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Wednesday, November 2, 2022

How the Classics Changed Research Ethics

Scott Sleek
Psychological Science
Originally posted 31 AUG 22

Here is an excerpt:

Social scientists have long contended that the Common Rule was largely designed to protect participants in biomedical experiments—where scientists face the risk of inducing physical harm on subjects—but fits poorly with the other disciplines that fall within its reach.

“It’s not like the IRBs are trying to hinder research. It’s just that regulations continue to be written in the medical model without any specificity for social science research,” she explained. 

The Common Rule was updated in 2018 to ease the level of institutional review for low-risk research techniques (e.g., surveys, educational tests, interviews) that are frequent tools in social and behavioral studies. A special committee of the National Research Council (NRC), chaired by APS Past President Susan Fiske, recommended many of those modifications. Fisher was involved in the NRC committee, along with APS Fellows Richard Nisbett (University of Michigan) and Felice J. Levine (American Educational Research Association), and clinical psychologist Melissa Abraham of Harvard University. But the Common Rule reforms have yet to fully expedite much of the research, partly because the review boards remain confused about exempt categories, Fisher said.  

Interference or support? 

That regulatory confusion has generated sour sentiments toward IRBs. For decades, many social and behavioral scientists have complained that IRBs effectively impede scientific progress through arbitrary questions and objections. 

In a Perspectives on Psychological Science paper they co-authored, APS Fellows Stephen Ceci of Cornell University and Maggie Bruck of Johns Hopkins University discussed an IRB rejection of their plans for a study with 6- to 10-year-old participants. Ceci and Bruck planned to show the children videos depicting a fictional police officer engaging in suggestive questioning of a child.  

“The IRB refused to approve the proposal because it was deemed unethical to show children public servants in a negative light,” they wrote, adding that the IRB held firm on its rejection despite government funders already having approved the study protocol (Ceci & Bruck, 2009). 

Other scientists have complained the IRBs exceed their Common Rule authority by requiring review of studies that are not government funded. In 2011, psychological scientist Jin Li sued Brown University in federal court for barring her from using data she collected in a privately funded study on educational testing. Brown’s IRB objected to the fact that she paid her participants different amounts of compensation based on need. (A year later, the university settled the case with Li.) 

In addition, IRBs often hover over minor aspects of a study that have no genuine relation to participant welfare, Ceci said in an email interview.