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From the Letters to the Editor column of the December 2003 Perspectives

Research and Risk

E. Taylor Atkins, December 2003

To the Editor:

Having spent the last two and a half years representing the historical profession on the Northern Illinois University IRB [Institutional Review Board], and becoming familiar with what constitutes "research" and "risk," I am stunned by the recent federal decision removing oral history projects from institutional review. I am even more appalled by the arguments made by the American Historical Association and the Oral History Association (as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education), that oral history is not research as defined in the federal regulations. It seems to me that the AHA and OHA have misrepresented the oral historian's work simply to avoid the inconvenience of having to submit proposals for review.

Oral historians have legitimate gripes with the institutional review process. Protests against institutional review began when IRBs at many institutions around the country, stacked with medical researchers with nary an ethnographer or oral historian in sight, made unreasonable demands based on their own standards for biomedical research. But there are ways of addressing that without exempting oral history from review completely. The problem is with implementation by people unfamiliar with the practice of oral history, not with the federal standards themselves.

The principal concern of the AHA and OHA is the academic freedom of their members, but the recent decision does nothing to reduce the possible risks to interview subjects who participate in oral history projects. Many researchers are now free to assume cavalierly that there are no risks for interview subjects. The federal standards state clearly that "psychological" and "social" risks are real risks. And having just assigned to students in my oral history seminar some essays in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson's Oral History Reader on the sensitive issues involved in interviewing Holocaust survivors, veterans with post-traumatic stress, people with mental handicaps, KKK members, and so on, I am convinced more than ever that at least some interview projects involve some degree of psychological or social risk. But now historians have carte blanche not to worry about it. Of course, not all and maybe not even most oral history projects deal with such sensitive subjects, but now no one but the principal investigator has to make a determination of such risk. With so much at stake personally and professionally for the researcher (tenure, employment, reputation, and so forth, for example), I for one am not comfortable leaving that determination up to her or him. As a reviewer, I am most turned off by research protocols that exude a complacent "trust-me-I'm-a-professional" attitude.

Maybe I've just been brainwashed by IRB propaganda, but I have come to believe in the process very strongly. It is a healthy exercise to have all research projects involving human subjects pass a few sets of impartial eyes sensitized to research ethics. Going through the process forces researchers to consider the consequences of their work for their subjects, beyond their own personal interests and professional aspirations. As long as oral historians and ethnographers are present on IRBs, the process for oral history projects is not so onerous anyway.

Both the AHA and the OHA have professional standards for conduct but no review process or means of enforcing them. And they really opened up a can of worms, because now the feds will have to try to distinguish between oral history interviews and other types of interviews or ethnographies that do require review.

Qualitative, ethnographic, or oral history research projects can have real consequences for subjects and thus should be subject to some kind of scrutiny. But it's moot now so let's hope all those newly liberated oral historians behave themselves!

—E. Taylor Atkins
Northern Illinois University

Editor's Note: See Linda Shopes' and Donald Richie's response.