Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Purview of Human Subjects Committees

Federal regulations on human subjects research state that Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) should review activity that involves "systematic investigation... designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge" and which further involves "intervention" or "interaction" with, or the acquisition of "identifiable private information" about, human beings.

Here's what I wonder: Given these definitions, why aren't IRBs evaluating journalism projects? (Of course they aren't. For one thing journalism moves too quickly for IRBs, which typically take weeks if not months to issue approvals.)

Journalists interact with people, obviously (according to the code "communication or interpersonal contact" counts as interaction), so if they don't fall under the Human Subjects code, it must be because they don't do "systematic investigation... designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge". Tell that to an investigative journalist exposing the abuses of factory laborers!

Is investigative journalism on factory workers maybe not "systematic"? Or not "generalizable"? I see no reason why investigative journalism shouldn't be systematic. Indeed, it seems better if it is -- unless one works with a very narrow definition of "systematic" on which much of the research IRBs actually do (and should) review is not systematic. And why should the systematicity of the research matter for the purpose of reviewability anyway? I also don't see why investigative journalism shouldn't be generalizable. The problems with this criterion are the same as with systematicity: Define "generalizable" reasonably broadly and intuitively, so that a conclusion such as "undocumented factory workers in L.A. are often underpaid" is a generalization, and journalism involves generalization; define it very narrowly and much IRB reviewed research is not "generalizable". And like systematicity, why should it matter to reviewability exactly how specific or general the conclusions are that come out in the end?

IRBs were designed in the wake of 20th century abuses of human subjects both in medicine (as in the Tuskegee syphilis study) and in psychology (such as the Milgram shock study and the Stanford prison experiment). Guidelines were designed with medicine and psychology in mind and traditionally IRBs focused on research in those fields. However, there are plenty of other fields that study people, and the way the guidelines are written, it looks like much research in those fields actually falls under IRBs' purview. So the U.C. Riverside IRB -- of which I'm a member -- has been reviewing more and more proposals in Anthropology, History, Ethic Studies, and the like. Let's call it IRB mission creep.

We recently got news of a graduate student in Music who interviewed musicians and wanted to use those interviews as the core of his dissertation -- but he didn't think to ask for IRB approval before conducting those interviews. The IRB originally voted to forbid him to use that information, basically torpedoing his whole dissertation project. That decision was only overturned on appeal.

It makes a lot of sense, especially given the history of abuse, for IRBs to examine proposals in medicine and psychology. But do we really want to require university professors and graduate students to go through the rigmarole of an IRB application -- and it is quite a rigmarole, especially if you're not used to it! -- and wait weeks or months every time they want to talk with someone and then write about it?

Here's the core problem, I think: Research needs to be reviewed if there's a power issue that might lead to abuse. If the researcher has a kind of power, whether through social status (e.g., as a professor or a doctor vis-a-vis a student or a patient, or even in the experimenter-subject relationship), or through an informational advantage (e.g., through subjecting people to some sort of deception or experimental intervention whose purposes and hypotheses they don't fully understand), then IRBs need to make sure that that power isn't misused. But no IRB should need to approve a journalism student interviewing the mayor or a music professor interviewing jazz musicians about their careers. In such cases, the power situation is unproblematic. Of course in any human interaction there are opportunities for abuse, but only Big Brother would insist that a regulatory board should govern all human interaction.


Michael Metzler said...

This is my kind of philosophy: Literature, journalism, medicine, psychology, and music all in a few paragraphs.

Christopher Hitchens writes, "But the right and warrant of an individual critic [i.e. investigative journalist] does not need to be demonstrated in the same way as that of a holder of power. It is in most ways its own justification."

Manuel Vargas said...

The Stanford IRB once required me to get consent forms signed every time I talked to a philosopher in Mexico when I was doing some research on philosophy in Mexico. They couldn't explain to me why philosophers talking to philosophers elsewhere didn't need to get these things signed. It was really weird, and one of these cases where it felt like regulation had to be wildly beyond any defensible aim or intent. But yeah, I think the unequal power/potential for abuse standard seems like the relevant one.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Michael!

Manuel: Thanks for the anecdote. That's exactly the kind of thing.