Good news for scholars doing oral history! The federal government is preparing to grant them a right to be excluded from IRBs.Breaking News
HNN Editor's Note After we ran this excerpt we learned that the federal government has not yet issued its final regulations. Here are the details according to an announcement on the website of the Oral History Association: "On September 8, 2015, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a set of recommended revisions to the regulations concerning human subject research. Specifically, it recommended that oral history be explicitly excluded from review by institutional review boards, or IRBs, and alluded to the fact that oral history already has its own code of ethics, including the principle of informed consent." Scholars doing oral histories should consult the OHA's Principles and Best Practices.
All of those presidential candidates who promise to change the world on “my first day in office” have a lot to learn about the federal government’s glacial pace. The government does tend to do the right thing, so long as you have the patience to wait a few years (or decades). On 8 September 2015, a 20-year struggle culminated in a ruling from the US Department of Health and Human Services that specifically excludes the following from human subject regulation: “Oral history, journalism, biography, and historical scholarship activities that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected.”
The federal government began issuing rules that required universities to review human subject research back in 1980. At first, the regulations applied only to medical and behavioral research, but in 1991, the government broadened its requirements to include any “interaction with living individuals.” In 1995, a university hierarchy declined to accept a doctoral dissertation because the history graduate student had failed to consult the university’s institutional review board (IRB)—an entity none of her professors knew existed. She eventually received a retroactive exemption, but the incident sent shivers through the oral history community.
IRBs at universities, staffed almost entirely by those in the medical and behavioral sciences, began trying to fit oral history interviewing into protocols more designed for blood samples. IRBs instructed oral historians to keep their interviews anonymous, erase their recordings, and avoid asking possibly intrusive questions, which defeated the purpose of their projects. One student was met with resistance for naming the scholars in her field whom she had interviewed. Others were cautioned not to ask about illegal activities—even when interviewing civil rights activists who remained proud of the civil disobedience that led to their arrests. At their most illogical, there were boards that wanted researchers to obtain permission from third parties who had been mentioned during an interview, and even urged archivists to require researchers to apply for IRB clearance just to read an oral history transcript or listen to a recording in their collections.
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