Historians cited in front-page NYT story about IRB's

Historians in the News

Ever since the gross mistreatment of poor black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study came to light three decades ago, the federal government has required ethics panels to protect people from being used as human lab rats in biomedical studies. Yet now, faculty and graduate students across the country increasingly complain that these panels have spun out of control, curtailing academic freedom and interfering with research in history, English and other subjects that poses virtually no danger to anyone.

The panels, known as Institutional Review Boards, are required at all institutions that receive research money from any one of 17 federal agencies and are charged with signing off in advance on almost all studies that involve a living person, whether a former president of the United States or your own grandmother. This results, critics say, in unnecessary and sometimes absurd demands....

“It drives historians crazy,” said Joshua Freeman, the director of the City University’s graduate history program. “It’s a medical model, it’s inappropriate and ignorant.” One student currently waiting for a board to approve his study of a strike in the 1970s, Mr. Freeman said, had to submit a list of questions he was going to ask workers and union officials, file signed consent forms, describe the locked location where he would keep all his notes, take a test to certify he understood the standards....

Bernadette McCauley, a historian at Hunter College, said she ran into trouble a couple of years ago when she tried to help students working with the Museum of the City of New York on an exhibition about Washington Heights. She asked if a few nuns who had grown up in that neighborhood and whom she knew from her research would talk to the students. And that, Ms. McCauley said, was “when things went haywire.”

The review board discovered the request and lambasted Ms. McCauley for failing to consult with it, she said. The board also demanded proof that previous research for a completed book did not use any archival material involving living people and banned her from doing any research.

Michael Arena, the director of communications at City University, said in an e-mail message that Ms. McCauley initially refused to send in a “brief description” of her research so that board members could determine whether federal regulations covered her work. Ms. McCauley hired a lawyer and after six months of negotiations, the board agreed that her research was exempt.
Read entire article at NYT

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