Institutional Review Boards are are key part of research that involves animal (esp. human) participants. They are super important and have curtailed a lot of abuse and otherwise improved research (we need more pre-discussion of experiments across the board!).
They are not always tuned to very low risk studies. Which makes sense! But it does mean that they can be sometimes frustrating and a barrier to perfectly sensible research. Again, no surprise and not a big deal. At Manchester, we’ve gone through different mechanisms to expedite very low risk research without compromising safety or quality
I’ve never served on an IRB nor have I had a lot of interaction. But I’ve met with a couple. Generally, they are working researchers who are doing some important committee work (far more important than most). But it’s work and no one that I’ve encounter wants to make a big deal of it. Certainly, no one I’ve encountered has any desire to do it for kicks or block research unnecessarily.
IRBs are important, necessary, and a lot of work. I encourage real horror tales because we want them to be better, but this crap just pisses me off:
Originally, IRBs were set up in response to a Wild West atmosphere at universities and medical centers in which the human subjects of research could genuinely be harmed. Medical research was one obvious area, as was psychological research of various kinds (the Milgram shock experiment, for example). But then it expanded. Were you doing econ experiments with the students in your class? Better get IRB approval. Were you doing telephone surveys? There are humans on the other end of the line. Better get IRB approval. Are you just mailing surveys to people? You’ll still need IRB approval. Over time, the roadblocks to research multiplied, and as near as I can tell, IRBs today are widely considered less to be genuine safeguards against abuse than they are mini-empires dedicated primarily to demonstrating their own power over the research community.
Let’s take Drum’s three “escalating” examples:
- Were you doing econ experiments with the students in your class?
If you are doing in class role play sort of things, there’s no need for IRB. If you are going topublish research on your experiments, then you probably do need it.And rightly so. Obviously things that need to be checked: 1) are you compromising the educational experience for the sake of your research? 2) are student compelled to participate on threat of poorer grades (or reasonably think so? 3) can you protect against students trying to please you qua instructor (so is it even worth doing)? and 4) is your privacy plan sufficient? These are just off the top of my head. It’s not necessarily hard to make all this work out (3 is challenging), but making sure people work through this and get independent feedback is a really good idea.
- Were you doing telephone surveys?
The “There were humans on the other end of the line” is supposed to be a “funny” indicating the absurdity. But there are in fact humans on the other end of the line. There are harms possible. Are you asking intrusive questions? Might you reveal personal data that exposes them to harm? Is it a well designed survey likely to achieve it’s results (or just waste people’s time)? Are people participating with a clear understanding? All survey’s should be reviewed independently just for quality control!
- Are you just mailing surveys to people?
I don’t know why the modality of the survey is such a big deal. Most of the quality issues are similar. There’s less interaction but that has pros and cons (e.g., live, you can provide person specific clarification).
The “as far as I can tell” is pure bullshit. I’ve never heard anyone routinely working with IRBs suggest that they are at all about “demonstrating power”, much less mostly so. This is a staggering libel with the evidence obviously being nothing at all. (I’ll bet a lot that that “As far as I can tell” isn’t based on, you know, research of any kind but just some impressions.)
Wildly irresponsible and gross.
Oh, and all the stuff at the end about Would The IRB Approve It and If They Did Would They Leak It … just fuck off. The people on the IRB are professionals. The reason not to approve it is the impossibility of getting informed consent. It relies on deception. I can think of a few ways around that (get journal editors to give a general warning, though that would distort; but informed consent often distorts; too fucking bad!). I can think of alternative designs (e.g., an actual controlled experiment wherein people are given real and fraudulent and asked to pick out the frauds). Etc.
There’s a case that the people involved are all “experts” and this is a kind of expert review. (Bit of a stretch.) Or it could be framed as a quality control test (where the quality is fraud detection which isn’t a focus of peer review).
But the experiment as offered? I might well choose to reject it. It’s more stunt than useful research. It’s clear that the experimenters didn’t consider alternative mechanisms for the result they got (e.g., supportiveness), which makes the whole thing a bit dubious.
So the question I have is whether other such experiments (e.g., with computer generated papers or citation farm faked papers) have IRB approval. Again, if it’s a quality control measure, it might not need it.