The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP), Jonathan Motl, has determined “that there are sufficient facts to show that Stanford, Dartmouth and/or its researchers violated Montana campaign practice laws requiring registration, reporting and disclosure of independent expenditures” in October 2014, when they mailed pre-election postcards to 102,780 registered voters. The postcards were part of an effort to see if certain claims about candidates’ place on an ideological spectrum would affect voting patterns.
As part of the investigation, Motl engaged Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson to determine whether the Stanford and Dartmouth researchers had violated IRB requirements. Johnson finds that they did, but also that the Dartmouth IRBs could have approved the studies without addressing the most serious ethical issues they raised. “The fundamental problem with the IRB process,” he writes, “is the narrow focus on protecting the individual subject. Concerns about human subjects in the aggregate often do not even occur to researchers, faculty, and staff involved in the IRB.”
[McCulloch v. Stanford and Dartmouth, Commissioner of Political Practices of the State of Montana, No. COPP 2014-CFP–046, Decision Findind Sufficient Facts to Demonstrate a Violation of Montana’s Campaign Practice Laws, 11 May 2015. h/t Chris Lawrence.]
Motl’s own findings misstates IRB regulations, claiming that “There is a process by which Universities and Colleges are supposed to review or vet Institutional studies that have an impact on human beings. This process, called the Institutional Review Board (lRB) process …” In fact, IRB jurisdiction is triggered not by “impact,” but rather the obtaining of data through “intervention or interaction with the individual” or the collection of “identifiable private information,” neither of which was clearly the case here. But apparently both Stanford and Dartmouth think the project should have been reviewed by IRB.
Johnson does not address the question of IRB jurisdiction at all, perhaps because he does not think it makes much difference if studies like this go through the IRB process or not. He notes that when the Dartmouth researchers presented a related study (involving New Hampshire voters), “the most appalling aspect for many voters, the intent to manipulate vote totals that could potentially change the outcome of an election, was absent as a consideration in the process.” Instead, “the questions posed by the Dartmouth IRB focused narrowly on individual human subjects, Many of the questions are appropriate for biomedical research but irrelevant for political study.”
Johnson argues that the whole IRB system is not well suited to monitor research of this sort:
The problem for political scientists is that this vetting process remains narrowly tethered to its original purpose rather than evolving to appropriately address related issues involving human subjects in additional fields of study now subsumed by the IRB regulations. The process as currently constituted is not useful for the research conducted by many political scientists. Many colleges such as Dartmouth use only one form across disciplines. The narrowness creates an unwieldy system that attempts to shoehorn the study of politics within the confines of how traditional scientists and those involved in biomedical research study human subjects. Most notably considerations of the community, institutions, and group activities are given short shrift. Philosophical perspectives vary; however, many value humanity in the aggregate as worthy of equal, or greater, consideration than on the level of the individual.
For political scientists the IRB process too often is not a tool that spurs reflection and consideration about the implications of research using human subjects but rather becomes viewed as an irritant hindering inquiry. Too often the IRB process is simply ‘red tape’ stifling the ability of researchers to interview public figures and elites, undercuts the ability of students to make public presentation of research, and consumes time by making irrelevant demands upon researchers. The outcome can be counter-productive. Completing the approval process for the IRB may produce complacency and a false sense of security for researchers. They may reflect no further on ethical considerations because the IRB has given its imprimatur.
Research is an essential academic undertaking and ought to be encouraged. I am not calling for reviews that consume even greater amounts of time. We need to be smarter and move away from the biomedical model when appropriate. I suggest colleges and universities need to revisit the report filed in 2000 by the American Association of Universities Professors on how to modify the IRB process for research for political science and related disciplines as a starting point for such discussions. The cumbersome system currently in place is inadequate for the task at hand.
Johnson concludes with a bold claim that political scientists, and maybe all academics, need to rethink the respect due to communities in the aggregate:
The myopia demonstrated by the researchers, the Dartmouth IRB, and the Stanford University response is emblematic of how academics have fallen short in showing respect for the communities and institutions they study. We need to confront the challenge by acknowledging that human interactions in the aggregate are as worthy to protect as individual subjects.
Unfortunately, a broad demand that academics show respect communities and institutions can easily become a burden on academic freedom far worse than the existing system Johnson denounces. I hope political scientists troubled by this case will think of the least restrictive standards that might deter their colleagues from designing experiments that might influence votes by the thousands.
Alternatively, scholars and lawmakers might conclude that existing election law, as stated by Commissioner Motl, may suffice to deter future researchers from repeating this type of experiment.