Friday, May 31, 2013

IRB Imposed Anonymity on Campus Politics Book

An unnamed IRB prevented two sociologists from identifying the sites of their research, reducing their book's scholarly impact.

[Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (Princeton University Press, 2012).]

Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood are the authors of Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives. The book is based largely on interviews with students at two universities, identified in the text as Western Flagship and Eastern Elite. The authors explain, "Although it was not our first choice to keep the institutitions anonymous, we did so as a necessary concession to the Institutional Review Board at Eastern Elite, whose administrators granted us approval to interview undergraduates on their campus only on the condition that the campus not be identified in our work." (14)

To their credit, Binder and Wood effectively disguised their sites. One reviewer "strongly suspects" that Western Flagship is Berkeley, while another is sure it's the University of Colorado-Boulder. Given that the authors deliberately blended details from multiple universities (14), the University of Washington is also plausible.

I would tend to think that the description of Eastern Elite's "mainstream student newspaper" as "a farm team for the Washington Post or the New York Times" (225) could only fit the Harvard Crimson, but it's possible that a few Yale Daily News alumni have made The Show.

In any case, the book was not instantly and definitively outed in the manner of My Freshman Year or Wannabe U.

But successful anonymization may be worse than failed efforts. As Jordan Bloom notes, "This anonymity grates against the thesis of the book—that different schools breed different conservatives—which suggests that campus conservatism isn’t easily reduced to 'Eastern' and 'Western' styles."

Indeed, think of all the information that had to be stripped away to satisfy the IRB:

  • No direct quotations from student newspapers. (As the authors note, "in our Google age such a move could easily reveal the identify of the Eastern Elite campus.")
  • No discussion of students' relationships with individual professors. The authors mention a positive review of a book by Harvard's C. Harvey Mansfield by a conservative student newspaper. They can't tell us whether that newspaper was the Harvard Salient, which Mansfield has advised since its founding, a fact that would contextualize the review.
  • No students identified by name. If Binder and Wood were at all lucky, they spoke to some of the ideological leaders of the next generation. But the Eastern Elite IRB has deprived future scholars of material on these figures.

Fortunately, journalists do not face such restrictions, and can, for the time being at least, publish articles in which students and universities are named in full.

The real pity may be that Binder and Wood even consulted the Eastern Elite IRB, a decision they do not explain. OHRP has made clear that under federal regulations, no IRB approval is needed from

Institutions (e.g., schools, nursing homes, businesses) that permit use of their facilities for intervention or interaction with subjects by investigators from another institution.

Examples would be a school that permits investigators from another institution to conduct or distribute a research survey in the classroom; or a business that permits investigators from another institution to recruit research subjects or to draw a blood sample at the work site for research purposes.

Such institutions--Eastern Elite among them--are not "engaged" in the research, so their IRBs lack jurisdiction under federal regulations. It would have been better for Binder and Wood not to have sought permission.

(Note: I can't recall who brought this book to my attention, so I apologize for the missing hat tip.)

No comments: