Human subjects and the humanities

One sign of the changing conditions of research in the humanities is the advent of institutional review of humanistic research involving “human subjects.”

By federal law, any university that receives federal funding must ensure that human participants in research pursued by any university employee are protected from harm and informed of their rights. This requirement applies not only to biomedical research, but also to social science and humanistic work.

As associate professor of sociology and chair of Emory’s Social, Humanist, and Behavioral Institutional Review Board (SHB IRB) Karen Hegtvedt says, “The requirements didn’t change; our awareness of how to implement them increased.” During most of the fourteen years of Hegtvedt’s board service, their work has focused mostly on social science involving vulnerable populations—especially children. Considered “exempt,” most humanities work did not come to the board’s attention.

That began to change a decade ago when Emory began receiving more and more federal research dollars. The SHB IRB started to realize its responsibility for non-federally-funded research and even unfunded research posing no obvious risk to anyone. The environment shifted dramatically in 1999 when a federal watchdog agency temporarily shut down all of Duke University Medical Center’s non-critical research because Duke’s IRB could not ensure that patients were being protected. Universities nationwide checked their review processes.

At issue was ensuring the rights of human participants to respect, beneficence, and justice in research. “At that point,” says Hegtvedt, “we realized that when people in the humanities do interviews, they are doing research. More people in the humanities are adopting social science methods—questionnaires and interviews—but they know little about the methodologies because it’s not part of their training. Even totally anonymous survey research has to be run by us in some way.”

The SHB IRB (which is distinct from the four committees reviewing all biomedical research with human subjects) set about implementing its broader purview. Any research in the behavioral sciences, social sciences, or humanities involving contact with living human beings must pass through one of three categories of review. The departmental (or divisional) human subjects review coordinator recommends a category of review to the SHB IRB. Application and approval letters are filed in the IRB office. The three categories are:

Exempt: Extremely low-risk research in which subjects remain completely anonymous; no written consent forms. Examples include anonymous surveys. The SHB IRB chair handles final review.

Expedited: Still low-risk, but possibility of subject’s identity revealed, even though information is not considered highly sensitive; often involves signed written consent. Examples include audio- or videotaped interviews or photographs of subjects. The SHB IRB chair handles final review.

Full Board: Research involving at-risk populations, deception, higher risks, and waiver of consent elements. Copies of application for SHB IRB review go to the entire board.

Also stemming from this changing environment is a new requirement that all Emory-employed researchers—faculty and staff—must complete an on-line and book-based training program designed to familiarize researchers with the rights of human research participants and ways of minimizing risks. All researchers must go through the training and become certified by taking a test before they submit any application to the IRB. While there are two parts to the test, most humanities faculty will only take part A, which addresses non-invasive and non-medical research. Still, Hegtvedt says, some of the questions are ill-suited to the work of most humanists, and she and others are working on devising a better version.

“Having to be trained and certified is pointless for researchers who have been dealing with these issues their whole careers,” says Sidney Kasfir, an associate professor of art history who will take the test before her next research project. “It makes more sense for people who have never thought about these issues before.”A.O.A.

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