Institutional Review Board Rules: Should One Size Fit All Disciplines?

By George R. La Noue and Alexander Bush.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Almost every major United States university requires faculty members and students who wish to do research on “human subjects” to submit proposals to Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). These university Boards/committees, composed of faculty from various disciplines and a local community representative, have the authority to reject, modify or approve research proposals. If unapproved research is nevertheless conducted, IRBs can discipline the researcher and prevent publication. This authority extends to any research, funded or unfunded, that intends to create generalizable knowledge about humans.
The origin of the IRB system stemmed from moral outrage over abuses committed by some Nazi scientists and certain medical and psychological experiments that harmed subjects in the United States and elsewhere. The IRB rules were codified in the Belmont Report and adopted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for federally funded research in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then other professional associations and most universities have also adopted them, regardless of the funding source.
IRB rules require researchers to treat all human subjects with “autonomy, beneficence and justice,” making no exception for those persons who have violated the legal or moral standards of society. The key to the process is fully informed consent of subjects which may make it impossible to obtain information from those who wish hide conduct or opinions and thus can frustrate attempts to understand truths that may benefit the larger society.
Despite a consensus that universities should not permit research that risks harming vulnerable populations (children, mentally ill, prisoners, etc.), IRBs have created rules controlling research regarding the general population that far exceed legal proscriptions against libel and slander and are much more restrictive than any rules applying to non-university research. As a practical matter, the IRB process makes some kinds of research, which is otherwise frequently carried out by journalists or in think tanks, very difficult to do in academic settings.
IRBs have the power to censor both inquiry and publication. State sponsored or encouraged censorship is always controversial in American society and particularly so in universities. This paper will explore the legal and intellectual issues raised by the IRB rules and discuss their application to various disciplines (biomedical, behavioral, history, public policy, and journalism). It concludes that the IRB process and rules should be modified for most forms of public policy and journalistic research.

Keywords: Institutional Review Boards, Censorship, Interdisciplinary Research

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 5, Issue 8, pp.239-258. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 724.067KB).

Dr. George R. La Noue

Professor, Departments of Political Science and Department of Public Policy, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, USA

I have been applying social science research methods to civil rights problems for three decades. I have published in journals in the fields of law, political science, public administration, and history,including the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Political Science entry on affirmative action. I have been a trial expert in more than forty federal cases involving discrimination and have worked for the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Labor, the Office for Civil Rights,and the Commission on Civil Rights. I am founder and director of the Project on Civil Rights and Public Contracts at the University and have lectured in India, France, Spain, Italy and the UK on civil rights policy.

Alexander Bush

Law Student, Pepperdine Law School, Malibu, USA

Alexender A. Bush is a second year law student at Pepperdine Law School and was an honors graduate of UMBC.


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