Saturday, January 12, 2008

What about the IRB?

When I was conducting research for my M.A. thesis, I often bemoaned the tedious and bureaucratic process I faced as my university's Institutional Review Board (IRB), which had to approve all research projects before they could more forward, was housed in the medical school. There were countless times when I was frustrated as a social science researcher because I was being held to the standards of medical research and because non-experts were dictating the terms of my study. Despite the unnecessary hoops I jumped through, I did recognize that the basic purpose of the IRB was a good thing - research should be monitored and held to high ethical standards. Horrorific research projects conducted before systematic review was instated, like the oft-cited Tuskegee Syphillis Study, make the need for such review all too clear.

On reading Carl Elliott's "Guinea-Pigging" in the January 7, 2008 edition of the New Yorker, I recalled the long and boring research course my university's IRB required me to complete before I could move ahead in my research. A good amount of the information in that course was irrelevant to my internet-based research, but I could not help thinking that the "commercial-research enterprise" that has sprung up since pharamaceutical companies started moving their testing out of slow academic environments to faster-paced private venues could benefit from sitting through a similar training. Elliott reports on the unethical treatment of study participants - who often come from underprivileged groups - and notes that 70% of drug trials taking place in the private sector and 50% of trials taking place outside of the United States and Western Europe today.

While my personal experience navigating IRB paperwork and process left me a bit...bitter (?), I always felt like my consolation was that the medical research going through the same review process as mine would be conducted ethically. So, even if I was a square peg being sent through a round hole, the IRB was serving its purpose. It concerns me to think that it has become so easy to circumnavigate the strict review of academic environments altogether via a less-regulated private sector. Because although my lasting impression of IRBs might be an image of endless paperwork, IRBs exist to protect human subjects - people like you and me.

Please note that as my M.A. thesis project is complete, the George Washington University is no longer overseeing research conducted in conjunction with this blog (effective June 2007 to present). The Informed Consent Materials created while this blog was under GWU's IRB oversight are still available for your information and the principles outlined in them are still being used as a general guide for my continued work.


  1. I appreciate your sentiment, but I don't see how "long and boring" and "irrelevant" IRB review of your work protects the people profiled in Elliott's article. If anything, IRB review of social research distracts regulators from what should be their first duty: to protect subjects of biomedical research.

  2. In terms of the disciplinary distinctions between medical and social science research, I agree with your comment that IRB review of social research distracts regulators from what should be their first duty: to protect subjects of biomedical research when the IRB mainly deals with medical research. From my experience, I would have appreciated it my institution's IRB had a variety of departments specialized in specific fields of research as opposed to trying to make a cookie cutter process for all researchers. The danger of such specialization, though, would be that researchers in different fields would be held to different standards - making interdisciplinary comparisons difficult (not that this is not already sometimes a sticky situation). There is something to institutions having a standard for all of its practitioners.

    Although biomedical research participants are often at significant risk, social science research participants can also be jeopardized in studies. I think IRB protocol is necessary in both areas - but perhaps more tailored to the concerns of each field. And certainly not at the detriment of one area versus another.


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