IRB Extremism

Institutional Review Boards Overstepping Their Roles

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The AAUP recently submitted comments to the Department of Health and Human Services in response to proposed new rule making on institutional review boards, the campus bodies that oversee research on human subjects. In accordance with the AAUP’s 2006 report on this subject, the comments emphasize that IRBs should evaluate risk based on empirical evidence, that there should be no IRB review of interview, observation, and survey research with legally competent adults, and that the federal government should not regulate research it does not pay for.

The 2006 report was prompted in part by many complaints of inappropriate IRB actions, particularly

when dealing with research in the social sciences and humanities. The 2006 report listed the following examples:

  • A linguist seeking to study language development in a preliterate tribe was instructed by the IRB to have the subjects read and sign a consent form before the study could proceed.
  • A political scientist who had bought a list of appropriate names for a survey of voting behavior was required by the IRB to get written informed consent from the subjects before mailing them the survey.
  • A Caucasian PhD student, seeking to study career expectations in relation to ethnicity, was told by the IRB that African American PhD students could not be interviewed because it might be traumatic for them to be interviewed by the student.
  • An experimental economist seeking to do a study of betting choices in college seniors was held up for many months while the IRB considered and reconsidered the risks inherent in the study.
  • An IRB attempted to block publication of an English professor’s essay that drew on anecdotal information provided by students about their personal experiences with violence because the students, though not identified by name in the essay, might be distressed by reading the essay.
  • A campus IRB attempted to deny an MA student her diploma because she did not obtain IRB approval for calling newspaper executives to ask for copies of printed material generally available to the public.

Readers, have you dealt with institutional review boards in the course of your research? If so, did the oversight seem appropriate or inappropriate?

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