irb misconceptions

Last Fri., I attended a talk by Sarah Babb of Boston College. In her talk, titled “Beyond the Horror Stories: Non-Experimental Social Researchers’ Encounters with Institutional Review Boards (IRB),” Babb revealed findings that included misconceptions about federal guidelines for human subjects. Contrary to what some IRB review boards demand from principal investigators (PIs) undertaking qualitative research, the federal guidelines do not require:
– signed consent from a low risk population
– an institutional research permission slip
To repeat, the above two are “not in federal regulations at all.”

Babb noted that at larger institutions, IRB boards often involve nonprofessionals – that is, those who don’t have appropriate professional expertise – in the decision-making processes about proposals. Moreover, qualitative research don’t fit well into the one-size-fits-all medical template often used to vet research proposals. Compounding these challenges is the lack of accountability in terms of IRB review boards’ responsibilities to PIs. Only 20% of IRBs that Babb examined had an appeals procedure that would allow PIs to contest decisions.

Not surprisingly, this talk evoked spirited discussion of the myriad problems encountered by researchers going through the IRB process at their institutions, as well as the unintended consequences of a review process ostensibly intended to protect human subjects. The audience noted the following unintended and undesired consequences: (1) normalized deviance,* (2) chilling effect upon the types of research undertaken, and (3) mission creep in which IRB review boards critique the suitability or worth of the research design, rather than evaluating risk to human subjects. In particular, senior researchers worried that tenure-track faculty and graduate students face great uncertainty about whether their project proposals will successfully navigate the IRB process in a timely fashion.

Audience members asked whether the sociologists’ professional association, the American Sociological Association (ASA), had taken an official position on IRB guidelines. None present were aware of any such activities (if you know of anything brewing from this or other associations, do write them in the comments). Attendees noted that because a tenured faculty member may be more able to surmount IRB issues on his/her own (or not need to go through the IRB process because of the type of research conducted), fashioning IRB standards that are more appropriate for a wider variety of research methods is a collective action problem.

I opined that these identified problems need to be considered a commons issue. Those with more power should consider it a professional responsibility to help budding researchers – undergraduate students, graduate students, junior faculty – go through an IRB process that is appropriate to their research methods and questions, especially if researchers hope to have future generations of audiences and colleagues. Unfortunately, dark humor may not be sufficient to get the point across – when a psychology colleague sent his IRB board a proposal to reproduce the Stanley Milgram experiment on April Fool’s Day, an IRB staffer called to inquire if the proposal was serious.

* One of my past posts discussing the IRB draws a steady stream of traffic from those searching for the answer to one of the quiz questions on the online Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI), a certification program mandatory for researchers and students at some institiutions.


Written by katherinechen

May 17, 2013 at 4:07 am

Posted in academia, research

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. We’ve had very lively discussions on campus about the IRB & its standards. People in our department have had no complaints, but I have heard stories from other campuses about IRB’s gone wild. I’ve often thought those were “urban myths” — you know, “somebody somewhere said…”

    However, at a recent meeting in Boston, I heard a scholar from the business school at a very prestigious university respond to my question about “did you run that study by your IRB” with the comment, “Oh, we don’t bother about such things…” So, I think the human subjects’ protection scheme has still not reached some corners of the academy.


    Howard Aldrich

    May 17, 2013 at 1:42 pm

  2. I beg your pardon? I am in your department, and I’ve had complaints, though ultimately they’ve been dealt with. I’ve run at least 17 statewide telephone polls, all with the same methods and same sampling frame, and the one I was approved for yesterday was the very first one that was approved without contingencies. There’s simply no reason for the degree of oversight that is placed on low-risk social scientific research, nor for the prior restraint approach taken.

    AAUP released a report on this last year. See



    May 17, 2013 at 3:04 pm

  3. Katherine: Thanks for posting this. The ASA has been active, but few people know about it. Please see this post:



    May 17, 2013 at 3:10 pm

  4. I can confirm that Professor Perrin is, indeed, a colleague of mine, in the same department. He is so reluctant to bring me problems that he’s apparently dealt with all these IRB issues without involving me, for which I am most grateful! Who knew?!


    Howard Aldrich

    May 17, 2013 at 5:02 pm

  5. Thanks for the post, Katherine–I really enjoyed hearing about your IRB experiences at CUNY and your thoughts about how the IRB phenomenon fits into organizational theory! I look forward to hearing more.


    Sarah Louise Babb

    May 17, 2013 at 6:06 pm

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