IRB Horror Stories Go Pro

Another Horror Story on IRBs, this one in the New York Times. It’s an uneventful article, I’m not sure what occasioned it, and unfortunately has little of the depth recently devoted to the subject in AE… but the fact that the Times saw fit to cover such a seemingly obscure topic must say something about the affective quality of IRB mission creep… did I mention that I was kicked off of the Rice IRB for making too much trouble? (Well, to be fair, I didn’t protest, I was happy to have one less administrative duty…)


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

6 thoughts on “IRB Horror Stories Go Pro

  1. I am really struck, reading this nytimes story, and having read other complaints about IRB difficulties, by how differently IRBs seem to behave from university to university. This variation itself seems to me a sign that the IRBs are really in the dark about what they are supposed to be doing.

    The story’s reference to a linguist working with a “pre-literate tribe” being asked to read and sign consent forms was particularly striking in this regard. I work in the Amazon basin with a number of different groups, some with literate members, some without, and I have found the IRB at my university very sensible and flexible about things like signing consent forms. The solution I proposed in one case, in consultation with the IRB, was to read to the people I was working with an explanation of what I was planning to do with my audio recordings, and what would happen with them, and ask for oral permission to make and use the recording in the indicated manner. Then, to satisfy the letter of the law, *I* would sign the consent form on the person’s behalf. OK, this process might sound a little Rube Goldberg-esque, but what comes out is informed consent and a signed form. The point is, the IRB immediately recognized the inappropriateness of the traditional consent form, and was very amenable to a work-around. The crucial difference, it seems to me, is that this particular IRB seems to take seriously the spirit behind protecting “human subjects”, but does not seem to want to impede research getting done by being inflexible about how this protection is acheived. And given the heavy grant-driven research-oriented nature of the university, I am not surprised by this.

    Obviously, not all IRBs are like this, and it makes me wonder how much of the trouble with IRBs is the result of relatively clueless faculty and/or administrators floundering about, and in their insecurity, opting for rigidly following the letter of the guidelines. If this is the problem, I wonder if guidance and education by AAA, LSA, and other professional organizations is really what is needed to get IRBs behaving sensibly.

  2. lmichael– You are absolutely right, the variation is huge–at least if reactions to the IRB mission creep stories are any indication. Enlightened folks are very unevenly distributed, and you are lucky to have them in your IRB. The problem is not that people are uneducated though… more education by the AAA would be nice, but there is plenty out there already. Rather, I think the problem is at two levels (and you can tell me if these are true at your institution):

    1. There are not enough people representing social/behavioral sciences on most IRB boards, or their expertise is systematically downgraded w/r/t medical expertise. So places that are clueful enough to have separate IRB boards for different fields of research have fewer problems in terms of the unreasonable demands made. In a way, this is so painfully obvious if you think about the madness of letting a bunch of historians decide what constitutes harm in a clinical trial– we would never do that, but have no problem letting the doctors chime in and determine what constitutes harm in terms of “psychological” “damage” in merely talking with human beings.

    2. The demands of “audit culture” and transparency. So many of these issues are just a result of trying to treat all research projects equally, and to develop procedures for documenting every such decision in standardized ways so that when the lawyers come a-suing, there is plenty of paper to throw at them in defense. Forcing everyone into the same line of defense, driven by fears of liability (justifiable, sadly), is what creates situations where consent forms are required of people who can neither read nor understand them. Universities willing to shoulder more risk to avoid this should be heartily commended.

  3. What I want to know is how is it that anthropologists working for the military like Anna Simons, Montgomery McFate or Brian Selmseki have no problems with IRBs?

  4. “Forcing everyone into the same line of defense, driven by fears of liability (justifiable, sadly), is what creates situations where consent forms are required of people who can neither read nor understand them.”

    Have anthropologists been sued in the past in this manner? I’m not an anthropologist, so I wouldn’t know if they had.

  5. not anthropologists, universities. individuals, especially poor ones like anthropologists, have much less to worry about than institutions with deep pockets–but most of it is just that… worrying. Few cases, that I know of, are cited as feasible defense of the kind of anxiety that inhabits most General Counsel offices at universities.

    Macco’s question is an excellent one: I wonder too what Darpa’s IRB looks like… a brief search confirms that darpa and dod both have them, as they are required to by federal law if they do research… but what I wouldn’t give to be a fly on THAT wall…

  6. ckelty– It was with respect to the situation you mention in 1. that I was thinking about the utility of explicit and clear AAA/LSA/etc. guidance. If there were, to put it in very concrete terms, a handbook specifically written for IRBs on the relevant ins and outs of ethnography and related methods, then this could serve as a resource for IRBs in making their decisions. Either the IRB could consult it voluntarily, or put-upon researchers could refer the IRB to that guide.

    Of course, what would be better would be to have competent IRB members who could evaluate ethnographic proposals from an informed standpoint — but come to think of it, even for these people an IRB-oriented handbook could be useful, if only as a resource for convincing skeptical board members that ethnography is not some kooky fringe methodology which leads to widespread emotional scarring and social upheaval.

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