Of all of the issues brought up by the Lacour controversy, we have not devoted enough attention to one in my view. The
YaleColumbia* IRB made itself part of this problem.
In his initial comments to Retraction Watch, Lacour’s coauthor and Columbia political science professor Donal Green wrote,
Given that I did not have IRB approval for the study from my home institution, I took care not to analyze any primary data – the datafiles that I analyzed were the same replication datasets that Michael LaCour posted to his website. Looking back, the failure to verify the original Qualtrics data was a serious mistake.
This points to a real cost imposed by intransigent IRBs that become significant hurdles for research to progress. As institutions evaluate their response to this affair, and we reevaluate our own approaches to collaboration, those efforts would not be complete without considering the fact that IRBs hinder good, ethical research.
The subtext of Green’s comments boil down to the idea that obtaining IRB approval for collaboration with a junior colleague were sufficiently high that he didn’t feel it was worth his investment to do so.
But given how bloated most IRBs have become, and the onerous tasks required for various reasons — intrusion on academic freedom, board members not knowing particular research methods, mission creep, the desire to give scholarly rather than ethical advice — researchers now find ways of avoiding going through the process. The real-life ethical harm caused by potentially fraudulent research being accepted as true scientific findings, however, were worse than the potential harm to “respondents” that the IRB would have taken it upon itself to review.
In other words, we often fail to account for the opportunity costs imposed by overly restrictive IRB policies.
One can criticize Green for avoiding the IRB. In fact, in a private conversation (well, on a Facebook group), a friend, who is a mid-career political scientist with an outstanding reputation, did just that. She put a decent size of the blame at Green’s feet for this incident. But given the intransigence of IRBs and the ridiculous lengths to which they go, I can imagine doing the same thing that Green did to stay in the “letter of law,” if even that meant violating the spirit in some sense.
Institutions and professional organizations (oh hai ASA) should seriously seek to reform their IRBs. The AAUP has some recommendations, including eliminating many social scientific methods from IRB review. If institutions do not want to take the full step that the AAUP recommends of eliminating review for several social science methods, I would at least like to see institutions separate medical review from social science review boards. Being at an institution without a medical school, I appreciate the difference in the IRB review process here. On the one hand, it responds promptly and understands social scientific methods. On the other, or because of those reasons, it has caught hidden but real problems and provided useful ethical guidance.
I would ask Columbia: what became a larger liability to your institutional reputation, a stringent IRB review for a study with absolutely minimal risk, or being mired in a retraction scandal caused — in part1 — by following the rule of IRB policy?
Update: I confused the institution of Peter Aronow, the Yale coauthor of the Irregularities report, with that of LaCour coauthor Donald Green (Columbia). I regret impugning Yale’s good name.↩
I understand the extent of fraud in this case — if true — would be difficult to detect even if Green had IRB approval. That said, I worry less about outright fraud and more about unintentionally bad science that seeps out because IRBs make collaborating across institutions difficult. I also realize that Lacour has not yet had a chance to respond. But, again, the problem imposed by the IRB still stands, even if Lacour turns out a spirited defense. ↩