IRBs and History Research

Members of the Illinois State University History Department, January 2001

To the Editor:

The undersigned members of the history department at Illinois State University wish to thank Perspectives for publishing in its September issue Linda Shopes's article on the potential "chilling" effects of Institutional Review Board (IRB) oversight on oral history. We also wish to express support for the AHA in its efforts to bring consistency and common sense to this extension of governmental authority into historical study.

Ms. Shopes's article and her subsequent private advice to us have been useful in our efforts to work with our university's IRB as that committee has struggled to apply to history and other social sciences regulations devised with the controlled experiments of psychology and medical research in mind. Our university's IRB has made clear its intention of cooperating with our department to develop viable procedures, and it has indicated a willingness to follow Ms. Shopes's suggestion of adopting the Oral History Association's evaluation guidelines as the ones to be applied to oral history project protocols on this campus. Still, lack of clarity from the national level has complicated efforts to reach an accommodation with our IRB. As Ms. Shopes's Perspectives article and Christopher Shea's article on human subjects review in the September 2000 Lingua Franca indicate, IRBs around the country have been feeling pressure to apply prospective review quickly to a variety of social science research, for which the appropriateness of such review is doubtful. Individual departments must then react defensively.

Our understanding is that the AHA is working for new legislation that would exempt oral history from human subjects review. Until that occurs, the AHA should continue to work with other professional organizations to obtain from the Office of Research Integrity clarification of the circumstances under which oral history projects must be reviewed and the standards that should be applied in the review process. In discussions with federal officials and congressional staffs, the AHA and its partner organizations in the social sciences and humanities should emphasize the academic freedom and even the constitutional concerns raised by the expansion of human subjects review beyond its original purpose of preventing recurrence of well-documented abuses in medical and psychological research. The AHA and its partners should take the position that human subjects review should only apply to research that poses a well-defined potential hazard to the public or that involves children, prisoners, and other vulnerable members of society.

The AHA has the opportunity to educate federal officials and Congress about our discipline's professional standards and to urge that those standards guide the activities of IRBs around the country. If successful, this effort would help to prevent the current situation that forces history departments and IRBs to contrive ad hoc arrangements for each campus.

Lucinda McCray Beier
David Chesebrough 
Raymond Clemens
Anthony Crubaugh
Frederick D. Drake
John B. Freed
Niles Holt
M. Paul Holsinger
David B. Johnson 
Alan Lessoff
Patrice E. Olsen 
L. Moody Simms 
Richard J. Soderlund 
Mohamad Tavakoli 
Walker D. (Mark) Wyman