What is it that makes approval for non-threatening research so hard?

Lately, I’ve been trying to get Human Subjects approval for a phonetics study that will involve having people read nice, neutral, unproblematic words out loud, recording them having a conversation on the phone with a friend, and having them listen to words and non-words and say whether the thing they heard was a word or not (lexical decision).  None of the material is invasive or threatening in any way:  the word lists are things like “apple, batter, puddle,” and the conversations can be on whatever non-sensitive topic the speakers want.  None of the subjects will belong to any group that might need any extra protection, and there’s no endangered language or any such situation involved.  So this should be pretty straightforward.  Being on my department’s internal Human Subjects committee, I’m not surprised, of course, that getting approval isn’t straightforward.  I’ve been answering questions like what our plan is for whether to continue the study after subjects become incarcerated, if they should become so during the course of the (1-hour total) study.  (Let’s see, the police break into the sound booth, and then….)  After submitting the proposal, I found out the Human Subjects Office had a 6-week backlog of proposals they hadn’t read yet (the funding agency needed it done sooner), and then I got a list of changes and questions to respond to, including that they were very concerned that subjects might not realize that if they chose to use their own cell phones for the conversation, it might cost them minutes, or that it might be really extremely difficult for subjects to talk on the phone to someone they didn’t know if that was necessary.  (They can always talk about the weather, I figure.  This has worked before.)  I do wonder if the backlog of proposals might not be as long if the office didn’t worry about quite so many details that really don’t seem to impact how well the subjects are taken care of.

This leads me to wonder whether Human Subjects offices sometimes just don’t know what to do with non-sensitive, non-threatening linguistics research.  We know about the differences relative to medical research.  I suspect that even within the Social and Behavioral research, linguistics is nearly unique, in that for most research topics, we actually don’t care what the subjects say–we care about the vowel space or the relative clauses or whatever, but outside discourse analysis and some socioling. topics, we often aren’t very interested in the content, so the content is usually extremely non-sensitive.  I suspect that most studies even in Anthropology, History, Sociology, etc. discuss much more sensitive topics with their subjects, because many of the interesting research topics are sensitive (e.g. risk-taking behaviors, experiences in war zones, labor union topics, etc.), and they need the content, not the vowel space or sentence structure.  We may be similar to large parts of Psychology on the non-sensitive research, but other parts of psychology clearly study far more sensitive things.

So, my question is:  is linguistic research (on the average, and thinking mostly of in-the-lab work, not endangered language fieldwork) really less threatening and less sensitive than the average for other social sciences?  And if so, is that part of why the reviews of even extremely non-problematic research tend to be so difficult?  If so, is there anything we could do about it, to help our Human Subjects Offices understand how non-problematic most of our research is?

3 Responses to What is it that makes approval for non-threatening research so hard?

  1. Susan Fischer says:

    Sometimes in this kind of case, one can ask for expedited review.

  2. natashawarner says:

    Our projects get expedited review almost all the time–linguistics projects almost never go to full IRB at my university. But the office itself (which does the expedited reviews) has a 6-week backlog at pretty much all times. We’re grateful, though, that they’ve been very helpful to us at times when there was a drastic time constraint.

  3. Chad Nilep says:

    My first reaction was, “Yes, in-the-lab linguistic research is probably less ethically fraught than work in many other social sciences, or at least no more so.”

    On reflection, though, something else occurred to me. Biomedical intervention tends to be a model for many IRB discussions. In medical research, fieldwork – say, public health surveys – probably tends to be less invasive than lab work. In most social sciences, the opposite is probably true. That is, recording word lists in a sound booth is probably less psychologically or socially invasive than following subjects at work or visiting their homes.

    I wonder if, at some level, IRB members are primed to regard lab work as invasive? Or could it simply be that members of your IRB are primed to always challenge new proposals.

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