IRB Flames

15 April 2010 at 9:08 pm 7 comments

| Peter Klein |

Zachary Schrag’s excellent Institutional Review Blog highlights the discussion on a recent Chronicle post about IRBs. As you can imagine, most of the comments are from frustrated researchers who see the campus IRB as their enemy, not their ally. Sample: “At my current institution, humanities scholars are subject to an IRB that only makes sense for scientists collecting blood and doing life-threatening experiments on small children.” Zach points out that a few comments defend the local IRB, but these comments “are vaguer and less eloquent,” and “none tells a story of an IRB review that proved necessary.”

I suspect that some of this researcher frustration can be alleviated by recognizing that IRBs exist not to protect research subjects, but to protect the university. The IRB’s goal is to prevent the university from being sued or otherwise losing Federal funding. Protecting research subjects, improving research methods, and contributing to the growth of knowledge are incidental.

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Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Institutions, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Myths and Realities.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Randy  |  15 April 2010 at 10:31 pm

    I am reminded of a lecture in an undergrad HR (née personnel management) class. The professor stated that “no industry has a union that didn’t deserve one … at one time”.

    IRBs wouldn’t exist save for egregious behaviors by researchers. Alas, the bad behaviors have passed from the regulated to the regulator.

    Tell me, Peter. If the IRB disappeared, would you return to using sensory deprivation techniques on your grad students?

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  15 April 2010 at 11:39 pm

    My lectures and seminars have often been likened to sensory deprivation experiences. . . .

    What bugs me — and, I’m guessing, most of the venters on the Chronicle blog — is that the egregious behaviors of a few have led to punishment for the many. Presumably those few have almost all been in the biomedical field. So why are literary critics and architects and economists subject to silly rules about drug trials and pregnant women and radiation sickness?

  • 3. gabrielrossman  |  16 April 2010 at 3:13 am

    almost all biomedical? have you ever read an intro psych textbook? all the good parts could be retitled “why we now have IRB”

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  16 April 2010 at 8:45 am

    Fine, but you get the point. The problems are concentrated in a handful of disciplines, but the remedies are imposed on the entire faculty.

  • 5. REW  |  16 April 2010 at 10:43 am

    My take on the path dependent process that brought org scientists and economists into the IRB corral is that there had to be a one-size-fits-all policy on human subjects research. As noted above, the biomedical types (including nutrition) and the psychologists forced a protection policy against placing human subjects at risk. Since everyone had to be subject to IRB policy, the regulators had to identify “social risks” that are associated with our work – disclosing financial data, speaking about behaviors of coworkers and supervisors, and failing to draw perfect samples that account for racial and gender profiles of the universe from which samples are selected. Bleah!

  • 6. srp  |  16 April 2010 at 8:36 pm

    The IRB should focus more on harms to the readers of academic papers. Damage to brain cells caused by reading such papers can have tragic consequences.

  • 7. Fred Thompson  |  18 April 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Having served on an IRB and contrasted our practices and procedures to the standards outlined in federal guidelines, I am persuaded that there is a great deal of over-reaching. Most research in economics and management falls lies in exempt categories. In many cases individuals are not the subjects of the research; something else is: organizations, markets, etc. Much that remains should be approvable via appropriate disclosure and informed consent, either on the part of the individuals participating in the study or their supervisors. Moreover, many IRBs operate without a clear charter of authority from their universities or properly vetted procedures. It is hardly surprising that they are often arbitrary and capricious in their actions and holdings.

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