Vol. 22, No. 2, July 18, 2002
Human subject protections hindering humanitites scholars
Mark Reutter, Business
(217) 333-0568; firstname.lastname@example.org
Has the pendulum swung too far in the application of human subject protections
to scholarly research, especially in the humanities?
C.K. Gunsalus, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says worthy projects by journalism professors and historians have been delayed or withdrawn because of the requirement for prior approval of federally funded research by campus Institutional Review Boards (IRBs).
The boards originally were established in the 1960s for medical and behavioral research involving human subjects in the wake of several scandals involving unethical or harmful human experiments funded by federal dollars. Universities now are required to obtain informed consent and prepare risk-benefit analyses on research involving human subjects in order to comply with federal rules.
While the goals are laudable, the blanket application of such rules to the humanities raises questions of academic freedom and First Amendment guarantees.
"Why under federal policy is it the case that a journalist working for a newspaper can interview and publish articles and books about sensitive issues, subject only to professional ethical guidance and legal consequences, but a journalism professor must seek prior approval from those outside journalism for the same activities," Gunsalus asked in a working paper on the subject.
Gunsalus noted that in order to receive federal funding, universities must subject a wide range of scholarly research to review and potential rejection by IRBs as well as university administrators. For example, she cites a historian working on oral histories of the civil rights movement who was requested by an IRB not to question people about laws that may have been broken in the course of civil disobedience. The same historian was then asked by a university administrator "to protect individuals and communities from research that could prove embarrassing to them."
When faculty members write about their students or the process of teaching, does such writing constitute an "interaction with human subjects" covered by privacy and other research regulations?
Gunsalus called for more precise guidelines regarding human-subject issues in non-medical science. "The approach used in assessing the risk and benefits of biomedical research does not fit well the modes of scholarship in humanistic disciplines."
On the other hand, a proposal that all federally funded research be excluded from IRB oversight unless it posed "a danger of physical harm" to human subjects is probably too sweeping to protect the public.
Gunsulas noted that a number of scandals involving human subjects, dating back to the Tuskegee syphilis study, have exposed problems with medical research that endangered its subjects. In the humanities, though, potential conflicts center more on issues such as privacy and intellectual property.
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