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.
Some scholars simply abandoned interviewing as a research or teaching tool to avoid the hassle. For years, a professor had partnered her college students with local high school students to conduct community-based oral histories, but she had to abandon the project when her campus IRB asked for certification that all participants in research activities were over the age of eighteen. Boards also expected faculty advisors who supervised theses and dissertations using oral history to take a standardized test on research ethics, despite its painfully clear orientation towards pharmacology.
In 2003, the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP) approved a statement drafted by representatives of the Oral History Association and American Historical Association that defined oral history practices as fundamentally different from the quantitative research that the federal regulations had intended to cover. It argued that oral historians “do not reach for generalizable principles of historical or social development; nor do they seek underlying principles of laws of nature that have predicative value and can be applied to other circumstances for the purpose of controlling outcomes.” The OHRP agreed that people should be free to give their informed consent to be interviewed and to have those interviews opened for research, without any federally-mandated review. It has taken another dozen years for the government to issue that statement on its own. This decision is a victory for common sense and lifts a great burden from all oral historians. Let us hope that the IRBs get the message.
Image Credit: “A woman interviews her father for StoryCorps” by romanlily. CC BY NC ND 2.0 via Flickr.