THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
TALE OF THE TAPES AT BC

Board oversight is no safeguard

May 31, 2011

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IN HER May 23 op-ed “BC should hand over Irish archive tapes,’’ Juliette Kayyem correctly laments the fact that Boston College oral historians failed to warn interview subjects that promises of confidentiality might not withstand a subpoena. But she is wrong to suggest that the solution is to place oral historians under the supervision of institutional review boards.

In theory, these boards would spot such problems before they occur. In practice, many boards lack the expertise to offer sound guidance, and board-approved research is also vulnerable to subpoena. For example, in 2010 the University of Arizona released sensitive information from an board-approved study, over the objections of the researchers.

Historians should avoid making absolute promises of confidentiality, and they should safeguard the rights of people named in interviews. But experience has shown that institutional review boards are as much hindrance as help in these efforts.

Zachary M. Schrag, Arlington, Va.
The writer, an associate professor of history at George Mason University, is the author of “Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009.’’