Institutional review boards -- never designed for oversight of journalism programs or surveys by sociology majors -- have gone way beyond their mandates and purpose, to the detriment of scholarship, says a new report from the American Association of University Professors.
IRB's serve an important purpose when people who are the subjects of research can face real harm, said David Hyman, an author of the report and a professor of law and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But in cases where the chance for harm is quite low, the IRB process is not needed, he said. IRB review, he pointed out, has been required for projects such as journalism study, oral history research, and simple surveys of family members.
“That’s just nutty,” he said. “People talk to their parents and relatives all the time without IRB approval.”
The report recommends that IRB's cease reviewing a number of projects where the chance for physical injury to a human subject is slim to nonexistent. When adults are the subject of surveys, interviews, or publicly observed, there is no need for an IRB process, said Jonathan Knight, the AAUP’s point person on academic freedom.
The report lists a number of “more or less familiar horror stories” to back up the claim that the process has gotten out of hand. In one case, a linguist had to get signed approval from the participants of a study who were not literate. In another, a white graduate student was told that he could not interview African-American students on career expectations because the interview might cause trauma.
Knight said that there is no systematic analysis of IRB's to see how commonly such examples occur, but the stories pop up regularly.
Hyman added that IRB's can have the effect of stifling research. Rejecting a study unfairly may lead to an upset researcher, while controversial research can result in lawsuits or a Congressional investigation. Simply weighing the costs on both sides causes institutions and administrators to err on the side of caution, he said.