Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A satisfied customer at American University

Patricia Aufderheide, University Professor of Communication Studies at American University, reports her satisfaction with the IRB at that institution. It’s great to hear some good news, and Aufderheide’s essay points to the importance of having the right people in positions of power. But it also raises questions about how good and how replicable AU’s experience is.

[Patricia Aufderheide, “Does This Have to Go Through the IRB?,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 17, 2016.]

Aufderheide writes that the AU IRB, “which primarily deals with social-science and humanities research, has been more helpful to me than I ever expected it to be.” IRB staff review, she writes, helped her and a colleague think through reasons why the people they interviewed might hesitate to be interviewed, and the protocols they worked out gave them “a clear signal at the start of our work together that we were conscientious and considerate professionals.”

Aufderheide credits the people involved. The IRB includes faculty in marketing, public opinion research, government, psychology, international relations, as well as a librarian. This is a far larger range of disciplines than most social scientists can hope to face, and AU is to be applauded for securing such intellectual diversity. Moreover, Aufderheide credits the unfailing patience of Matt Zembrzuski, the research compliance manager, who directs IRB operations.

But Aufderheide’s raises some troubling issues as well, which suggest that not everything is as rosy at AU as she suggests, and that other universities may have trouble replicating the experience.

Why is Aufderheide destroying records?

The only research project that Aufderheide describes in any detail is an ongoing collaboration with Peter Jaszi to interview “creative colleagues on how they did their work, given their understanding of copyright.” As she describes the protocol,

Our research team gave interviewees an informed-consent form that said in simple words what we were trying to find out and why, why we valued their time, what we thought the risks were, and how we would deal with those risks. We promised not to use their names in any published material, unless they wanted to be named (a surprising number did). We kept all the information in a passworded project-management site (Basecamp), and we deleted all the data after we completed our research.

If respondents are willing to have their names used, why destroy all data? Why not give the participants the chance to have their interviews archived so that future generations can learn how copyright affected creative practice in the early 21st century? There’s gold in the interview outtakes. As Pat Bowne comments on the Chronicle site, “the phrase ‘delete the data afterwards’ sounds about as bad as ‘kill all the witnesses.’”

Does the AU IRB understand minimal risk?

Again, the essay is mostly vague about the projects reviewed by the IRB and the changes it demands, but it quotes Molly O’Rourke, a public-opinion researcher, in more detail:

“Example, asking about the number of children someone has or marital status seems very standard — but not for a respondent who lost a child or is in the process of a painful divorce or separation,” said O’Rourke, the public-opinion researcher. “Appreciating that and writing research instruments that reflect that is hard but important.” She added: “I will never forget moderating a focus group about terrorism/national security in 2002, and I had someone in the session whose brother was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. … We somehow missed it in the prescreening. Having been invited to a focus group about ‘policy priorities for our country,’ she (rightfully) felt misled.”

The first statement confuses the questions of whether a question is standard and whether the response to that question is standard. Questions about marital status are in fact quite standard. Every year the IRS asks about whether I’ve lost any family members, and for that reason my marital status is listed on my pay stub, issued twice a month. I rather doubt that someone who is grieving a dead child needs a questionnaire to be reminded of that fact. And while I feel sympathy for the woman whose brother was killed, I find it hard to believe that anyone in 2002 could imagine that a discussion of national policy priorities would not address responses to 9/11. What else did people talk about in 2002? O’Rourke appears to be trying to shield research participants from risks comparable to “those ordinarily encountered in daily life,” and that is not the IRB’s job.

Does the whole system depend on a benevolent despot?

Aufderheide’s emphasis on Zembrzuski rings true to me; I’ve seen at other universities (including my own) the importance of a patient, reasonable compliance manager. But academic freedom should not depend on one person’s temperament, which is why structural reforms, such as a guaranteed appeals process, are so important.

Are other AU researchers as pleased as Aufderheide?

Aufderheide’s essay quotes only members of the IRB, not any researchers who have faced the IRB without serving on it. This is like asking the foxes how they feel about guarding the henhouse. To be sure, I have not found in my notes any IRB horror stories emanating from AU. But I do recall one conference, some years back, when a VP of another major research university spoke confidently about how well the IRB worked at her institution, only to be immediately contradicted by a graduate student from the same university, who told the VP how deluded she was. I would be interested to hear from other AU researchers if their experience matches Aufderheide’s.

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