Blogging and IRB Approval

Do professors need IRB approval to blog?

Institutional Review Board (“IRB”) pre-approval is required for projects when members of institutions receiving federal funding conduct research intervening with or identifying the private information of human subjects. “Research” means “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” “Human subject” means “a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research obtains. “Intervention” “includes communication or interpersonal contact between investigator and subject.” “Private information” is “information about behavior that occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place . . . . Private information must be individually identifiable (i.e., the identity of the subject is or may readily be ascertained by the investigator or associated with the information) in order for obtaining the information to constitute research involving human subjects.”

Whew. So, in thinking about this definition, I think the answer is “maybe,” but I’m really interested in getting feedback from readers who have much more experience with their IRB board.

Start with the obvious. Were I to be planning to publish a paper, in a law review or otherwise, about my blogging experience, I think I’d probably want to get IRB approval, because part of that experience involves provoking and responding to comments from our readers. Although some might quibble that we’re dealing with texts not people, the better reading of the regulation would seem to be that the nub of what I’d be writing about would be my experiences with other human beings. Some of that project might involve “outing” anonymous visitors/commentators. I think that it is at least arguable that visitors to this site “reasonably expect” that no observation of their “individually identifiable” characteristics is being made – although that “reasonable expectation” in my view is not accurate.

How about a little harder question. Should papers about blogging in general, without a focus on a given Prof’s experience (e.g., an “applied” version of Larry Ribstein’s L&E of blogging paper) require IRB approval? Some seem to think so. Thus, before I start the data-collection part of a planned paper about commodification and the process of bringing legal opinions online, I might need to submit an application to the board so that I can talk to folks like Howard, etc.

Now for the real trick. Is blogging itself “research” under the relevant regulations? As far as I can tell, no one has actually done this, and being a believer in the power of large groups of people to be right, I tend to think that the answer must be no. And for most of us, that answer makes sense. I don’t consider this blog to be my scholarship. But there are some folks out there who disagree. I wonder if obtaining institutional “scholarship” credit for blogging would preclude a researcher from claiming that blogging isn’t “research” from an IRB perspective?

Other views on this topic:

1. An interesting listserve exchange.

2. The Association of Internet Research’s long PDF on the ethical implications of research on blogging.

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5 Responses

  1. RCinProv says:

    There was once an Attorney general in Rhode Island made infamous by the comment: where the might be smoke, there must be fire.

    Sadly, the IRB at my esteemed institution has its own version: where they might be research, there must be IRB jurisdiction.

    We are currently debating what kinds of “undergraduate research” must go to the IRB. Last time I checked, undergraduates do not, even in the Ivy League, make “contributions to generalizable knowledge.” But that common sense observation has not ended the discussion.

    Two words sum up the recent history of IRBs in America: mission creep.

    So blogs are undoubtedly next — until Congress finally steps in and draws a distinction between actually doing experiments on humans versus all the other things that social scientists do.

  2. Joe Miller says:

    Dave,

    You’ve raised a host of interesting and important questions here. I don’t have answers at the moment, but share your apparent interest in getting them.

    It is interesting to note, in connection with IRBs that, so far as I could tell, nothing in the schedule at the recent AALS annual meeting in DC addressed IRB questions for the law professor. Given that the topic of the annual meeting was empirical research in law, it seems a rather glaring omission.

    Anyway, thanks for a great post.

  3. Macaroni says:

    I have been conducting research on blogs for more than two years now and yes, you do need IRB approval! While RC has had problems with the IRB and other colleagues, who conduct research on special populations, I know have had difficulties, this has not been my experience. My research centers on technology and politics and hence not many of the questions I ask can potentially harm my subjects. Best of luck.

  4. RCinProv says:

    Hi Macaroni!

    I think the question is whether blogging itself requires IRB approval, not studying blogging. If the former requires IRB approval, then academic blogs are doomed. That is my worry–that blogging itself will be considered publishing and somehow be defined as research.

    Studying blogs, that’s different.

  5. Dave Hoffman says:

    RCinProv I think hits the big issue. I take it, though, that no one has actually been called to task for blogging by an IRB board?

    (The study-of-blogging question, which I discuss as part II above, seems to me not a totally clear cut case of requiring approval, but I am moving toward a risk averse position.)