Professors and students engaged in oral history research may eventually run into regulatory roadblocks similar to those their peers in psychology and the sciences face on a regular basis.
A recent report has sparked debate about whether proposals for humanities research involving interviews, surveys or public observations should be subject to external review, which is already the standard for science and social science research involving human subjects. While relatively few oral history projects are reviewed at Yale each year, Human Subjects Committee chair Susan Bouregy said, the national discussion focuses on whether such regulation impinges on academic freedom.
Ambiguity remains about whether the review process, which is mandated by federal law, applies to all interviews, surveys and public observations conducted in the course of scholarly work. The regulation of such projects could pose significant barriers to historical research, according to members of Yale’s History Department, who said they hope their department’s relationship with the University’s Human Subject Committee will remain unchanged.
According to guidelines posted on the HSC Web site, the deciding factor about the need for IRB approval lies in whether or not the project will be used to make generalizable conclusions, particularly if they would be predictive about future similar circumstances. If a project does not meet this definition of “research,” the involvement of human subjects does not mandate IRB review. Yale’s guidelines state that oral history interviews may “sometimes” require IRB reviews.
A report released last year by the American Association of University Professors said that IRBs’ resources were being inappropriately diverted to review humanities and social science projects. The boards should instead focus on high-risk research, the report said.
History Department chair Paul Freedman said that from the point of view of the department, oral history research differs entirely from scientific experiments and medical trials because there is no real question about whether a person knows the risks of being involved in the project. But the debate about whether oversight regulations should apply to history and other humanities research will persist, Freedman said, simply because regulations tend to spread to cases they were not originally intended to cover.
“It’s in the nature of rules to apply to all sorts of people not necessarily originally covered,” Freedman said. “In my point of view, it’s kind of like making laws concerning emissions of power plants apply to your home fireplace.”
He said continued discussion about this issue can be frustrating for faculty members who are unsure about whether their research now requires IRB approval.
But Bouregy said having four distinct IRBs helps Yale to avoid many of the problems outlined in the AAUP report. The University’s Human Subjects Committee is responsible for reviewing human-subjects research conducted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Research conducted by the Yale School of Medicine and the School of Epidemiology and Public Health is reviewed by two separate committees and another group regulates research done by the Yale School of Nursing.
The different committees ensure that projects are reviewed by committee members who are familiar enough with the discipline’s research protocols to prevent unnecessarily stringent regulations, she said.
“Humanities research at Yale is reviewed by an IRB which reviews exclusively social science, behavioral, educational and humanities research so there is a degree of familiarity with the techniques and practices of these disciplines as well as where the regulations allow flexibility to meet the needs of these types of projects,” Bouregy said in an e-mail.
The HSC – which Bouregy said reviews about five to 10 humanities projects each year, in addition to social science projects – strives to “ensure that the rights and welfare of research participants are protected,” according to the committee’s mission statement.
Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, who is also a history professor, said the discussion about increasing regulations began in 2002, when he was chair of the History Department and Bouregy spoke to the faculty about the types of research that would require HSC approval. Butler said he agrees with Freedman that historians should not be subjected to the same regulation process as other disciplines. Historical interviews are often unstructured and based on “dynamic dialogue,” and having to submit a list of questions to the IRB for approval would limit the scope of discussions, he said.
“When historians work, they don’t typically affect the metabolic rates in humans, and their work is not designed to produce new treatments for patients,” he said. “But historians do have obligations when they interview subjects. Interviews do have to have informed consent.”
Butler said historians are subject to the ethical protocols of the OHA and the AHA, which protect interview subjects without requiring institutional review.
History professor Daniel Kevles said strict regulation of historical research could be interpreted as censorship because interviews would become far less open-ended if scholars had to submit a full list of questions in advance. For his book about alleged scientific fraud, Kevles said, he interviewed dozens of subjects — most of whom he had to persuade to talk to him — and the book would not have been as powerful if his interviews had been limited by an IRB.
“Doing an oral-history interview can in at least some cases resemble being an investigative reporter,” he said. “[You’re] trying to investigate by getting to the truth of the matter, and not everyone wants you to get with the truth of the matter. Regulations would be counterproductive to getting at the truth.”
Kevles also said IRB reviews are inappropriate because most historians are not conducting research with federal dollars and are also not seeking to draw general conclusions from the information they collect.
But not all historians believe that IRB reviews would have negative repercussions on historical research. E. Taylor Atkins, an associate professor of history at Northern Illinois University, who sits on his school’s IRB, said on the AHA’s Web site that historians might better serve their own interests by participating in the process instead of avoiding it. By cooperating with IRBs, oral historians could increase their understanding of the ethics involved in conducting research with human subjects while sharing their knowledge of subject recruitment, interview techniques and data retention with other scholars, he said.
“If nothing else, [historians] can become more sensitized to the possibilities for psychological or social harm that may result from oral history interviewing,” Atkins said. “Whenever our IRB reviews a protocol from the psychology department that involves questions about childhood abuse or some other trauma, we make sure that the investigator is either qualified to directly provide appropriate counseling or intervention, or provides a list of appropriate support services … Most oral historians may not be compelled to consider the validity of these risks unless they become involved in a broader discussion on research ethics with their colleagues in other disciplines.”
There are 5,564 institutional review boards at colleges and universities throughout the country, according to The New York Times.