Historians and IRBs

Speaking of the AHA, the organization has asked for members to weigh in on a movement at HHS to create policy for IRBs regarding oral histories (see the AHA blog on this). Naturally, this has caused the usual flurry of outrage about allegedly out of control IRBs and “intrusion” into faculty research. (one person called this whole thing “insane.”) Here are my thoughts as posted on the Cheiron listserv:

As a scholar of disability history, and a person with a mood disorder, I suggest being more careful about tossing around terms like “insane.” Furthermore, I don’t understand how this is a bar to academic freedom — why should historians be exempt from the standards and practices of other human sciences? What does this say about our attitudes towards our research subjects?

If you read carefully through all the material from HHS, they are actually recommending that our kind of research be eligible for expedited review — i.e. they are making it easier for us rather than more difficult.

Perhaps if I give some details on my encounter with my IRB I can make my points clearer. Since I have known our IRB chair for years and we are good friends, it was easy for me to approach this process in a collegial rather than adversarial manner. I realize that others are not this fortunate. During my review, the commmittee determined that my oral histories were not “research” as defined by HHS — i.e. they did not contribute to generalizable knowledge. My anonymous surveys were considered research, but because the identities of the respondents were concealed even from me, the committee gave me the green light to go ahead with the survey. Their only concerns were with sample bias, and they gave me lots of excellent suggestions on how to avoid that. In short, the process helped rather than hurt my research project.

The new guidelines, while inconvenient, are now redefining oral history as research — doesn’t this make our work more legitimate to scientists?

I ran this issue by my IRB chair, (who is also a psychologist by the way). He says that the APA has a task force on this issue. His sense from reading quickly through the material from AHA is that HHS is attempting to clarify things for local IRBs. This may make the process less arbitrary. In my case, my IRB considered the professional standards of the oral history association and the release forms our department has developed as acceptable. Because I was applying for funding from HHS (via the publication grants at the National Library of Medicine) I think going through the IRB made my application stronger — that was certainly reflected in my priority score and summary statement from the review committee at NIH.

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