Friday, May 6, 2016

Yanow and Schwartz-Shea: IRBs Miss Their Targets

The first IRB related article in the April 2016 issue of PS, and the only one not formally part of the symposium on IRBs, is Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, “Encountering Your IRB 2.0: What Political Scientists Need to Know.” This essay is intended as an introduction to IRB issues for political scientists, and therefore presents material that will be familiar to readers of this blog.

In addition to this helpful introduction, Yanow and Schwartz-Shea make an interesting point about the scope of IRB review: on the one hand, it can be under inclusive, failing to cover serious ethical questions. On the other hand, mission creep continues apace, as universities impose restrictions not dictated by ethics or law.

[Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, “Encountering Your IRB 2.0: What Political Scientists Need to Know,” PS: Political Science & Politics 49, no. 02 (April 2016): 277–86, doi:10.1017/S1049096516000202.]

The example of under-inclusiveness, also mentioned in Melissa Michelson’s contribution to the issue, is the ill-fated 2014 postcard study, in which political scientists at Stanford University and Dartmouth College mailed tens of thousands of postcards to voters in Montana, California and New Hampshire, to see if they would influence voters. Each postcard bore an official state seal—likely confusing voters about the source—while the universities failed to disclose the expenditures as required by Montana law.

At the time, Montana asked Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson to explore the controversy. Johnson concluded that the IRB “process as currently constituted is not useful for the research conducted by many political scientists,” including the postcard research. Now, Yanow and Schwartz-Shea concur, writing,

the discipline’s lack of attention to research ethics, possibly due to the expectation that IRBs will take over that discussion. In our view, this reliance is misplaced, given that IRBs largely focus on complying with the regulatory details of the federal policy, fostering a thin, compliance, or checklist ethics rather than a more substantive engagement with issues arising in the actual conduct of political scientific, sociological, and other field research.

The example of over-inclusiveness comes from the University of Northern Iowa. As Yanow and Schwartz-Shea note,

the University of Northern Iowa IRB Manual states: “A letter of cooperation serves as documentation from the research site that the investigator has permission to conduct the research at that location. The letter typically must be from someone in authority at the organization, not a group counselor or teacher.” In some cases, the permission must be included with the researcher’s initial application; in other cases, the application may be assessed by the IRB without the permission, but it must be submitted later to obtain final approval.

This is one example of current practice reaching beyond the scope of the initial policy document. The Belmont Report focuses on the consent of individual research participants; it does not require that researchers gain gatekeepers’ approval to access research sites where the potential research participants are located (even if this is common practice in participant observer and ethnographic research, covert research excepted). Such requests for documented access to a community, organization, or other field site at the outset of a field research project are part of what critics call “mission creep” among IRBs. Requiring these requests further complicates already fraught processes of negotiating access to research settings, adding a level of formality that could, in some cases, forestall or prevent actual access.

Indeed, for this very reason, Canada’s TCPS2 specifically warns against requiring institutional permission:

REBs should not prohibit research simply because the research is unpopular or looked upon with disfavour by a community or organization, in Canada or abroad. Similarly, REBs should not veto research on the grounds that the government in place or its agents have not given approval for the research project, or have expressed a dislike for the researchers.

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