IRB Equitability

My plan is to spend a good chunk of this weekend completing a project proposal that I plan to submit for approval by the Institutional Review Board, which at UTEP is part of the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects. This, in and of itself, is not spectacular - I have gone through this process three other times, twice as the principle investigator. It is, however, my first time approaching the proposal process after having what I believe to be were a series of insightful conversations about the nature of the IRB process, the nature of projects involving humans as research subjects, and of the nature of institutional compliance.

Most of the conversations involved arguments about which disciplines should be required to complete the formal IRB process for each project, versus those that could reasonably expect a lower threshold of acceptance with their projects. Generally, it was asserted that the strict IRB procedure was in place for sciences like biology and psychology, where human participants might be subject to physical or severe mental harm. However, for research in Rhetoric & Writing Studies (and other disciplines unrepresented in these particular discussions), which can also use human subjects, the likelihood of personal invasion was considered significantly lower. Some of these arguments were made by folks representing RWS.

I bring this up not just to recap the content (I will say that there was little agreement on the Stanford Prison Experiment), but to articulate upon the difference. First off, in defense of my discipline, it would be short-sited to claim that the type of human research done in RWS is inherently un-invasive. Writing, in addition to being a mode of communicative discourse, is also a personal act that is representative of an individual's thought processes. As such, when studying and analyzing writing, particularly student writing, researchers must proceed with caution and due respect for their subjects' contributions. Secondly, by mandating that everyone complete the same (or at least similar) approval processes, the Institutional Review Board is facilitating equitability among researchers and academic disciplines, a concept that those disciplines still arguing for their disciplinarity should embrace.

Importantly, this is not a matter of false equivocalness - scholars in RWS know full well that the type of research we do must be thoughtfully planned, rigorously applied, and carefully assessed. So, for my fellow RWS researchers, the next time you find yourself completing the mountain of paperwork required by your local IRB, I implore you to embrace the process: not only will it help ensure the reliability of your project, it will also aid in the larger arguments about our disciplinarity.