Historians and Archivists Comment on Oral History Review Rules

In October, the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Oral History Association and Society of American Archivists submitted comments on proposed changes to federal rules regulating research on human subjects. All four groups advised the federal government that historians, especially oral historians, should be granted full exclusion from oversight by institutional review boards (IRBs).

Before making changes to the regulations – which have been in place since 1991 and are often referred to as the Common Rule – the government sought the public’s input on an array of issues related to the ethics, safety, and oversight of human research.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed changes can be found in an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), Human Subjects Research Protections: Enhancing Protections for Research Subjects and Reducing Burden, Delay, and Ambiguity for Investigators, published in the July 26 Federal Register. The proposed changes are designed to strengthen protections for human research subjects. The deadline for

In AHA’s opinion, historians who use interview methods focus on eliciting information about particular experiences of the past, and their work suffers irreparable harm when forced into rubrics developed to treat human beings in a general (or “generalizable”) way. The standards and procedures of Institutional Review Boards are alien to oral history research, and over the past decade we have compiled ample documentation of the misapplication of such rules to research projects in the field.

The letter goes on to describe some of the difficulties reported by historians in recent years “as a fundamental violation of the principles of oral history research, and a violation of the First Amendment rights of our members.”

Building on the clear evidence of harm caused to oral history research by the past application of inappropriate rules and regulations, the letter goes on to challenge other aspects of the recent federal proposal that would seemingly extend rules for medical privacy to wide swaths of other information.

You can read the full text of the AHA letter, and learn more about the federal proposal to change IRB rules in these past blog posts: Oral History and Information Risk: A Response to the Federal Proposal (October 17, 2011); Getting Free of the IRB: A Call to Action for Oral History (August 1, 2011); and The Feds and IRBs: Your Opportunity to Weigh in (November 6, 2007).

The OAH letters states, “the application of the Common Rule, which was intended primarily for the biomedical and behavioral sciences and for research in it and related fields, should not extend to the practice of history,” and that forcing the oral interviews of historians into structured patterns” distorts “the purposes of their research and hinders the process of free inquiry on which historical interpretation is based.”

To read the full OAH letter, click here.

The SAA letter states, “Indeed, we can find no significant moral or ethical distinction, and no appreciable difference in the threat of harm, between a competent adult consenting to researchers accessing his/her oral history interview and the same adult consenting to donate his/her diaries. Yet under the proposed rulemaking the former requires intense scrutiny by an institutional review board (and the possibility of imposing anonymity) while the latter has no similar oversight.”

To read the full SAA letter, click here.

The Oral History Association’s letter states, “The standards and procedures that govern Institutional Review Boards are inappropriate to oral history research; that our work suffers irreparable harm when subjected to oversight by rules largely designed to protect human subjects in medical and health sciences research. Our position is informed both by the nature of oral history research, our own professional principles and best practices, and misapplications by Institutional Review Boards that have cast a pall on research in our field.”

The Oral History Association summarized their comments by asserting, “We argue that oral history should fall outside the realm of IRB oversight, as defined by the Common Rule. Efforts to force oral history and historical inquiry into a regulatory framework that is designed for scientific and biomedical research cause confusion at best, and irreparable harm to building historical knowledge and to our profession. Such a framework of rules distorts the purposes of our research and stifles the process of free and open inquiry on which oral history interpretation is based.”

To read the full Oral History Association letter, click here.