Will Oral History Become Subject to IRB Oversight?

Traditionally, the work of historians has been exempt from oversight by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which examine and approve (or not) scientific research on the basis of guidelines for the ethical treatment of the research participants. The justifications for exempting history have been (1) the IRB mandate does not extend to the humanities and (2) there are typically no living participants in historical research (as there often are in, say, medicine or psychology). The one gray area has been oral history, in which living people are interviewed about their own lives. In 2003 the US government’s Office of Human Research Protections officially exempted most oral history projects. That exemption is now being reconsidered and the government is asking for submissions from historians about the possible change in status. A letter on the matter from Amy Crumpton of the Archives of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was recently sent to all members of the History of Science Society. This letter is copied below in full.

Mandatory ethical review of medical research was first established in the wake of the revelations about Nazi medical research at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. The resulting Nuremberg Code instituted basic principles such as informed consent, non-coercion, proper prior formulation of the procedure to be employed, and beneficence toward the participants. These procedures eventually evolved into modern IRBs, which now cover all natural- and social-scientific research involving humans. In recent years, however, there has been resistance by some scientists who argue that IRBs have become ever more intrusive, delaying and blocking research that poses little risk to anyone. A particularly strong objection has been to IRBs requiring changes in methodology, at matter in which, critics charge, IRB members may not have the relevant expertise. Proponents of the expansion of IRB mandates counter that improper methodologies may rob research of potential benefits to the point that they do not outweigh the potential costs, thereby rendering it unethical.

An influential Univeristy of Illinois whitepaper on the perceived problem of IRB “mission creep” was released in 2005. There are several websites dedicated to the matter, including a blog by George Mason University history professor, Zachary M. Schrag.

Dear HSS Members,
The United States’ Department of Health and Human Services Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) invites public comment on proposed regulations that define what research should be reviewed by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) through an expedited review process [see the Federal Register notice at: http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/documents/20071026.htm].
In 2003, the Oral History Association and the American Historical Association asked OHRP to clarify whether oral history projects would be subject to IRB regulation. At that time, OHRP agreed that most oral history projects were exempt from IRB review. In the latest proposed regulations, however, it appears that oral history projects will be subject to IRB review. The AHA has posted an analysis of this issue and is encouraging its members to comment on the proposed regulations (see: http://blog.historians.org/profession/372/the-feds-and-irbs-your-opportunity-to-weigh-in ). A short list of links providing background and discussion on this issue is provided below.
For those of you who are interested in commenting on the proposed regulations, comments are due by December 26, 2007 and may be emailed ( expeditedreviewohrp@hhs.gov ), faxed (301-402-2071) or mailed to:

Office for Human Research Protections
The Tower Building
1101 Wootton Parkway, Suite 200
Rockville, MD 20852

For further information, contact Mr. Glen Drew, Office for Human Research Protections, The Tower Building, 1101 Wootton Parkway, Suite 200, Rockville, MD 20852, 1-866-447-4777 or by e-mail to: glen.drew@hhs.gov.
Links to background and discussion of oral history and IRBs:
American Anthropological Association: http://www.aaanet.org/ar/irb/index.htm
American Association of University Professors on the larger controversy about IRBs and research: http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/comm/rep/A/humansubs.htm
Oral History Association (OHA): http://alpha.dickinson.edu/oha/org_irb.html
OHA and AHA joint policy on oral history and IRBs: http://www.historians.org/press/2004_06_08_Council_IRBs.htm.

Amy Crumpton
AAAS Archives
Washington, DC

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.