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Observer - Published by the American Psychological Society
Volume 16, Number 2
February 2003


Re: 'IRBs for Dummies'

"Coping with IRBs: A Guide for the Bureaucratically Challenged" [Observer, December 2002], by Barry Collins, provides some practical advice for negotiating the current maze of requirements for ethics approval. One can take minor issue with some things, for example the notion that IRBs are as unavoidable as death and taxes requires at least one point of distinction: death comes but once in a lifetime, taxes come just once per year, but the IRB comes many times per annum.

However, there are a couple of larger questions remaining or even raised by this guide, at least in the mind of those with some skepticism about the continued expansion of the IRB industry. One of these involves the Serenity Prayer, that is, knowing what one can and can't control, with the implication that the ethics bureaucracy is unavoidable. Actually there are many elements of the IRB process that are self-inflicted, especially at the local level. In particular, the idea that further resources allocated to the bureaucracy would help should be challenged. We have no evidence that there is a public-safety need in the case of psychological research in the first place, and we have no scheme in place to verify that added resources will improve safety outcomes.

More generally, there may be, somewhere at some time, a bureacracy whose performance was improved by increased resources, but history suggests that such an entity is even less likely than a participant being injured in psychological research. One can safely predict that more resources devoted to IRBs will mean that the second edition of the "Dummies Guide to IRBs" will be much longer, whether any other changes are noticeable or not.

Another troublesome assertion is one that has appeared in other places recently: "Research is a privilege, not a right." This mantra seems to be a subterfuge, the implication being that researchers again must passively submit to whatever the bureaucracy demands. It may be that having one's research funded is a privilege, but research per se is just a form of learning, a feature of human existence not requiring the permission of anyone else. This assertion is problematic for yet another reason, specifically that at most universities research is an academic job requirement (and funded research at that), or a degree requirement in the case of a graduate student. Of course, in Orwellian double-speak terms, maybe people can be led to understand "requirement" as synonymous with "privilege," or that a "requirement" is a "right," but Websters doesn't see these as interchangeable.

There are indeed some very serious ethical issues arising from the activity of IRBs. For example, the recent case described by Tavris illustrates the very real hazards of censorship and harassment that are inherent in the mechanics of IRBs, as well the lack of any interest or sanction when the institution and/or IRB misbehave. In that case the outcome of research was deemed undesirable ideologically, nothing involving public safety. The deference and self-censorship imposed on more junior faculty and raduate students is less visible, and disguising it as "learning the bureaucracy" will assure it stays that way. One wonders about the wisdom of allocating more scarce resources to an activity that increasingly seems dedicated to producing specific research outcomes dictated by ideology.

This is not to say that no screening is needed, but granting the bureaucracy carte blanche is not justifiable, particularly in the absence of evidence of benefits. Constraints may sometimes be warranted, but the strictures should be cost effective (which means keeping out of matters that are really epistemological, and avoiding strictures which do not, in fact, do any good). At the least we deserve evidence that there is a safety issue in social science research, and further that specific elements of the bureaucracy actually improve safety. We could use some data here, and fewer mantras.

Tavris, C. (2002). "The High Cost of Skepticism," Skeptical Inquirer, 26(4), 41-44.

John Mueller
University of Calgary

John Furedy
University of Toronto

Clive Seligman
University of Western Ontario

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