The American Historical Association has formally requested a government agency to exempt oral history from the oversight of Institutional Research Boards (IRBs). The Boards, which are informally known as “ethics committees,” oversee scientific research to ensure that live participants are protected from abuse, but their reach has never been extended to humanities research. According to a recent proposal by the Office for Human Research Protections, however, oral history would become subject to “expedited review.” According to an article in Inside Higher Ed:
In the last week, the American Historical Association, along with a number of individual historians, have weighed in with the Office for Human Research Protections, the Department of Health and Human Services agency that oversees IRBs, arguing that the proposal to cover oral history would hinder many scholars’ work while not offering any important protections to those who give oral history interviews.
Citing a “long and unhappy experience” with IRBs, the association called for oral history to be exempt from their oversight. In fact, the association said that some readings of current law already exempt oral history, but the language being proposed could have the impact of making such interpretations impossible.
Many historians do not see a need for protection of people who volunteer to be interviewed about their pasts, and fear that IRB approval procedures would unnecessarily delay and impede their research. George Mason University history professor, Zachary M. Schrag maintains a blog devoted to the issue. Many social scientists, whose research has been subject to IRB oversight for many years, complain about undue interference by IRBs in the research process. The Center for Advanced Study at the Univeristy of Illinois issued a wdiely-read whitepaper on the perceived problem of IRB “mission creep” in November 2005.
For more background to this story, see our 30 November 2007 post on it.