Accommodating Ethical Review: Response to Bosk and DeVries

April 2005

There are few signs that the ethics review process for academic research will become less controversial in the coming years (Gunsalus 2002). In their recent Annals article “Bureaucracies of Mass Deception,” Bosk and De Vries (2004) articulate the familiar view that with respect to the social and behavioral sciences that Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) do little “to protect subjects from harm or guarantee ethical conduct from researchers” and that the review process “may impose more harm than benefit” (11). The question then becomes how we should respond to a system that is clearly wanting and often highly resented? While many social scientists continue to demand that these boards be eliminated, the authors advocate a more accommodating position that recognizes the inevitability of prospective review and the need to work within the existing structure to reform its most glaring problems.

Having served for four years as a member of a Research Ethics Board (the Canadian equivalent of an IRB) I probably come very close to their characterization of someone who has had to accommodate this system. Nonetheless, my sympathies lie with some of the most strident critics of this bureaucracy. Consequently, I think it is important to question some of Bosk and De Vries’ assumptions about the inevitability of the current structure and the likely unintended consequences of their own reform proposals. I conclude by offering some very brief words in support of the most extreme critics of the research ethics structure.

As they note, a common rhetorical strategy of the critics of the research ethics bureaucracy is to compare the situation relating to the ethical oversight of academic research with that of journalistic investigations (Nelson 2004). Notwithstanding the fact that journalists routinely produce knowledge usingprocedures that resemble basic academic methodologies (Haggerty 2004b), journalists are not subject to ethical scrutiny. Bosk and De Vries advance several reasons why such comparisons with journalism are inappropriate, focusing on differences between the academy and journalism. However, things are not as clear-cut as they imply, as is evident by the fact that the implications of their arguments would seem to lead them to positions diametrically opposed to the ones they advance.

First, they point out that journalists, unlike academics, are not professionals. Unfortunately, they do not follow the implications of this distinction to its logical conclusion. They ignore the fact that professionals typically have levels of training and expertise not evident in non-professional occupations that justify their greater discretionary latitude. Bosk and De Vries end up in the curious position of suggesting that the heightened ethical oversight of academic knowledge production is justified precisely because academics are professionals. Second, they note that journalism, unlike the academy, is a commercial enterprise. Again, they do not explore the implications of this difference for how knowledge production should be policed in journalism and the academy. Hence, the less commercial nature of the academy as opposed to journalism would lend itself to an argument that academics require significantly less ethical vetting than journalists. Such a case would be particularly compelling given the social importance of journalistic knowledge which is now the dominant factor shaping public debate, election results and policy development (Haggerty 2004a), and the way in which commercial interests can bias the production of such knowledge. So, while the authors stress that journalists and academics are different, the differences they identify can paradoxically serve as justifications for why academics should be subject to less ethical scrutiny than journalists.

Ultimately, the comparison with journalism is important because of how it is invoked to accentuate the claim that IRBs infringe on the right of freedom of expression in a way that would be intolerable in other contexts. Bosk and De Vries, however, are unconvinced. They point out that as academics are not journalists “we have no reason to expect the same rules to apply” (7) to these different institutions. In fact, from a constitutional perspective, I would expect that we have every reason to start from the assumption that the same rules pertaining to freedom of expressionshould apply to journalists, academics and anyone else. Freedom of speech is not exclusively a journalistic right, but one that is guaranteed to all citizens. Certainly, as the authors also point out, free speech is not absolute and the Supreme Court has allowed reasonable constraints on this important right (Fish 1994). However, simply pointing this out does not justify the constraints on scholarly research, but only pushes the matter back a level to whether these limitations are reasonable. This is ultimately the heart of the matter, and I suspect that many of the individuals demanding that IRBs be eliminated are, in their own way, positing that the restrictions on speech inherent in the IRB structure are often quite unreasonable.

For the review process to be deemed reasonable one would have to demonstrate that: (1) IRBs are required to serve an important social purpose, and (2) that this purpose cannot be achieved in a less onerous fashion. Plausible arguments can be fashioned that neither of these criteria are met in the current operation of IRBs. It is unclear, for example, that there was ever any demonstrated ‘need’ for a formal bureaucratic system of ethical oversight for social scientific research. As Wax (1985) has noted, the origins of research ethics oversight for the social sciences in the United States donot resemble anything approaching a careful consideration of the objective requirements for such a system. Instead, the behavioral sciences were included almost as an afterthought to a ethics regulatory system that was being fashioned for biomedical research.

Moreover, I suspect that the socially desirable aim of protecting social scientific research participants can be achieved without the current ethics review structure through a combination of measures that are both less constitutionally objectionable and bureaucratically onerous. These could include such things as mandatory ethics training for graduate students, ethics accreditation for researchers, the re-invigoration of discipline-specific codes of research ethics, and exemptions for broad fields of research that pose few ethical concerns. The authors are curious about why social scientists, particularly ethnographers, continue to complain about the research ethics system and demand that it be eliminated, whereas medical scientists have adopted “a policy of weary, self-resigned compliance coupled with minor or major evasion.” In practice, I suspect that the majority of social scientists have adopted the latter position. That said, it is probably not very difficult to explain the greater degree of animosity directed towards these boards by social scientists. The difference is likely due to the extreme contrast in the risks that these different fields of inquiry typically pose to research participants. Given the litany of documented ethical abuses that have been produced by the medical and biological sciences which risked or harmed the physical well-being of research participants (Beecher 1966; Goliszek 2003), it is not surprising that the medical community seems more resigned to the inevitability of ethical review. In contrast, the risks of social scientific research appear to be of an entirely lower level of magnitude. It is this difference in the perceived levels of potential harms posed by the respective styles of research which I suspect accounts for the greater stridency among the social scientific opponents of the ethical review structure.

While it is unclear if Bosk and De Vries are actually advocating that social scientists employ a series of “minor or major evasions” to the ethics structure, I believe that this is indeed already occurring and it is a troubling development. The problem is not that such evasions necessarily result in unethical conduct – indeed, I suspect that these forms of everyday resistance are most common in those situations where ethically unproblematic research does not fit easily into the formal research ethics structure. Instead, I am concerned that as such evasions become routine it sets the stage for a capricious form of governance; one where the violation of rules is common, but where the individuals who are singled out for punishment will tend to be the most vulnerable or marginal members of the academy. Such a dynamic is inherent in any regulatory system where large groups of individuals routinely ignore a set of rules they perceive to be unnecessary or illegitimate.

In lieu of vociferously demanding the elimination of IRBs, Bosk and De Vries advocate a strategy of working with the system to rectify its glaring problems. They offer a series of proposals typical of such a reformist approach that are, on their face, unobjectionable. That said, how one relates to the specifics of such proposals is ultimately animated by your particular fears about these bureaucracies. In my own case, I am worried about an expanding and intensifying research ethics bureaucracy that seems poised to continue to proliferate, becoming more onerous and unwieldy in the process. When the reform proposals of Bosk and De Vries are scrutinized in light of such concerns it is clear that they also contain the possibility of some unintended undesirable consequences.

For example, the authors call for greater training of IRB members, which would undeniably be a welcome development. Board members are routinely unfamiliar with the research ethics guidelines when they start working on these committees, and often know very little about the practicalities of research beyond their own narrow specializations. However, introducing mandatory training for IRB members would also add an additional layer of bureaucracy to this system and would formalize what is now a largely voluntary arrangement working on the good will of all involved.

Assignments to these boards are temporary and made on the basis of administrative convenience. Membership typically involves a considerable expenditure of time and energy better devoted to other tasks. If membership starts to necessitate anything approaching a serious training regime the question arises of who would allow themselves to be coerced into such a committee? Certainly there is a good chance that many PhD qualified researchers would see such training as time-consuming, pointless and patronizing.

Moreover, the formalization of training would contribute to the greater entrenchment of a cadre of university officials whose career trajectories increasingly revolve around the internal dynamics of the research ethics bureaucracy itself. The authors also call for a better system for appealing IRB decisions. This, again, is perfectly reasonable. In Canada, one of the glaring problems with the ethical review system is that across the country – and sometimes even within the same university – different research ethics boards make contradictory decisions. Occasionally, some of these verdicts are patently absurd. A better appeals process would go a long way towards rectifying these problems. At the same time, an appeals structure would add yet another unwelcome layer of bureaucracy and legal formality to the existing system.

Bosk and De Vries’ position is ultimately that ‘What is not open is whether a prospective review of research will exist” (8). They concede too much too readily. Certainly, in the history of bureaucratic regulation more dramatic developments have transpired than the elimination or radical restructuring of the research ethics bureaucracy. In demanding the impossible (or highly improbable) the more strident critics serve the important function of shifting debate away from the consensus assumptions of the existing research ethics bureaucracy. They force officials to try and justify the system’s existence, while demanding answers to difficult and important questions about whether the current system accomplishes any of its professed goals, what legal and bureaucratic factors are truly driving this system, whether its social and economic costs can be justified, and, most importantly, if it is possible to promote ethical research through a radically different structure of governance. Any fundamental changes in that direction are not likely to derive from an exclusively accommodationist, reform-oriented trategy.


  • Beecher, H.E. 1966. “Ethics and Clinical Research.” New England Journal of Medicine 274:1354-1360.
  • Bosk, Charles L., and Raymond G. DeVries. 2004. “Bureaucracies of Mass Deception: Institutional Review Boards and the Ethics of Ethnographic Research.” Annals, AAPSS:1-15.
  • Fish, Stanley. 1994. There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and its a Good Thing Too. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Goliszek, Andrew. 2003. In the Name of Science. New York: St. Martin's.
  • Gunsalus, C.K. 2002. “Rethinking Protections for Human Subjects.” Chronicle of Higher Education November:15.
  • Haggerty, Kevin D. 2004a. “Displaced Expertise: Three Constraints on the Policy Relevance of Criminological Thought.” Theoretical Criminology 8:211-231.
  • Haggerty, Kevin D. 2004b. “Ethics Creep: Governing Social Science Research in the Name of Ethics.” Qualitative Sociology 27.
  • Nelson, Cary. 2004. “The Brave New World of Research Surveillance.” Qualitative Inquiry 10:207-218.
  • Wax, Murray L. 1985. “Human Rights and Human Subjects.” Sociological Inquiry 55:423-424.

Discussion Forum: The American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2005, URL is: