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From the News column of the February 2006 Perspectives

An IRB at Work: A Personal Experience

Bernadette McCauley, February 2006

As we have learned from recent articles in Perspectives, the interview guidelines of the Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP) have received varying interpretations on campuses, and the issue of Institutional Review Board (IRB) jurisdiction over oral history remains unresolved and a problem for historians. My own recent experience with the IRB at Hunter College and the City University of New York suggests that as historians our concerns about IRBs might also lead us to question the overall authority and power of those boards over us and all our research, not exclusively oral history.

In November 2004 I received an order from the Hunter College IRB mandating that I cease all research—not just oral history—until the board had ascertained that I was not in violation of IRB protocols involving oral history. The IRB took this action when it refused to accept my declaration that I was not engaged in an oral history project. I was only released from the order in May 2005 after an acrimonious and expensive debate over the methods and power of the Hunter College IRB which ultimately involved private counsel and the vice chancellor for legal affairs at the City University of New York.

During that debate, the Hunter College IRB claimed that my declaration that there was no research to report was not an adequate response to its demand for information. The board also claimed investigative powers that included the right to contact—without my knowledge—archives I had used and to question my involvement with them and they did so. Furthermore, in a wild interpretation of federal regulations of human subject research, I was informed that IRB jurisdiction over research extended beyond interviews into research with any materials which could include materials relating to living persons and that I should submit a statement regarding my use of all archival material in a manuscript in the process of publication.

The order to cease all research was lifted after discussion and negotiations between my lawyers and the vice chancellor, but the debate never really ended nor were the issues resolved. I refused to submit any information about my manuscript and the Hunter College IRB never admitted any inappropriate conduct. Of course I was much relieved to have the order removed, for the obvious reason that I wanted to continue research, but also because I was made aware of the unfortunate position I would be in when I was up for promotion if I was not officially conducting any research.
At Hunter College, sympathetic colleagues have raised questions about IRB appointments and procedures; but meaningful reform remains a matter of some speculation since a promised investigation has not been forthcoming. In the meantime I submit this as a cautionary tale of a dangerously empowered IRB which revealed absolutely no understanding of how and indeed why historians conduct research.

—Bernadette McCauley is associate professor of history at Hunter College, City University of New York.