Ethical Training for Oral Historians

Zachary M. Schrag, March 2007

Since the early 1990s, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and oral historians have often found themselves at odds. IRBs unfamiliar with the practices of oral historians have made inappropriate demands on researchers. When historians question the authority of IRBs to oversee their work, they often point to dramatic incidents in which IRBs shut down research or raided faculty offices.1

I would like to address a less spectacular but more pervasive way in which IRBs affect oral history research: demanding that historians complete training courses designed for medical and behavioral researchers. Compared to an order to cease all research, the requirement that one spend a few hours reading about medical ethics may seem a trivial inconvenience, like the FBI warning that eats eight seconds of your life every time you watch a DVD. But the training required by IRBs does more than waste historians' time. It misinforms researchers about their rights and responsibilities, and it distracts historians from the task of developing relevant ethical training for new interviewers.

IRBs draw their authority to impose training from the federal Office for Human Research Protections' policy, "Federalwide Assurance (FWA) for the Protection of Human Subjects." This policy states, in part:

OHRP strongly recommends that... IRB(s) establish educational training and oversight mechanisms (appropriate to the nature and volume of its research) to ensure that research investigators, IRB members and staff, and other appropriate personnel maintain continuing knowledge of, and comply with, the following: relevant ethical principles; relevant federal regulations; written IRB procedures; OHRP guidance; other applicable guidance, state and local laws; and institutional policies for the protection of human subjects.2

Although the policy stresses training that is "appropriate," "relevant," and "applicable," university IRBs tend to require the same training of researchers regardless of field, or lump all nonmedical fields into a "social and behavioral research" category that includes psychology, anthropology, sociology, education, linguistics, and economics, as well as history. Often this takes the form of an online set of readings and multiple-choice tests. Not surprisingly, trying to impose a single set of ethics on such a wide range of activities creates training that ignores differences among those fields. Historians must learn to reject elements of the training that clash with their own professional codes.

IRBs arose in response to documented abuses in medical research, and the federal law requiring IRB oversight specifically targets "biomedical or behavioral research."3 The 1979 Belmont Report, a basic reference for IRBs, recognizes this specification, noting that "the problems related to social experimentation may differ substantially from those of biomedical and behavioral research," so the report "specifically declines to make any policy determination regarding such research at this time."4 Though federal regulations removed the "biomedical or behavioral" qualifier, the IRBs' medical origin remains encoded in the Department of Health and Human Services' 1993 IRB Guidebook, and many of the training materials and practices of IRBs. As a result, though IRB-mandated training materials may claim to represent universal ethics, in fact they seek to impose medical ethics on non-medical fields.

One prominent example is confidentiality. Medical research almost always keeps subjects' names confidential, and IRB-mandated training often stresses confidentiality as a universal good. For example, the CITI Course in the Protection of Human Research Subjects, used by universities around the nation to certify researchers, simply asserts, "it is important that researchers become adept at safeguarding the privacy and confidentiality of their subjects."5 But this does not reflect the view of historians, who believe that narrators have unique lives and tell unique stories, and that completed interviews are valuable documents that may serve future scholars. These beliefs lead historians to use the real, full names of the people they interview, to craft questions relevant to each narrator's experience (rather than using standardized questionnaires), and to deposit recordings or transcripts of their interviews in archives where they will be available to other researchers. Such obligations are unlikely to appear in standardized training that is supposed to apply to anthropology, sociology, and other fields where anonymity is routine.

Another key difference concerns recruitment. The Belmont Report refers to "moral requirements that there be fair procedures and outcomes in the selection of research subjects." For medical studies, this makes a great deal of sense, for it steers researchers away from projects that depend on one group's vulnerability and toward more representative samples. But historians rarely seek a representative sample of people to interview. Often working decades after an event, a historian considers himself lucky to find any participant in that event who is alive and willing to talk. Thus, subjects are chosen as individuals.

The most striking difference between the medical training and historians' ethics is how they deal with harm to subjects. Though the medical model underlying IRB review accepts risk, it does not approve of research that is certain to harm its subject, or research whose harms are likely to outweigh its benefits. The Belmont Report justifies its principle of "beneficence" by noting, "The Hippocratic maxim 'do no harm' has long been a fundamental principle of medical ethics." Anthropologist Stuart Plattner has argued that this stance is one of the "first principles of the human subjects research protection system," and that "all actors in the research system... must work hard to avoid the dreaded outcome of harm to a human participant in research. No one should ever be hurt just because they were involved in a research project, if at all possible."6

Historians do not seek to hurt people gratuitously. Both the American Historical Association and Oral History Association guidelines warn against the "exploitation" of interviewees, and the AHA guidelines assert that "the interviewer should guard against possible social injury to or exploitation of interviewees and should conduct interviews with respect for human dignity." But historians guard against exploitation with practices quite different from those of other researchers. Historians generally offer their interviewees the chance to withhold portions of an interview, in the belief that "the narrator knows better than the interviewer what might have an undesired impact in her or his world." This is profoundly different from the case of medical experimentation, where the researcher is presumed to be better positioned than the subject to predict the consequences of the research.7

More significantly, historians do not take the Hippocratic Oath. A more relevant classical model is Tacitus, who wrote, "This I regard as history's highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds." Historians write, on occasion, about dreadful people—murderers, racists, despots. If those people are willing to talk on the record, it is the historians' duty to make their words public. As Alessandro Portelli has put it, "sometimes, when we interview the rich, the mighty, the generals, it may be highly ethical to act as spies in the enemy camp." When Neil McMillen interviewed Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi, he offered Barnett the chance to review the transcript and delete passages. But had McMillen himself deleted passages that reflected Barnett's segregationist views, or tried to disguise Barnett's identity, he would have destroyed the interview's value to future generations.8

Similar issues arise with less prominent interviewees. In his 2003 book, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, Christian G. Appy prints the words of participants in the war—American and Vietnamese, civilian and military, famous and obscure. A strict interpretation of the regulations would require that he and an IRB determine what disclosures might "reasonably place the subjects at risk of criminal or civil liability or be damaging to the subjects' financial standing, employability, or reputation." In a work that crosses national and cultural boundaries, describing events that some consider acts of heroism and others consider war crimes, this is an impossible demand.9

The IRB training materials I have seen uniformly fail to recognize the differences between oral history and other forms of research. When forced upon historians, these materials present twin dangers. The first is that researchers—especially graduate students—will be persuaded to take too seriously inappropriate demands that they keep sources confidential and avoid harm to subjects whenever possible. We must warn our students that such demands may conflict with professional ethics, and we must protest IRBs' mindless insistence on one-size-fits-all ethical certification.

The second danger is that historians will reject what they should accept: the idea that human subjects research is different from archival work, and that all interviewers could benefit from some ethical training. By failing to distinguish oral history from other disciplines, IRBs have discredited the idea of mandatory ethical training for oral historians. This is a pity, because such training could serve both scholars and interview subjects, as well as federal recommendations.

Relevant training would begin with the Oral History Association's "Principles and Standards," and the American Historical Association's "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct." It would include step-by-step instructions by Judith Moyer and thoughtful essays by experienced historians, such as Portelli, David Oshinsky, and Valerie Yow. And it could include cautionary tales, like William Sheridan Allen's explanation of his failure to protect the identities of narrators to whom he had promised anonymity, and Jon Wiener's condemnation of Allen Weinstein's refusal to make his interview tapes available to other researchers.10 These materials do not present simple answers, but they can help researchers understand the questions they will face.

Perhaps, someday, IRBs will accept such a curriculum in lieu of the training they now impose. But we need not wait until that day to start work. Though oral historians will always face difficult ethical decisions, they have wrestled with them enough to produce appropriate, relevant, and applicable guidance to scholars new to the field. And to historians still required to undergo online training in medical ethics, I offer this advice: take the course, but don't take it seriously.

—Zachary Schrag is an assistant professor of history at George Mason University. His book, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (Johns Hopkins, 2006), is based partly on oral-history interviews. Since December 2006, Schrag has been posting commentary on IRB review of the humanities and social sciences at the Institutional Review Blog.


1. Christopher Shea, "Don't Talk to the Humans: The Crackdown on Social Science Research," Lingua Franca, September 2000, 30–31; Linda Shopes, "Institutional Review Boards Have a Chilling Effect on Oral History," Perspectives, September 2000, online at (accessed September 13, 2006); Bernadette McCauley, "An IRB at Work: A Personal Experience," Perspectives, February 2006, online (accessed September 13, 2006).

2. Office for Human Research Protections, "Federalwide Assurance (FWA) for the Protection of Human Subjects," 6 January 2005, online at (accessed September 13, 2006).

3. Charles R. McCarthy, "Reflections on the Organizational Locus of the Office for Protection from Research Risks," in National Bioethics Advisory Commission, Ethical and Policy Issues in Research Involving Human Participants, 2001, vol 2, .online at, accessed November 4, 2006; National Research Act of 1974, online at, accessed November 4, 2006.

4. The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research [1979], (accessed September 13, 2006).

5. Lorna Hicks, "Privacy and Confidentiality," CITI Course in The Protection of Human Research Subjects (online access through registration at accessed April 25, 2006.

6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Statutory Basis for Title 45 Code of Federal Regulations Part 46: Protection of Human Subjects," online at (accessed March 13, 2006 ); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, IRB Guidebook, 1993, online at (accessed March 13, 2006); Stuart Plattner, "Human Subjects Protection and Cultural Anthropology," Anthropological Quarterly 76 (2003) 287–97.

7. Oral History Association, "Oral History Evaluation Guidelines," online at (accessed March 13, 2006); American Historical Association, "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct" online at (accessed March 13, 2006); Valerie Yow, "Ethics and Interpersonal Relationships in Oral History Research," Oral History Review 22 (summer 1995), 60.

8. P. Cornelius Tacitus, Annals 3.65, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, online at (accessed March 13, 2006); Allesandro Portelli, The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 66; Ross R. Barnett, "Oral history with the Honorable Ross Robert Barnett, former governor of the State of Mississippi," Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive, (accessed March 14, 2006).

9. 45 CFR 46.101; Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (New York : Viking, 2003).

10. Judith Moyer, "Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History," 1999, online at; Portelli, The Battle of Valle Giulia, chapter 4; David M. Oshinsky, "Oral History: Playing by the Rules," Journal of American History 77 (September 1990), 609–14; Yow, "Ethics and Interpersonal Relationships"; William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922–1945 (1965. Rev. ed, New York : F. Watts, 1984), xii–xix; Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble : Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower (New York : New Press, 2005), 31–57.