Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Studying IRB Stuff

I spent the morning working through an on-line program that's supposed to teach me what I need to know to ethically work with human subjects. I learned some helpful, thought-provoking stuff. But the on-line system I found off-putting and inefficient.

For one thing, it's really hard to tell how long any section is going to take, or how you should take notes until you've gone through the system. And the little tests afterwards, which I needed to complete to demonstrate that I'd completed the section, seemed more tuned to covering the institutional ass rather than helping me grasp concepts and demonstrate my grasp.

But you could take the little test, and then if you did poorly, look at the required answers and then go back to the section and then retake the test. I don't know if you had to spend any time on the section before you could retake the test because I was trying to actually understand the stuff I hadn't gotten the first time around. But someone who just wanted to jump the hoop could have jumped it in about one third the time it took me with exactly the same score.

Still, it's important to think hard about how to do research ethically, and doing the process made me think about a possible complication with my project.

And then I spent some time reading the Belmont Report. For other Shakespeareans out there, this isn't about The Merchant of Venice.

I have to say, while I think my project is both ethical and unlikely to harm anyone, I can see how it would be easy to be so convinced of one's project's value that you could harm folks even though you didn't want to.

And there are some things in our culture that are just so accepted that I think they'd fly through a standard review board. That is, I don't think all the folks on review boards (at least if they're representative of the upper levels of university research types) are necessarily really aware of and committed to anti-racism, feminism, and so forth. (I'm sure some are deeply aware and committed, though.) (I'm thinking, for example, of research that's aimed at enforcing heteronormativity and gender conformity, though of course researchers wouldn't frame it as such.)*

I'm guessing folks who do IRB stuff a lot get way more comfortable with it quickly, but as a lit person, I'm finding it all pretty new and more than a little daunting.

*I just saw a video thing on cnn (which I'm not going to link because I really hate video things) on research aimed at convincing Japanese women to want to have babies. That may be totally what the Japanese government wants (because the population of Japan is not reproducing at replacement rates), but if the video's representative, the research is aimed at enforcing gendered reproductive behaviors. (They're not showing men wanting kids, just women, and they're sure not suggesting that men should be stay at home parents.) (Yes, that's in Japan, and they probably have totally different research rules and laws. But the point is, that same research protocol would probably get right through a US university IRB.) And, of course, there are a lot of people in the US who think that making women (especially white middle-class women) want to reproduce more would be very positive. I'll bet most of those folks aren't committed feminists or anti-racists.


  1. Bardiac-

    I've sat on our IRB for a number of years now, and if I can be of any help, let me know.


  2. Ugh. Discussions of IRB always make me glad I study published texts. But I am curious what project you're embarking on that involves human subjects...

  3. Ditto Peggy. I serve on our IRB and I do a LOT of scholarship of teaching & learning protocols.

    I have to say that if I saw something aimed at ENCOURAGING a serious gendered behavior as you describe, my eyebrows would rise. Researching the CAUSE of a group's willingness/unwillingness to engage in the behavior might get by me. Thanks for pointing it out.

    It's an ethical issue that will be new to many IRBs, considering that the historical main aim of IRB was to keep people from infecting Black men with syphilis or using prisoners as convenience samples.

    The online training is definitely a CYA for the university, one of those things that is thought-provoking only if one is willing to take a few minutes *to* think.

  4. I helped write my former institutions IRB policy, and it's useful to remember that it's government mandated, and the training is, as you realized, more about CYA than teaching ethics. Ethics are complicated.

    The real problem is most social science research offers minimal harm to participants, but there is often a potential for abuse. So really, nothing bad will happen to you if I use your papers to study something, but once I have to get permission, that becomes the site for abuse. Does that make sense?

  5. Thanks, Peggy, if I'm confused, I'll give a yell. I have friends here who are on the IRB and who've worked with IRB stuff, and since I think my work is very minimal risk, and I'm trying to be ethical, I think it will be okay. Our IRB folks have a reputation for being very helpful.

    Shane, I'm trying to do research on how certain learning happens or not in lit contexts.

    Thanks, Victoria. Yes, it's a good reminder. But it was thought provoking, and that's helpful.

    Susan, I'm not quite sure I understand what you're saying about how once you have to ask permission it becomes a site for potential abuse. Help me out, please.

  6. Sorry for the fuzziness. Here's my thinking: if you use student papers for research, it doesn't in fact harm a student, assuming its anonymized etc. After all, this is common practice in program assessment. (At least, I can't see how a student is harmed by this, but I may be missing something.) However, once you need to get permission to use student papers in research, however, the need for permission creates the opportunities for abuse -- i.e. grades in return for permission.

    Does that make sense?

    And I'd add I'm not arguing against getting permission, because I think it's right; it's just that there are more problems that come with that than the actual use of student work.