Rhetorical Strategies for Working with Institutional Review Boards

Elizabeth L. Angeli and Z. Koppelmann

Computers and Composition Online


Brief Overview of the IRB

Research review boards began partially in reaction to the Tuskegee syphilis study in which researchers, acting unethically, misled African American men from Tuskegee, AL with syphilis who participated in a research study. Researchers told the men that they would receive medical treatment for their syphilis, when, in fact, the participants were not receiving treatment for their disease. James H. Jones writes, “The ultimate lesson that many Americans saw in the Tuskegee Study was the need to protect society from scientific pursuits that ignored human values” (14).

Congress responded to this need in 1974 by passing the National Research Act that created the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This body oversees IRBs, which are found at research institutions, including universities, colleges, and hospitals. IRBs’ jurisdictions, therefore, cover a wide variety of different types of research. Hospitals, for example, typically conduct experiments and biomedical research. Similar to the diverse research projects conducted in the university, researchers in the liberal arts have started researching in the medical workplace to contribute to medical communication (Barton; Eisenberg, Murphy, Surcliffe, Wears, Schenkel, Perry, and Vanderhoef; and Teston). Therefore, the IRB is responsible for overseeing many types of research projects in different settings, and this variety can often lead to misunderstandings between the IRB and researchers.

IRBs are concerned with human subject research; any research that is not “human subject research” does not need IRB review and approval. IRBs view human subject research as research that focuses on humans as subjects, not research that focuses on information provided by humans. For example, when a researcher interviews experts on ancient Roman report writing, the details provided by the experts do not constitute human subject research. When the same researcher interviews the same experts about how their findings and analysis have changed how they view modern civil engagement, the research may require IRB approval because the interview focuses on the experts as humans, not as experts in a field of study.

To protect human subjects, IRBs take a very broad view of research. When an IRB board reviews an application, it does not look at that one research project in a vacuum; it attempts to place each research project within a larger context of research. As part of this larger context, an IRB sees all human subject research as risky, and, therefore, to protect all involved in the research, review boards often consist of many different experts, including lawyers, academics, and even local community representatives. As a result, applications are read by “a complex audience, most of whom are probably unfamiliar with the traditions and practices of composition research” (Anderson 269). However, IRBs and RC researchers often have different understandings of “research,” a concern perhaps amplified by the ever-evolving nature of teaching and researching writing and the publication of writing research.