Bleg: IRB horror stories

What’s your favorite outrage from the bold protectors of study participants?

At dinner a few weeks ago with the head of a public-interest law firm, I was raving about the iniquities of the Institutional Review Board process, which isn’t much good at protecting human subjects but is excellent at interfering with research.

My favorite example is the IRB decision to tell a research team studying undergraduate life that paying $25 per quarter for filling out interview forms was “coercive,” because some students might be so financially squeezed that they didn’t feel free to refuse such an enormous sum of money. The IRB insisted that the payment be reduced to $10 a quarter, thus protecting a bunch of students from making a little bit of pocket money while destroying the utility of the survey by causing a sufficiently high non-response rate to cast doubt on whether the respondents were representative of the original sample. All this despite that fact that the proposed study posed no risk whatever to its subjects.

The public-interest guy has now called my bluff; his outfit might be interested in taking on the IRBs, especially insofar as their activity interferes with freedom of inquiry.

My personal stock of IRB horror stories is limited, since I rarely do human-subjects research. So I’m asking the RBC readership to contribute. At this stage, I don’t need more than a sentence or two per horror story. If there are scholarly studies of the process, I’d appreciate pointers to those as well.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: