IRB = Institutional Review Board

Here’s the short summary: The IRB is an extension of the Government’s Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP). It’s job is to ensure that scientists don’t abuse folks. The impetus for it came initially from Nazi Death Camp experiments. However, the direct cause were a number of reprehensible experiments carried out here in the US by a number of bad eggs in the Medical and Psychological fields. The end result is that we (Social Researchers) who get any form of government funding (or are carrying out research at federally funded Universities) need to go through a lot of red tape in order to show that we will in no way harm our subjects.

Is it important? Yes. Is it out of control? Yes, at least for anthro work.

The problem for me is that online research is a very open subject area. The rules are still being laid down and that is problematic for research like mine. If all my i’s are not dotted just right I could find out that I have to scrap all my research. Conversely, if every time I enter a chat room I need to get everyone to “sign” consent forms I can’t conduct my research. Avoiding this double-bind is critical to successful completion of the project.

Yesterday, the U of Chicago IRB ruled on a number of Internet related research issues. While these don’t necessarily apply to other academic institutions, the can be used to help argue cases:

  1. Any content viewable without a password is considered public
    If you can access it without signing in, it’s considered public. The general rule: if a website is listed on Google it is considered to be publicly published content. As such you do not need permission to reproduce it in studies. This includes unrestricted Blog and LiveJournal content.
  2. If there are no membership restrictions for protected content it can be considered public
    As long as anyone who applies can get access to the information it will be considered public. This covers cases where a valid e-mail address is required provided that you can use a free e-mail account like Hotmail, YahooMail, or Google. As such most discussion board conversation can be considered public and you do not have to secure releases for publishing and collecting it.

    There are two possible exceptions to the above two rules:

    1. If the publisher of the content is under the of 18 there is still a need to either get parental consent or justify the waiving of it.
    2. Should the specific rules of the site/board mark content as unable to be reproduced without specific consent of the authors. The jury is currently out on this one.
  3. Publicly available chatrooms are most likely public
    Sites like YahooChat, which require a free membership, most likely are public. However the U of Chicago IRB board will review these on a case by case basis. Researchers will have to address the possibility of recording information on subjects who are under 18 and will be expected to address how they will work to prevent this from happening.
  4. Usernames must be changed
    Because a username can be connected back to an e-mail address, they are considered a personal identifier. Unless the individual gives specific permission to use their username it must be coded and protected as if it was a real name.

    side note: I had been concerned about how to code, considering that any pseudonym chosen could be another individual’s existing username. However the board ruled that this is not an issue providing that your notes/publications are very clear that you are using pseudonyms and that any relation to those living or dead is purely coincidental (to borrow movie jargon).

  5. IRB rules do not apply to Bots
    As Bots are not human, they don’t need to be treated as human subjects. This means that no permission is required to reproduce conversations or to publish exact usernames.

    side not: Because some bots deny that they are bots, the researched needs to provide the IRB with a repeatable method for proving that they subject is an artificial intelligence (i.e. a reverse Turing test).