February 28th, 2007

airplane, almost 1 year old

Academic IRB woes make the NYT!

I do think it's very important to be ethical in one's research, but I've had enough run-ins with IRB's ridiculous demands and timetables (at three institutions now) that I'm ecstatic to see an article like this, and on one of the front pages of the New York Times, no less. Zephoria, I'd bet you had twenty people send this to you already today, but I did think of you -- and Jean -- as soon as I read this.

To be clear, I don't object to the existence of IRBs; I object to their current form. In addition to the characteristics described below, IRBs really don't understand ethnographic research -- how can you have a fixed set of questions to ask participants when even your research questions are evolving with your observations? Almost every project I've ever submitted has needed at least one round of revisions. Furthermore, at Berkeley, one round -- even for exempt projects -- could take the good part of a year! That's a significant part of one's schooling in which one isn't allowed to even start on a research project! (They are trying to address that; I don't know how it's going since I'm not there anymore.) The IRBs I'm familiar with only meet a few times a year, so approval may take only a few weeks if you happen to submit right before they meet, or several months otherwise. And now, they require everyone to take a certification course -- and I've heard that if you are too efficient in taking it, they make you take it again.

As Ethics Panels Expand Grip, No Field Is Off Limits

Published: February 28, 2007

Ever since the gross mistreatment of poor black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study came to light three decades ago, the federal government has required ethics panels to protect people from being used as human lab rats in biomedical studies. Yet now, faculty and graduate students across the country increasingly complain that these panels have spun out of control, curtailing academic freedom and interfering with research in history, English and other subjects that poses virtually no danger to anyone.

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