is the irb getting ready to screw you over again?
I’m actually a fan of IRBs. It is generally a good thing that universities have rules addressing ethical conduct for research. However, IRBs become a burden and nuisance when they overstep their boundaries. While I’ve been lucky in getting my studies approved with little hassle, I have heard from too many colleagues who have had projects delayed with all kinds of petty issues. The problems seem to come in a few flavors:
- Treating social science/humanities research like medical research. In medicine, we are often subjecting people to risky treatments in an institutional setting. That’s why you want to get people’s signatures. In social science, we are usually not exposing people to risk in that way and we interact in places where getting a signature would be bizarre (e.g., doing ethnography in a “real” situation).
- Dropping common sense. For example, it is common to pay people for research participation. Strangely, many IRBs consider payment a form of coercion. Another example is when IRBs ascribe risk to all kinds of innocuous activities. For example, one IRB delayed me because they thought I could use a zip code to track down individual people, even though zip codes usually contain thousands of people.
- Bureaucracy and delays. IRBs now require approval for just about anything, so they are swamped with everything from major medical trials to freshman oral history projects.
- Acting as a judge of scientific merit. IRBs are about protecting human subjects, but they sometimes reject projects simply because they don’t like them. It is not the job of the IRB to judge the scientific merit – only risk to human subjects. The stupidest project in the world should be approved without question as long as it conforms with guidelines that protect human subjects.
- Inconsistency and vagueness. The rules are often vague and hard to follow. Campuses vary widely in their application of the rules. Trying to get multiple campuses to agree on an IRB approval for intermural research can be a nightmare.
In response to these problems, the Office for Human Research Protections, a federal agency, is now trying to revamp the rules. The New York Times reports:
Researchers in the humanities and social sciences are pleased that the reforms would address repeated complaints that medically oriented regulations have choked off research in their fields with irrelevant and cumbersome requirements. But they were dismayed to discover that the desire to protect individuals’ privacy in the genomics age resulted in rules that they say could also restrict access to basic data, like public-opinion polls.
The issue is that the Feds suggested a rule that said data can only be analyzed for the purpose for which it was collected. So, for example, a survey on religion could never be used to study, say, race.
Once again, it seems like the Feds are doing the “one size fits all” approach which will leave the humanities and social sciences in a mess. A federal official is quoted as saying:
Dr. Menikoff said, “We want to hear all these comments.” But he maintained that when the final language is published, critics may find themselves saying, “Wow, this is reasonable stuff.”
Gee, I hope so. The last version left us 5,000 IRBs who can’t agree on anything. What could go wrong?