualitative interviews performed by peer interviewers (i.e., the students), we should consider an anonymous quantitative survey. It is important to note that none of the proposed projects asked students about their sexual behaviors, rather the questions were entirely focused on communication about sex (e.g., Whom do you talk to about sex? Do you talk about safe sex?).

Both Noland's own research and her teaching have suffered:

On one occasion, I met with the Vice-Provost of Research to discuss the IRB to argue that the research project on sex that I proposed should be exempt according to federal guidelines; he agreed after looking at the protocol and said he would talk to the IRB. After six months of negotiating with the IRB, I dropped the study. In the past few years we have done the most innocuous research in my capstone courses; for example, this semester we are doing a project on communication about nutrition. The limitations imposed by the IRB are unnecessarily depriving students of the experience of conducting in-depth interviews as part of a qualitative research process.

Noland concedes that some people may find being asked about sex more stressful than answering other questions, based on a survey she administered to Northeastern students. Yet it seems that she asked students about what topics they thought might be stressful in a hypothetical survey, rather than asking them about surveys they had already taken. I'd be interested to learn if the responses would differ if the question were posed retrospectively rather than prospectively.

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