My first go-around at CITI’s IRB training was in 2012 during my first experimental psychology course, so I went into this assignment with a very “this isn’t my first rodeo” attitude. At this point “respect for persons, beneficence, and justice” might as well be the Manchurian-Candidate-esque trigger phrase that turns me back into an eye-rolling undergrad with a propensity for dining hall mac and cheese. Nonetheless, retaking the modules and reading the responses of the other people in this class gave me a better appreciation for the existence of institutions like IRB’s.
As students in a classroom it may be all too easy to succumb to hindsight bias when looking at the historical pretense for ethical guidelines. When we see Milgram’s obedience experiment, Zimbardo’s prison experiment, and most notably the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, we see them as exemplars of poor foresight and blatant disregard for their participants that violates an almost a priori knowledge of what it means to be ethical. When I first looked at these training modules, it seemed almost laughable to use such ham-fisted examples when discussing the nuances of ethics in experimental research. However, I think it speaks to the general benevolence of institutions like IRB’s that these case aren’t treated as skeletons in the closet. It is rare for a powerful institution to own up to its misdoings, let alone put them at the forefront of a curriculum aimed at self-correcting such behavior. Also, when we talk about these seminal cases it is easy to think of them as occurring in some time immemorable, but their inclusion seems much more understandable considering these are all experiments that happen a mere fifty-ish years ago.
From a methodological perspective, the existence of institutions like IRB’s are integral to keeping our research honest and realistic. Especially as students our ideas for research ideas may tend towards pie-in-the-sky methodologies that couldn’t possibly be replicated safely in the real world. One example given in the training modules epitomized this to me; a survey asking about the attitudes of women who had had abortions. It a student were to investigate this topic the task of recruiting respondents may seem trivial, but as the course illustrated, the recruitment or response process not only requires more work then simply finding women who have had abortions but also could prove dangerous for potential respondents if done tactlessly. Institutions like IRB’s not only allow for a second opinion, a prescreening of these methodologies, but in doing so foster a more creative approach to experimental methodologies, encouraging us to think “how can I do this more safely, more efficiently, and less invasive”.
Conducting research is ultimately a two-way street; no matter how convinced we may be that our research is contributing to the “common good” by virtue of being conducted, we as researchers must trust and respect our participants as much as we expect them to trust and respect us. The onus is on the researcher is to first formulate an approach that is trustworthy, and in that regard the CITI IRB training offers a solid framework to begin thinking about the broader historical and legal contexts in which we should hope to achieve that goal.