AAUP Questions Scope Of Research Ethics Boards

January 2007

Research ethics boards were never designed for oversight of journalism programs or surveys by sociology majors and have gone well beyond their mandates and purpose, and in the process harming scholarly work, a recent report from the American Association of University Professors warns.

David Hyman, one of the authors of the report and a professor of law and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said ethics boards (known as Institutional Review Boards or IRBs in the U.S.) serve an important purpose when people who are the subjects of research can face real harm but that “what is deeply troublesome is the fact that research on human subjects must obtain IRB approval whether or not it imposes a serous risk of harm on its subjects”.

The report recommends that research methodologies that consist entirely in collecting data by survey, through interviews, or by observing behavior in public places be exempt from review by campus IRBs, and that there be no requirement of IRB approval for the exemption.

It also recommends that all universities and colleges at which, or under whose auspices, federally funded research on human subjects is to be conducted provide assurance they will protect the rights and welfare of the human subjects of all their research on human subjects, whatever their source of funding.

The report lists a number of “more or less familiar horror stories” that leave no ambiguity that the process has gotten out of hand. In one case, 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. In another, a white graduate student was told he could not interview African-American students on career expectations because the interview might cause trauma.

Jonathan Knight, director of AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, said there is no systematic analysis of IRBs to see how commonly such examples occur but that the stories pop up regularly.

Yet, the report notes there is a danger that the requirement of advance IRB approval of research will come to be imposed more broadly than it currently is. And it says that “complaints published here and there over the years have accomplished little beyond generating an angry and deeply dismaying literature.”

The AAUP report on institutional review boards is available online at: