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.