Institutional Ethics for Research in a New Academy

amysquareI’ll be around Morehead City this year for the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, finally with some post-dissertation time on my hands – and decided to finish a project looking at shifting baselines. Part of this investigation is to find out what people think about trends in the tournament since its creation in 1957 – fish size, difficulty in catching one, etc. It’s a small project involving a one-page survey but I decided that since ethics are important, I would run the survey through an institutional review board anyway.

Problem is, since I am post-dissertation and this is an independent project, I no longer fit into any of the categories of people who should be reviewed by my institution’s IRB: student, faculty, research staff, or administrator. I’ve heard this complaint from other community groups hoping to deploy surveys or get volunteers to evaluate their experiences in citizen science, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it firsthand. So if one does desire ethical oversight outside of an academic institution, where does one turn? I have a few thoughts, not of them tested, but I’d like to see the world of ethics expand beyond its institutional boundaries to match the expanding scientific boundaries of public science.

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Ethics, Interdisciplinarity, and the Institutional Review Board

from batmancomic.info

Say your local Lions Club wants to hold a focus group to determine what the community thinks would be the best way to direct community service efforts? What if you, as a blog writer, want to survey your readership about their demographics? What if the local food group wants to stand in front of a grocery store surveying people where they get their food from? What if an independent scholar wants to interview people for their next book? These are all real-world applications of social science that may have significant positive impacts to the community involved. But are they responsible to anyone for ethical behavior? Should they be? If they were University scholars, they’d be subject Institutional Review Board oversight. No IRB approval means no publishing and no funding.

Even in the university setting, what if a scholar decides to cross disciplines and use some social science methods? Are they subject ot IRB review? Say fisheries biologists want to interview fishers about their knowledge of fish stocks and aggregations or an agricultural extension agent wants to survey local farmers where they get their seed? The what-if’s could go on forever. And they are all in the ethical grey area.

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