Reviewing the Reviewers

Professor starts blog to examine institutional review boards and how, in his eyes, they hamstring the humanities.
January 19, 2007

To hear it from Zachary Schrag, assistant professor of history at George Mason University, getting clearance from an institutional review board to conduct an oral history project is not only onerous, but it can place demands on a researcher that compromises professional ethics. An IRB must approve any study that involves human subjects, and IRBs at some institutions have asked oral historians to destroy primary sources of information such as taped interviews.

“I once had to fill out a form on the race and age of everyone that I interviewed for a project,” Schrag said. “That would make sense for a medical study where you want to make sure that you’re getting a representative sample, but it’s really none of the IRBs' business when it comes to history work.”

Schrag started Institutional Review Blog to document unfortunate encounters with IRBs, and to create an interdisciplinary community of researchers from across academe -- fields such as communications, history and psychology -- who struggle with IRBs. He has been providing links to reports and new studies and said that he has been getting some positive feedback from people who also feel his frustration.

While they were designed to protect people who participate in experiments, critics say that IRBs have expanded their oversight and now sometimes regulate activities such as interviews with family members. In the late 1970s, the agency that is now called the Department of Health and Human Services revised and expanded the regulations that govern IRBs, and published the Belmont Report, which explains the underlying ethical guidelines for protecting human subjects.

The main agency that oversees IRB regulations now is the Office for Human Research Protections, which is part of the Health and Human Services Department, an agency that mainly focuses on biomedical research. Still, horror stories from the humanities abound, such as a recent account from a graduate student at a Southern university who says she was told by her IRB to destroy taped interviews for her oral history project on a gay and lesbian community, to avoid the possible identification of ex-lovers and other third parties.

“It’s a violation of history ethics,” Schrag said.

Besides detailing the travails of researchers, Schrag has spent a bit of time poking fun at the Office for Human Research Protections.

In early January, he published a post discussing OHRP’s oral history project on the Belmont Report, which serves as the essential reference for IRBs. Schrag asked rhetorically whether OHRP had been required to go through an IRB for its own oral history project. He then posted an e-mail from an OHRP employee who confirmed that the agency had not gone through the IRB process. Inside Higher Ed confirmed that the office did not go through the IRB process.

“It was a snarky question, but it was honest as well,” Schrag said. He pointed out that in one audio tape, which can be found online, a source for the project discusses illnesses in a colleague, discloses the names of fellow employees, and even talks about an apparent act of sexual harassment. All of these items, Schrag said, would send off alarm bells at any IRB.

“So OHRP did not hold itself to the same onerous standards that many IRBs impose on most students and faculty,” he said. “All I’m asking is that I be allowed to do what they did.”

This particular post brought Schrag some kudos from David Hyman, a professor at the University of Illinois law school, who has written critically of IRBs. “You could build a whole article around this point,” he told Inside Higher Ed, in an e-mail.

Schrag said that the problems with IRBs will probably remain for some time. “I think the regulations themselves are poorly drafted, with terms that are not well defined, and I anticipate problems until they are amended,” he said. “Perhaps until then, I’m going to have to keep up the blog.”


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