In addition to the formal comments from the National Coalition for History, endorsed by other scholarly associations, individual historians have begun submitting comments on the notice of proposed rulemaking. Without exception, they endorse the proposal to free oral history from IRB review. The only opposition comes from a professor of education and psychology who seems to suggest that tribal governments should hold veto power over oral history research.
Here are some of the highlights, alphabetical by last name. I have edited some for brevity. Full comments can be found at http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=HHS-OPHS–2015–0008–0001
“My mother is 77 years old and lives with me. Yet campus IRB required me to get their permission to talk to her about the project (which included asking her questions as I went through church records). If that doesn’t indicate the idiocy of requiring IRB approval for history research projects, I don’t know what does.”
"The requirements for IRB review at my university have been taken to include student research, even that conducted in undergraduate classes. To avoid the paperwork, I do not give my students oral history interview assignments, even simple ones like interviewing relatives about their experiences during historical events. Another faculty member has told me that she restricts her students to interviewing one another when training them in oral history techniques. Graduate students are reluctant to include oral history interviews in their thesis research due to the time constraints imposed by the requirement of applying to the IRB.
“For historical scholars like myself, the difficulty lies in translating our research and goals into the mindset of the IRB forms and regulations. I can’t explain my statistical models, not having any, and my research does not have specific, replicable social benefits. Further some of the requirements, like preserving records for a minimum of three years can be counterproductive. If an interviewee changes their mind about an interview, this requirement prevents the interviewer from protecting their subject’s privacy by destroying the recording. The required ethical training has limited application to the actual ethical dilemmas oral historians face. It also seems counterproductive to burden IRB boards, who, at least at my institution, are primarily scientists, with monitoring work that follows such a different paradigm, particularly given their heavy workload.”
“As an oral history practitioner and instructor, I strongly recommend the Department of Health and Human Services exempt oral history from the IRB process. As a field we have developed a very strong code of ethics, including informed consent, which is a central tenet of the practice. The Oral History Association, the premiere national professional organization for oral historians, is committed to maintaining the highest standards and training new oral historians in those methodologies. Our ”best practices“ are widely respected, followed, and in line with traditional IRB requirements. Therefore, additional IRB certification is superfluous.”
"I would like to see the wording changed to phrasing along the lines of the following options.
"Oral history and journalistic interviews, biographical and historical scholarship, and other research activities that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected.
“Activities that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected such as oral history interviews, journalistic interviews, biographical scholarship, and historical scholarship.”
“I have found the important goals and processes of the IRB, while crucial for their intended purpose, to miss the mark of the work being done with oral histories, as has been so well articulated time and time again. ”
“As the founding Director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I want to register my resounding approval of these revisions excluding oral history from review by institutional review boards.”
“Abolishing the IRB requirements for Oral History projects would allow for more student research in the field, and would encourage humanities initiatives to be more creative and interesting. Of course, the OHA has recommendations and data regarding the preservation, documentation, and privacy rights for those participating in these projects, and I am fine with following them as opposed to the IRB process.”
“I have been a practicing oral historian for roughly twenty years. I have directed a university-based oral history program for the past ten, and I previously directed an oral history project as a historian for the National Park Service. In all of these roles–as a graduate student, public historian, federal employee, and academic administrator–I have relied on the Oral History Association’s ‘Principles and Best Practices,’ which are applicable to the work of oral historians in a way that human subject research protocols frankly are not. ”
“As a professional oral historian since 1999, including the last 8.5 years at a university with an Institutional Review Board. While I have submitted several of our projects (and advises others who have submitted theirs) to the IRB, I’ve felt it hampered doing oral history on campus more than helped it… . While I feel that IRBs have and do serve a valuable purpose on campuses, the humanities have never fit into the IRB’s focus.”
The dissenter: Apanakhi Buckley
The one dissenting comment comes from Apanakhi Buckley of Heritage University. Not a historian, but rather an professor of education and psychology, Buckley writes that her IRB “is concerned about the protection of indigenous populations. While oral histories are usually benign, indigenous people have been vulnerable to historians and anthropologists taking their histories and using them without gaining tribal permission. Tribal group rights have been recognized in code (e.g. the Indian Child Welfare Act). Collecting oral histories may be tantamount to cultural appropriation, which constitutes more than minimal risk and yet may not be protected by the ethics of the bodies such as the Oral History Association.”
Buckley offers no examples of oral histories that “may be tantamount to cultural appropriation.” I can point her to occasions where university or tribal ethics boards in Canada and the United States muted dissenting voices, suppressed investigation of labor conditions, or silenced indigenous voices entirely.