Monday, March 2, 2015

IRB Asked, USB or FireWire. Silly, but Is It Bullying?

Caleb Carr, assistant professor of communication at Illinois State University, argues that abusive IRBs are best thought of as bullies.

Though IRBs are a legally required element of many higher education institutions and an important ethical part of all, their overextension of unchecked power is creating a hostile work environment for many social scientists, and calling them for what they are – systemic bullies – can empower administrators and faculties to finally respond to the increasing calls for IRB reform.

[Carr, Caleb T. “Spotlight on Ethics: Institutional Review Boards as Systemic Bullies.” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 37 (2015): 1–16. doi:10.1080/1360080X.2014.991530.]

Drawing on the work of Dan Olweus, Carr defines bullying as "the infliction of repeated, unwanted harm towards an individual, often resulting in physical or emotional harm," consisting of "a prolonged behaviour rather than a single incident, such as when a target is subjected to regular harm rather than an isolated instance. Additionally, bullying behaviours are dependent on an imbalance of strength, either physical or asymmetrical power."

Carr has no trouble showing that IRBs enjoy asymmetrical power and sometimes use that power inflict harm on researchers. But I wonder about the element of repetition. As Carr notes in a personal horror story, IRBs are famously inconsistent:

The author of this article once received a protocol review from IRB for a student’s master’s thesis research, requesting explication of the mode of data transfer between a voice recorder and a computer. Inquiry revealed the IRB reviewer wanted the data transfer detailed to the level of whether USB or FireWire would be used to connect the digital voice recorder and researcher’s computer. Though anecdotal, this capricious (previous and subsequent reviews did not request this level of specificity for data transfer) and unrelated (it was never addressed how transfer cable type affected human subjects’ safety or protections) review concern is qualitatively reflected in the experience of social science researchers, who increasingly report widely varying research protocol reviews from IRBs.

Can a system that arbitrarily demands such information once, and then never again, be guilty of the repeated, prolongued behavior that marks a bully?

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