Institutional review boards hampering social sciences research – UF study


Koro-Ljungberg (left) encourages her graduate students to genuinely think about the ethical dimensions of their research.


August 11, 2008



Koro-Ljungberg encourages her graduate students to genuinely think about the ethical dimensions of their research.

For more than 30 years, a little celebrated body known as the “institutional review board” has had a powerful say in how American scientists conduct their research in the university setting. Created to protect human research subjects from risks and abuses in the research process, these review boards—commonly known as IRBs—must approve all human subject research conducted at federal institutions and any federally-funded research involving human subjects.

But according to a scholar at the University of Florida’s College of Education, these boards aren’t keeping pace with research methods that deviate from traditional bio-medical models — partly due to the increased workload and the lack of appropriate disciplinary expertise.

“IRBs were created on a biomedical model that really doesn’t recognize the methods used by many social science researchers,” said Mirka Koro-Ljungberg, an associate professor of educational psychology, whose findings appear in the November 2007 issue of the journal Qualitative Inquiry.

Koro-Ljungberg is an expert in qualitative inquiry, a type of research that relies on analysis of subjective accounts rather than traditional numerical data.

Qualitative methods are crucial to research in the field of education, where teachers often adapt and evaluate their classroom techniques based on the subjective accounts of their students. They’re also a growing element in the work of sociologists and historians, who often collect oral histories from living subjects.

When those university researchers deal with human participants, they have to submit research protocols to IRBs, which were established in the 1970s in response to growing awareness of abuse of people in medical research—abuses such as the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which doctors left dozens of black men without treatment for syphilis infections.

The problem, Koro-Ljungberg says, is that IRBs are still operating largely on a biomedical model of research—as if interviewing people were the same as testing a drug or collecting blood samples. Additionally, IRB reviews currently focus on detailed procedures and the documentation of research.

Qualitative research has its own ethical pitfalls, Koro-Ljungberg notes. Among other things, researchers must take great care to protect the privacy and identities of their participants, and to ensure that participants do not feel coerced into participating or obligated to share information due to power differences. But IRB members, she says, are often not up to speed on complex ethical dilemmas faced by qualitative researchers, especially those who conduct more participatory designs.

“Many IRBs don’t have a single member who is an expert in non-traditional research methods and diverse methodological approaches,” she said. “The often look at the protocols for a study and say, in effect, ‘this does not qualify as research ‘”

Koro-Ljungberg cites incidents in some universities—mostly in northern states—where interview-based studies have been held up by review boards who don’t understand the methods involved, or researchers involved in non-traditional studies have been asked to revise them until they appear more traditional. In some other universities, by contrast, qualitative researchers are often able to fly under the radar, getting approval for studies without having to answer tough ethical questions.

Instead of thinking deeply about those ethical problems that might be specific and pertinent of their research designs, Koro-Ljungberg says, new researchers often find themselves mimicking general models given to them by the review board, to ensure speedy approval. This externalization and institutionalization of ethical problem solving and ethical responsibility is problematic, Koro-Ljungberg argues.

“This is also something I often deal with when I work with graduate students,” Koro-Ljungberg said. “There is a sense that ‘I’ve filled out my paperwork, so the ethics is done.’”

Many European universities do not have an institutional body analogous to the institutional review board, Koro-Ljungberg says. In her native Finland, she says, researchers rely on traditional peer-review methods to assess the ethical dimensions of research in many disciplines.

“I see great value in the IRB process,” she said. “It is right to hold researchers accountable for their treatment of research participants—but there are holes in the current IRB model.”

The academic world would do well to review the IRB system and establish separate regulations designed for non-biomedical research, Koro-Ljungberg said. But a review of this sort may be a long time in coming. In the meantime, Koro-Ljungberg said, universities should appoint larger numbers of qualitative researchers to their IRBs, and professors should encourage their students to genuinely think about the ethical dimensions of their work—not just fill in and submit standardized protocols that address the institutionalized minimum associated with ethical responsibility.

“Institutional review should be a gateway to a problem space where we learn to anticipate ethical problems on our own,” she said. “It should be something instructive, not just a layer of bureaucracy.”

— Tim Lockette