Oral History Exempted from Federal Oversight
The U.S. Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP) of the Department of Health and Human Services announced in October that most oral history interviewing projects will no longer fall within the purview of institutional review boards, or IRBs. Such boards, which oversee research involving human subjects, derive their authority from federal regulations. Research experiments funded by any of seventeen different federal agencies must be preapproved and monitored by IRBs, and most universities require that all research involving human subjects, regardless of funding source, go through the IRBs. The AAUP joined other concerned organizations in urging the exemption for oral history.
IRBs were originally developed in response to serious ethical violations in clinical research. Their rules require that research subjects give informed consent, that their well-being not be compromised, and that the research in question be worth performing. In recent years, nonclinical research projects in areas such as anthropology, history, journalism, and sociology have increasingly come under IRB scrutiny, sometimes with inappropriate or detrimental results.
According to Linda Shopes, who represented the American Historical Association in discussions with the OHRP, historians have had to submit detailed questionnaires for IRB review prior to conducting any interviews, to maintain the narrators' anonymity, and to destroy their tapes or retain them in their own possession after an interview. …