Friday, April 24, 2009

Institutional Review Boards and Human Subjects

Fellow researchers, BEWARE!!

I had an interesting and momentarily devastating experience this week. I have since gotten over it and am doing whatever I can to turn things around, but it’s not all in my hands. It has to do with the important matter of my research. In order for me to conduct this research with other human beings in which I am interacting with people, learning from them, and recording their words during interviews with plans to quote them in future publications, my plans for study must undergo the scrutiny of my university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). I am doing research involving “human subjects.” And I represent Indiana University and the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology in IU’s College of Arts and Sciences; so in order to successfully complete my Ph.D. and be granted that degree, I must conduct my research in a way that has been approved to be ethical and in accordance with IU’s IRB research policies. Are you bored yet? No, sorry, it is actually important, because A LOT of academic research is done by graduate students all over the world from American universities (I’m not knowledgeable about IRB related activities at colleges and universities outside of the US), and it is important in the broad scheme of things to make sure that there are guidelines for ethical research practices, ones that we are all expected to understand and abide by. IRB and Human Subjects review processes stem from primarily medical and health related studies involving research on diseases, pharmaceuticals, and medical procedures. This is a tiny little bit of background. For more info on IU’s IRB, here is the link:

There are applications to fill out, different types of review depending on the degree of impact the study will have on the subjects involved, or the people involved. Since there is no risk to anyone that I am working with (i.e. no one will have an allergic reaction to my interview questions), my study fit within the guidelines for “exempt” review. This is a quicker and less involved review process than the “full” review process. Another important document that I am required to use is my Informed Consent Form. I present this at every interview asking for their permission to quote them in any future publications that I write based on that interview. The consent form is a double sided piece of paper with information about my study, about the involvement of the research subject, contact information, and also asks for permission to deposit each interview recording into the Archives of African American Music & Culture at IU upon completion of my study.

Some people in the humanities/ethnographic disciplines like ethnomusicology, anthropology, folklore, etc. complain about being required to participate in a research ethics and methods review process that is primarily directed at medical research and the protection of human subjects in that realm. Up until this past week, I have had no trouble with my IRB applications and have tried to maintain a positive viewpoint on the whole process. It is necessary, we all have to do it, and there have been great strides made over the past five years or so by university IRB’s to expand their policies and perspectives beyond healthcare and medicine, and to account for research in the humanities.

Well now, this week, my confidence was dramatically shaken. I have been working on submitting revised forms for the required annual IRB review of my study. Here’s the official title of my study:

Detroit Electronic Music: Eclecticism and Diversity in Performance, Production, and Identity.

No promises that it will remain that for my final dissertation, but that’s what it is for now. In the email correspondence I was having with a person at the IU IRB office, I explained that one of my many means for “recruitment” for my study was through social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace. Not knowing that that was a method that was against university policy, I was surprised to learn that it was a problem. Here is what I wrote in part of my “Noncompliance Report” that I am required to submit in order to address this problem:

I had no idea that these methods of recruitment were against university policy. I realize that this information was made available on the IRB website at the time of my original application to the IRB in January 2008, but I was not aware of this policy until April 21, 2009. I now realize that I was misinterpreting the use of social networking sites for recruitment. I originally interpreted the use of these social networking sites as a form of email. I understood Facebook or Myspace to be like a personal website on which the individual made his or her email address public. I did not send out mass messages to potential subjects on either of these networking sites. I identified potential subjects through other research methods like informal face-to-face interaction with other research subjects, interviews with other subjects who I had already met prior to using Facebook or Myspace, or reading magazine articles and books about important figures in Detroit electrnoic music. These subjects who I already knew prior to using Facebook and Myspace suggested other individuals who they imagined would be interested in participating in my study. Typically, they would suggest individuals' names to me and point me to Facebook or Myspace to get in touch with them. Unfortunately, I did not know that this was not an approved recruitment method.  Had I known this, I would have actively sought out other methods for contacting these particular subjects. I could have asked subjects that I was already working with to introduce me. I could have also found ways to contact subjects through their own personal websites or the websites of their record label. All of the subjects that I contacted through Facebook and Myspace also have their own websites or are noted as being artists on their record label's website. They all already have public contact information available online outside of Facebook and Myspace.  

I understand that social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace explicitly state that their sites are not for research, but for social networking only. Before knowing about this policy, I interpreted my use of Facebook and Myspace as social networking.  I did not interpret my actions as "information mining." The phrase "information mining" does not characterize the way in which I intended to recruit research subjects.

You think that will do me some good? I sure hope so. I took a very close look at both sites' Terms of Use, Privacy Policies, and Facebook’s Code of User Conduct, and found nothing specific about research and these sites. Regardless, I learned, it is institutional policy and will not be changing any time soon. This is my attempt at being transparent about my experiences with human subjects and sharing information for fellow researchers doing ethnographic research. So, for now, I’m waiting for my Noncompliance Report to be reviewed and see if there will be any retroactive effect on research I have done over the past year. I also cannot go forward with any more interviews until I receive my renewed Informed Consent Form since my previous form has expired. This issue of noncompliance will not affect every single interview or research relationship that I have formed over the past year and four months that I have been here. Many of my relationships were started without the use of social networking sites. But there are a few people with whom my first contact was through Facebook or Myspace. Will that pose an ethical problem with the resultant interviews? I do not yet know. I got all my swearing out the first day this all happened, so now I will just wait and stay calm and positive.


Anonymous said...

I didn't even know we had to have a consent form at all just to ask questions at first! I guess that was a consequence of not working as closely with my advisers as I should have.

Good luck!

kent said...

This just goes to show that it takes really intelligent, educated people to do the dumbest things. The Facebook/Myspace rules were OBVIOUSLY intended to prohibit a completely different research method. But some frustrated drone somewhere -- who must have a doctorate, and yet the best job they can get is to review IRB applications -- decided to ruin your week over some completely petty bullshit.

davidfloat said...

i would ignore these rules and argue that you have a wide enough grasp upon the research areas and the ethics laid forth by the irb, to then step over/aside from them and conduct humanities research the way you can argue it. ethnomusicology has to be wrenched from the conservative non thinks of the 19th and early twentieth centuries. two weeks in the mountains of peru, etc, is not full scale ethnomusicological research.

davidfloat said...

"Your comment will be visible after approval." well, that wrecks the authenticity of this blog. pity.

pipecock said...

that sucks, i hope shit works out!

Myron Brown said...

This is something I should keep in mind since I am doing my Master's Thesis next semester and I am considering using human subjects for my own study.

eliot bates said...

you're not the first person I've heard about having problems doing research on EDM that involves human subjects. However, the noncompliance aspect is a new one... I would have assumed that you might have been put in a "higher risk" category, but not slapped with a noncompliance. I think if you could itemize the facebook communications you actually had, to show that "recruitment" didn't actually happen willy nilly, it might help your argument. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I am surprised you are running into problems of this kind so late in your research. Generally, one would be expected to submit all relevant materials for IRB review *before* starting any interviewing at all (and would thus not be surprised by some of the less-than-logical rules of IRB).

i'm really bullshit said...

IRB regs are stoopid, at least w/r/t ethno

Anonymous said...

Good one to read..

Nice information...

Thank you very much...

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