Monday, December 31, 2012

Sociologists Call for IRB Moratorium

To close out the year, I briefly note a piece that appeared online at the start of 2011, but which I came across only recently. Three sociologists call for a "moratorium on IRB review for social scientific audit research involving non-institutionalized, mentally competent adult subjects," but their reasons are unclear.

[Hessler, Richard M., D. J. Donnell-Watson, and John F. Galliher. "A Case for Limiting the Reach of Institutional Review Boards." American Sociologist 42, no. 1 (January 29, 2011): 145–152. doi:10.1007/s12108-011-9122-5.]

The authors challenge two tenets of the IRB regime: nonmaleficence and informed consent.

First, they argue that the "do no harm" ideal of the Belmont Report may be misplaced for social science research. Offering the example of a researcher who testified against the prostitution business that had employed her as an accountant, they note that "the researcher's ethical principles might well include a commitment to blow the whistle on gross injustices discovered during fieldwork." Since this researcher completed her scholarly work without IRB surpervision, the authors must speculate that an IRB would oppose such whistle-blowing. But they are certainly correct that U.S. regulations currently lack a provision for critical inquiry comparable to Canada's.

On the other hand, the authors muddy this argument by arguing that "It is ethical if the harm is contained as much as possible." So are they calling for true freedom to pursue knowledge, or must researchers (and perhaps overseers) make an effort to contain harm?

Second, the authors question the need for informed consent in all cases, arguing that "The right to have one's illegal actions protected from detection by requiring that researchers get informed consent gets trumped by social justice concerns of social and economic security of the prostitutes and the larger community in terms of tax revenues." Yet in the very next paragraph, they state that "Researchers should negotiate rights and obligations with the research subjects directly, like physicians and other service professionals do currently."

What is the difference between "requiring that researchers get informed consent" and demanding that they "negotiate rights and obligations with the research subjects directly"?

Galliher was clearer on these points in 1973. [John F. Galliher, "The Protection of Human Subjects: A Reexamination of the Professional Code of Ethics," American Sociologist 8 (August 1973): 93-100.]

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