The Association for Psychological Science latest issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science has a few interesting articles about the research and publishing side of psychology. One of the articles that caught my eye was about Institutional Review Boards.
There is a certain arbitrary nature when it comes to a university’s research review board. These committees, called Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs), are charged with protecting subjects from unethical or unscrupulous researchers’ practices.
IRBs exist in a world unto their own. They are run under the auspices of the university and while ostensibly they’ve been set up primarily for patient protection, they’ve arguably morphed into something else in more recent times.
Ceci & Bruck (2009) discuss their own involvement with attempting to obtain IRB approval for their study on 6- to 10-year-old children who were to watch a video where a child actor claimed a fireman had hit him. The IRB refused to approve the study:
The IRB refused to approve the proposal because it was deemed unethical to show children public servants in a negative light. Upon appeal, the IRB held firm in its rejection despite the fact that (a) the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had reviewed this proposal without noting any ethical concerns (and the NSF had approved it for funding); (b) pediatricians and child development experts who were asked to view it concluded that there was no negative menacing value in watching the 4-min video, and that children often watched far more negative depictions of public servants on commercial television (e.g., The Simpsons); (c) experts in the field of stereotyping informed the IRB that there was no risk that the children would develop negative impressions of police or firemen from this; and (d) this same proposal had been approved by two other IRBs.
They note that because IRBs are independent authorities, they can act arbitrarily and without question. There are no “checks and balances” in the IRB approval process, and in most universities, no way to appeal the IRB’s authority or decisions. The authors also note that while IRBs were initially set up to protect human subjects, there’s been no empirical evidence they actually do so.
Ceci & Bruck make three potentially controversial recommendations for IRBs:
1. Limit the independence of IRBs. The researchers suggest there needs to be a system that allows for appeal of IRB authority and decisions.
2. Evaluate the risks and benefits of IRBs. There should be research conducted showing that IRBs actually achieve their primary mission of protecting subjects.
3. Evaluate the competence and skills of IRB members. There are few minimal training or credentialing requirements for IRB members, which calls into question their competence and experience with concepts such as “minimal risk.”
Indeed, I think it’s high time IRBs were re-evaluated, as they have sometimes devolved into arbitrary fiefdoms that seem to not even understand their own primary purpose.
Ceci, S.J. & Bruck, M. (2009). Do IRBs Pass the Minimal Harm Test? Perspectives on Psychological Science. DOI 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01084.x.