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Threat Seen to Oral History

Threat Seen to Oral History
January 3, 2008

In theory, those who face reviews of their work would like to have those processes expedited. But historians are protesting plans to specify that oral history is eligible for expedited reviews by institutional review boards because doing so would establish the principle that IRB's have oversight of such scholarship.

In the last week, the American Historical Association, along with a number of individual historians, have weighed in with the Office for Human Research Protections, the Department of Health and Human Services agency that oversees IRB's, arguing that the proposal to cover oral history would hinder many scholars' work while not offering any important protections to those who give oral history interviews.

Citing a "long and unhappy experience" with IRB's, the association called for oral history to be exempt from their oversight. In fact, the association said that some readings of current law already exempt oral history, but the language being proposed could have the impact of making such interpretations impossible.

IRB's are institutionally based boards required by federal law to review experiments with human subjects. The boards were created out of the view that someone needs to be looking out for the subjects being studied in research to minimize risks and make sure that subjects are fully informed of those risks. While scholars in a range of disciplines criticize IRB's for sometimes delaying work, there is a widespread consensus that they also protect people who need protecting. In medical research especially, ethics experts say that IRB's have assured that experimental treatments have been tested to appropriate levels with non-human subjects before shifting to people and that those who undergo experimental treatments (or who may end up in a placebo group) understand the risks.

In the social sciences, criticism of IRB's has been particularly intense, with scholars saying that boards dominated by biomedical scientists don't understand the risks and rewards of the research projects they are reviewing in other fields. The historians' criticism fits into this line of attack. For instance, the letter from the American Historical Association noted instances in which scholars proposing oral history interviews were told that they would be approved only if the subjects were anonymous -- even though the very reason for the interviews was that the subjects were particular people whose individual stories merited attention.

"IRB's are applying rigid research criteria that are fundamentally at odds with oral history practices," said the AHA's letter.

Many historians question whether IRB's ever had any reason to be examining oral history. Zachary M. Schrag, an assistant professor of history at George Mason University, has been studying the history of IRB activity in the social sciences. The language in the current regulations that has encouraged some IRB's to look at oral history was adopted in 1998, with the endorsement of major history groups. But as Schrag noted in his comments on the new proposal, those groups endorsed the idea only after "overzealous" IRB's were applying their standards to oral history projects -- which for decades had gone on without such reviews. The hope in 1998 was that by setting out a path for expedited review, the intense scrutiny and resulting delays would end. Schrag also noted that -- unlike the biological sciences -- oral history has not had scandals or any indications that its conduct poses a risk to subjects.

The idea in 1998 was to encourage some modest oversight to keep IRB's from doing too much, but Schrag's letter said that it had the "perverse effect of ratifying the behavior it sought to restrain."

An official of the Office for Human Research Protections said that many individual historians had written in as well. It is not known when the office will issue a response to the historians who have requested a change.

 

 

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