Oral history should not be subject to approval by institutional review boards, according to dozens of comments submitted by historians and others to the federal Office for Human Research Protections, which announced last October that it would amend the rules governing what kinds of research qualify for expedited review by the boards.
Some researchers and some boards, commonly known as IRB’s, have interpreted the existing rules to mean that oral history is exempt from such oversight altogether. The boards were originally set up to monitor scientific research involving human subjects, but their scope has since expanded to include any studies of human beings, no matter what the field.
IRB oversight has been a sore spot for many scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Oral historians have been especially vocal about why they believe their work should be exempt from such review.
The American Historical Association weighed in with a letter to the research-protections office in late December expressing “deep concern” about the proposed changes. “We fear that, if implemented, the changes would severely limit our ability to collect information about the present and recent past for historians in the future,” the group said.
Zachary Schrag, an assistant professor of history at George Mason University and longtime monitor of IRB oversight, obtained copies of all 65 comments submitted to the federal office. “Of these, 38 commented on oral history or folklore, with all but one of those seeking exclusion for such research,” Mr. Schrag reported over the weekend on his Institutional Review Blog.
“The comments came from a wide range of scholars,” he wrote. “University historians ranged in rank from graduate students to chaired professors. Non-university historians included those working for federal and state agencies and for private companies. Historians of science and medicine — among those most familiar with the medical research that led to the current regulatory scheme — were particularly vocal.”
Mr. Schrag also noted that several other professional groups, including the American Folklore Society and the Society of American Archivists, inveighed against the proposed changes and said that “scholars in sociology, English, psychology, medicine, and American studies also called for oral history’s exclusion from IRB jurisdiction, as did one IRB chair.” —Jennifer Howard