History and Art History
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Zachary Schrag Helps Changes IRB Rules for Historians

Ethicalimperialism

George Mason historians, particularly Professor Zachary Schrag, have played an important role in amending federal regulations that will make it easier for historians and journalists to conduct oral history interviews.

In January, sixteen federal agencies announced revisions to regulations that protect human subjects from harmful research. The regulations in question date to 1974, when they were written to prevent abuses in medical research. But they were interpreted broadly to cover all sorts of academic research. As a result, scholars seeking to interview “human subjects” were required to gain approval from the Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) that exist at every research university. Starting in the 1990s, these IRBs often imposed inappropriate restrictions on historians, such as requiring advanced approval for each question they might ask in an interview, or demanding that historians destroy the recordings of interviews.

Many historians argued that such restrictions interfered with their ability to conduct oral history, and that history should be excluded from review by the IRB. Mason historians were among the leading advocates for reform to the regulations. In the early 2000s, Professor Roy Rosenzweig, who was then serving as vice president for research of the American Historical Association (AHA), helped to track university policies and coordinate reform efforts. Rob Townsend, who was simultaneously completing his PhD at Mason and working as AHA assistant director for research and publications, also mapped federal policy and advocated for change.

Professor Zachary Schrag was a particularly engaged participant in the debate over the regulations. Schrag first became aware of the IRB process when conducting oral history interviews for his first book, a history of the Washington metro. As he began working with other oral historians similarly struggling with IRBs, Schrag found himself wondering about the history of the IRB process itself: Why were IRBs reviewing non-medical research in the first place? Why had policy makers written legislation and regulations whose applicability to non-medical research was unclear, and how had scholars reacted? These questions launched a research project that produced several scholarly articles and, in 2010, Schrag’s second book–Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009.

While conducting his research, Schrag maintained an active interest in contemporary policy debates. In 2006, Schrag founded the Institutional Review Blog, providing a centralized repository of news and commentary about IRB oversight of humanities and social science research. And he used his new knowledge of the history of IRBs to argue that the current regulatory framework was inappropriate. Schrag wrote articles for the Washington Monthly and American Historian, was quoted in the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education coverage of the issue, and was interviewed on the Kojo Nnamdi show alongside the director of the Office for Human Research Protections.

In 2011, when the federal government announced that it would consider revising the rules, it cited Professor Schrag’s research. The government cited him again when it gave notice of proposed rule-changes in 2015. Finally, on January 18, 2017, the government adopted a new rule that formally exempted oral history and journalism from the IRB process. The change is schedule to go into effect on January 19, 2018.

Professor Schrag is quick to cite the work of many other historians and organizations that also played a role in promoting the rule changes. And, displaying the same scholarly exactitude that led to his interest in IRBs, he cautions that we shouldn’t “equate [my] inputs with causation.” But it is clear that Schrag played a central role in producing and publicizing new knowledge about an issue of concern to the broader community of humanities and social science researchers.

And, after years of advocacy by Schrag and other members of the Mason History department, it is also apparent that the rule changes are a welcome reward. Announcing the new regulations in what the Oxford University Press Blog called a “blog post heard ‘round the oral history world,” Professor Schrag declared the outcome “a great victory for freedom of speech and for historical research.”

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