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IRB ``Mission Creep''

IRBs are centers of power: they have the ability to shut down research, and they operate with little institutional supervision. There are also complaints that IRBs have become more restrictive, in some cases acting as if their purpose is to safeguard their institutions from lawsuit, rather than to protect the welfare of experimental subjects. Perhaps as a result, some researchers have complained of a pervasive IRB ``Mission Creep,'' in which more and more research is being placed under the purview of IRBs.

In November 2005 the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois College of Law held a conference on the topic of ``IRB mission creep'' and produced a 32 page paper, based on a two-year study, stating that IRBs were being stretched thin by being forced to pay excessive attention to research that poses little chance of risk. The report also called for ``removing some kinds of activity from IRB review altogether,'' especially journalism and ethnography[#!irb-whitepaper!#]. The authors later published an editorial in Science making many of the same claims[#!irb-science!#].

Journalism is particularly a problem, the Illinois group argued, because people who are the subject of journalistic research are frequently injured by the results. The example they give is that of President Richard Nixon, whose reputation was damaged and who lost his job as the result of the Watergate investigation. Although this research had great social value, it might not have been permitted by an IRB.

Katz argues that the Common Rule turns ethnographers into ``IRB Outlaws'' when they perform fieldwork by living with a host community to learn about it. The very premise of field work is that results cannot be predicted, so it is impossible to get approval in advance from an IRB for what might happen[#!katz-underground!#]. Recently an entire issue of American Ethnologist was devoted to this topic[#!ethnologist!#].

A growing number of observers have criticized IRBs for being research censorship instruments. Cohen writes that an IRB that he sat on, which was primarily comprised of health care professionals, ``received a qualitative, social science project to review. The IRB promptly disapproved it because it wasn't science in the view of the IRB members''[#!hrpp-expertise!#]. The protocol was eventually approved, but only after Cohen convinced the IRB to send the proposal out for external review.

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Next: Conclusion Up: . Previous: Working with the IRB
Simson L. Garfinkel 2008-03-21