Historians and Institutional Review Boards: An Update

Linda Shopes, October 2001

Academically affiliated historians who conduct oral history interviews are increasingly required to submit their interviewing protocols for review by their local Institutional Review Board (IRB), according to terms set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations (45 CFR 46) for the protection of human subjects of research. Although these regulations were developed to protect individuals involved in biomedical and behavioral research, they define research on human subjects as including "interaction with living individuals," and hence, it is argued, can legitimately be applied to oral history interviewing.

As detailed previously in Perspectives (Linda Shopes, "Institutional Review Boards Have a Chilling Effect on Oral History," Perspectives September 2000, 54–7) the relationship between historians and IRBs is frequently a difficult one, as principles and practices designed to protect subjects of biomedical and behavioral research are misapplied to humanistic forms of inquiry, thereby, according to some, undermining principles of academic freedom. A report recently issued by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), "Protecting Human Beings: Institutional Review Boards and Social Science Research," can thus provide some useful perspective to historians and their local IRBs as they attempt to reach an accommodation.

Appearing in the May–June 2001 issue of Academe and also available on line at http://www.aaup.org/repirb.htm, the report outlines both the substance and broader context of existing human subjects regulations, identifies social scientists' concerns about the misapplication of these regulations to their research, and offers several recommendations for ameliorating current problems. It was prepared by AAUP staff member Jonathan Knight after a series of meetings with representatives of the American Historical Association, the Oral History Association, and the Organization of American Historians, as well as the American Anthropological Association, the American Political Science Association, and the American Sociological Association.

There are several reasons for the increased scrutiny of all research involving human participants, including the death in 1999 of a patient undergoing experimental gene therapy for which some believe informed consent had not been secured; the (generally short lived) suspension of research at several major universities in the last two years because of apparent deficiencies in the functioning of their IRBs; and an enormous increase in the amount of biomedical research being conducted by drug companies and other private organizations without any regulatory oversight. None of these concerns is related to the work of historians or our colleagues in the social sciences and humanities; nonetheless, they have raised institutional awareness of the need to pay more careful attention to all research involving human beings conducted within the institution.

These concerns are also creating an increased demand for accountability of both institutions and individual researchers. Federal agencies as well as professional societies—including the Congress of Social Science Organizations (COSSA), which has among its members the AHA—are developing mechanisms for accrediting institutional human research protection programs, including local IRBs; and legislation to codify and extend current regulations is likely to be introduced into Congress. While the AHA is working with the National Coordinating Committee to exempt oral history interviewing from any new legislation governing research involving human participants, institutional pressures to review historians' work are not likely to go away soon.

Linda Shopes, a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, is a member of the AHA Council.