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Criminology and criminal justice researchers' experiences and challenges with institutional review boards

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Published onJan 17, 2024
Criminology and criminal justice researchers' experiences and challenges with institutional review boards
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ABSTRACT

Conducting research in criminology and criminal justice settings brings unique challenges involving human subjects. Prior research has examined the quality and effectiveness of Institutional Review Boards (IRB). However, research on the experiences of criminology and criminal justice researchers when interfacing with their IRBs is scant. This study seeks to fill this gap through the exploration of experiences criminology and criminal justice researchers have had with IRBs. Focus groups were conducted with 13 researchers who were members of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and the American Society of Criminology. Results revealed that participants experienced challenges centering around specific themes including: Protocol submission process; IRB lack of understanding of criminal justice research; IRB chair concerns; IRB focus on legality; and appeal policies. Recommendations for improving IRB reviews of protocols and challenges unique to criminology and criminal justice were another emerging theme. Policy implications are discussed.

Keywords: Institutional Review Boards; Criminology and Criminal Justice Research; Qualitative Research; Interviews


Social science researchers depend on academic Institutional Review Boards (IRB) to review and approve their research protocols involving human subjects. Conducting research in criminology and criminal justice settings brings unique challenges involving human subjects. Criminology and criminal justice researchers need IRB approval for their projects which often include investigations involving vulnerable populations (e.g., juveniles, incarcerated persons, victims). To advance knowledge in the field and contribute to evidence-based policies and practices, the ability of researchers to obtain IRB approval on sensitive research projects is critical. Beyond their desire to improve knowledge and policies, scholars must have their research approved by IRBs in a timely manner to achieve their required publication quota per university guidelines for tenure and promotion—publish or perish (Rawat & Meena, 2014). Yet, the relationship between academic scholars and their institutional IRBs has often been fraught with strain and has led some scholars to voice their frustration about IRB practices and lead to accusations of IRB overreach (Calfano, 2016; Musoba, Jacob, & Robinson, 2014).

Research investigations on IRBs have examined administrator viewpoints, IRB processes, scholars’ views of their ideal IRB, and knowledge that researchers possess about IRB policies (see Abbott & Grady, 2011; Hall et al., 2015; Keith-Spiegel, Koocher, & Tabachnick, 2006; Klitzman, 2011; Reeser et al., 2008; Tartaro & Levy, 2014; Whitney et al., 2008). Some researchers have begun to explore the knowledge that criminal justice scholars have about IRB policies and compliance with those policies (see Tartaro & Levy, 2014). However, questions remain regarding the exact experiences and/or challenges criminal justice and criminology scholars face when interfacing with their IRBs and what recommendations they may have to improve the IRB process. Gunnison and Helfgott (2021) employed a web-based survey of members of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and the American Society of Criminology and found that researchers experienced challenges with their IRBs such as delays, bias against their research, and reported IRB decisions that seemed to operate to protect the legal liability of the university rather than a human subjects ethics. Although the survey allowed for some open-ended responses for subjects to recall their specific experiences and/or challenges with their IRBs and offer recommendations for improvement, the analysis of qualitative data was limited by the survey questions and format. Thus, the results did not yield nuanced details to understand the nature and context of their experiences.

The absence of research deeply examining the experiences of criminology and criminal justice scholars is disconcerting given the range of barriers criminology and criminal justice scholars face when attempting to conduct research in applied criminal justice settings, such as police agencies, juvenile detention facilities, courts, jails, and prisons. These challenges have likely stymied crucial criminal justice research, however, the degree to which the IRB process may have contributed to their challenges is largely unknown. Understanding the experiences of criminal justice and criminology researchers in their interactions with IRBs and their recommendations for improving IRB practices is critical to improve relationships between academics and IRBs, efficiency, and to ensure that the focus of IRBs remains on human subjects’ ethics. This investigation follows Gunnison and Helfgott’s (2021) study to fill the gaps in the literature through interviews with criminology and criminal justice researchers, either individually or in focus groups, who volunteered to participate as part of the original study.

Importance of Institutional Review Boards

The establishment of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in the United States was imperative as they offered critical oversight over research to ensure that subjects were protected from harmful and unethical research practices. The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial in the mid-1940s, brought worldwide attention to the atrocious medical experiments imposed on concentration camp prisoners without their consent (Breault, 2006; Schrag, 2010; White, 2020). Throughout the early-mid 20th Century, unethical medical experiments were conducted on marginalized and disenfranchised individuals in the United States. For example, African-American men, as part of the infamous Tuskegee Study, which began in the 1930s, were recruited by the U.S. Public Heath Service in Alabama to take part in a study of “bad blood” (Jones, 1993). The men were not informed that had syphilis or that the purpose of their involvement in the study was for researchers to observe the progression of the disease (Jones, 1993). Additionally, the men were denied life-saving treatment for syphilis after penicillin, a cure for the condition, was available for treatment in the 1940s (Breault, 2006; Tobin, 2022). The intentional withholding of life-saving treatment for the disease resulted in death of many subjects and harm to their families (Breault, 2006; Tobin, 2022; Yoon, 1997). While Bill Jenkins, a statistician for the U. S. Public Health Service raised alarm bells about the study in 1969 to reporters, his efforts were unheeded (Seelye, 2019). The experiment continued for a few more years until another whistleblower, Peter Buxtun, successfully leaked the story to an Associated Press reporter in 1972 (Breed, 2022). After doing some digging, the AP Reporter, published an article on the study in 1972 which, only then, did the study finally terminate (Breault, 2006; Breed, 2022).

As a result of such unethical research practices by both academics and government officials, the 1974 National Research Act was passed creating the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This commission established ethical principles for research regarding humans, children, and prisoners, and implemented the establishment of IRBs at research institutions receiving federal research funds (Breault, 2006; Schrag, 2010). In 1981, the regulations for human subjects were revised and expanded and, by 1991, further rules were established for informed consent and how IRBs would operate. These rules were referred to as the Common Rule (Babb, 2020; Emanuel & Menikoff, 2011). Despite the good intentions and vital importance that IRBs have in protecting human subjects, scholars have criticized IRBs noting challenges they encounter when interfacing with their respective IRBs.

Criticisms of Institutional Review Boards

There have been several criticisms made against IRBs including “IRB overreach.” IRB overreach refers to IRBs: 1) requiring modifications to protocols which may include the revision of the methodology of the study; 2) denying researchers’ appeals to the altering of their research design, and 3) requiring to review research investigations that fall outside of their scope, such as research already approved by another IRB (Calfano, 2016; Florczak & Lockie, 2015; Klitzman, 2015; Makhoul et al., 2014; Nicholls et al., 2015; Schrag, 2010; Silberman & Kahn, 2017; Tierney & Corwin, 2007). Another critique of IRBs is that they are suffering from “mission creep” as their original focus on the protection of subjects has been replaced or hampered by their detailed attention on researchers following procedures for protocol submissions and submitting corresponding documentation (Gunsalus et al., 2007; Musoba et al., 2014; Waltz et al., 2023; White, 2007). One aspect of mission creep that many are critical of is the fact that original human subject regulations were developed for biomedical research, hence, the extension of oversight to social science research in and of itself seems to be flawed and an overreach (Hottenstein, 2018; Oakes, 2002; Stark, 2007).

One chief critique that researchers have made about IRBs is that they have shifted their focus from protecting human subjects to now protecting their organization from legal liability (Hessler, Donnell-Watson, & Galliher, 2011; Nicholls et al., 2015; Whitney et al., 2008). For example, 28 federally-funded researchers who participated in a survey regarding their views of IRBs, indicated that IRBs are more focused on the minutiae of protocols and concerned over liability more than the protection of human subjects (Whitney et al., 2008). For example, one subject (Subject 28), explained, “Many IRB members are out more to protect themselves (from possible future lawsuits) than the hullabaloo about protecting study subjects. Many make decisions that harm clients in the long run without caring at all, as long as THEY feel safe?” (Whitney et al., 2008, p. 70). These sentiments were also raised in the qualitative feedback from 22 criminal justice and criminology researchers in the Gunnison and Helfgott (2021) research investigation. One subject (Participant ID: 63) reported:

IRBs have an inherent conflict of interest. Their main function is to protect the university from lawsuits. As a result, they impose requirements on social science researchers, where there is no risk to participants (e.g., a public opinion survey on a policy issue or use of secondary data), that are mindless and bureaucratic. They seek to micro-manage the wording on every consent document. They inflict these standards on researchers even though they have none - zero - empirical evidence that they are needed or effective. Their work is never evaluated and is not evidence-based. This is an example of excessive regulation, rooted in a mistrust of researchers and a desire to expand their authority and protect their position (Gunnison & Helfgott, 2021, p. 11).

Another participant (Participant ID: 30) stated, “The IRB tends to reject research that may open the university to liability, which interferes with the ability of criminologists to conduct research since we study sensitive issues” (Gunnison & Helfgott, 2021, p. 11). Perhaps the shift to focusing on legal liability more than human subjects’ safety is warranted as IRBs and individual members of IRBs have faced lawsuits (Hoffman & Berg, 2005; Icenogle, 2003). Lawsuits filed against IRBs and IRB members have yet to be successful in court though the tide could change as more lawsuits are filed alleging negligence of care or violations of privacy and/or confidentiality (Hoffman & Berg, 2005). Beyond IRB and their members, researchers are also subject to lawsuits (Jansson, 2003). Thus, the IRB focus on legal liability could be a response to concerns of universities, individual IRB members, and researchers.

Another main critique that social science researchers have levied against IRBs is concerns over censorship (Bledsoe et al., 2007; Feeley, 2007; Katz, 2007; Schneider, 2015). As Feeley (2007, p. 769) explains, “They [IRBs] have taken on the form and function of censorship boards.” Katz (2007) claims that IRB censorship has occurred for over 20 years and adds, “Acting under a mandate to protect human subjects of research, institutional review boards (IRBs) have become nationwide instruments for implementing censorship” (p. 797). Because of their power to permit research that meets their satisfaction to be approved, IRBs operate as “bureaucratic gatekeepers” (Clapp, Gleason, & Joffee, 2017, p. 25). Further, Katz (2007, p. 802) notes, “Any ‘hot button’ issue may tempt opponents of a study’s substantive arguments to reach for the IRB as a tool of repression.” Currently, in the U.S., there has been a substantial push for police reform, thus, it is very much a hot button issue (Henderson, 2020). Yet, some scholars who desire to conduct research on policing may find themselves blocked as IRB members may not hold favorable opinions of law enforcement. As one scholar (Participant ID: 107) explained:

The bias was against research on police. Some board members apparently thought that any such research as conducted by a person with a policing background himself would be bad research—in other words, they were biased against police (Gunnison & Helfgott, 2021, p. 11).

Thus, IRBs may seek to suppress research on topics that are controversial (e.g., defunding the police) or on topics they deem irrelevant or unimportant. IRBs may also block research in situations where they lack a full understanding of the topic to be explored. Furthermore, research in criminology and criminal justice also brings unique risks to researchers (Brougham & Uttley, 2017) that some IRBs may see as under their purview. “Unconventional research,” such as qualitative research including participant observation and mixed method designs (Helfgott, 2018) and overt and covert ethnographies (e.g., Ferrell & Hamm, 1998; Rice & Maltz, 2018) in criminal justice protocols is often misunderstood by IRB committee members and can result in flat out rejections or subjecting researchers to a myriad of revisions to their protocols (Lincoln & Tierney, 2004; Musoba et al., 2014; Pogrebin, 2010; Ross et al., 1999). This revising of IRB protocols by researchers to gain IRB approval has been referred to as consensual censorship (Bledsoe et al., 2007). Researchers need to adopt the changes that the IRB imposes for the protocol to be approved, therefore, researchers may engage in pushback on required modifications but will ultimately acquiesce to ensure that their research moves forward. Thus, researchers may design their research studies to gain IRB approval rather than developing a research design that is more comprehensive for answering their questions (Bledsoe et al., 2007) or may avoid pursuing certain types of research in the first place. These research blockages inflicted by IRBs have been referred to as “petty tyranny” as Feeley (2007) explains that junior faculty and graduate students subjected to stymied research projects is by no means petty and results in harm to their academic advancement or careers. This infringement on academic freedom has the potential for great harm both to individual researchers and to accumulation of research in the social sciences, particularly in criminology and criminal justice which, oftentimes, involves research designs and issues that IRB committee members do not have experience with, such as those that require a prisoner representative (Tierney & Corwin, 2007).

A final significant critique levied against IRBs is their lack of transparency (Anderson & DuBois, 2012; Florczak & Lockie, 2015; Lynch, 2018). Without standard policies or even evidence-based practices for IRB decision making, researchers may engage in research that definitely would have required IRB approval at other academic institutions but was not required at their respective institution (see Buckler & O’Neal, 2021) or researchers are left to wonder what is going on behind closed doors and how final decisions for approval or denial of a protocol are made (Anderson & DuBois, 2012; Lynch, 2018). If the IRB renders a denial decision of a protocol with no transparency as to how the decision was reached, there are often no policies are in place for a researcher to appeal, resulting in a lack of procedural and interactional justice (Heimer & Petty, 2010; Keith-Spiegel et al., 2006). The lack of procedural justice is even more outrageous if the researcher is accused of some wrongdoing by the IRB without proper notification before an investigation begins, if the researcher is prohibited from presenting their case in front of entire IRB Board, if the IRB makes outlandish claims with no opportunities for researchers to appeal such assertions, and ultimately sanctions are levied in the absence of any formal national or university policies. In essence, researchers accused of any wrongdoing by the IRB have no due process rights—the same rights that are afforded to defendants via the U.S. Constitution in the criminal justice system (Schneider, 2015). This may result in researchers having to hire an attorney, at their own cost, to resolve the matter (Gunnison & Helfgott, 2021).

Research examining the experiences of criminology and criminal justice scholars is essential given the range of challenges criminology and criminal justice scholars face when attempting to conduct their research in applied criminal justice settings. It is important to explore whether these scholars even experienced some of the aforementioned challenges. Moreover, soliciting their recommendations about how to improve IRB practices, based on their experiences, is critical to foster better relationships between academics and IRBs and to improve efficiency in the research review process. Thus, as a follow-up to Gunnison and Helfgott’s (2021) research, this investigation attempts to fill the aforementioned gaps in the literature by interviewing subjects, either individually or in a focus group, who volunteered to participate as part of the original study.

Method

Sample

The sample was comprised of a subset of participants (n=13) who elected to be interviewed following the completion of an online survey (n=89). A total of six males and seven females partook in the interviews with the participants ranging in age from 34-68 years old with a mean age of 47.7. Most of the sample was Caucasian (n=11) and (n =2) Hispanic Americans. With respect to job status, the majority identified as a faculty/researcher (n=12) and (n=1) as a Research Director. Of those identifying as a faculty researcher, the majority were Assistant Professors (n=6) followed by Associate Professors (n=4) and Professors (n=2).

Procedure

Following approval by the Seattle University IRB and appropriate permissions from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) and the American Society of Criminology (ASC), the original cross-sectional survey was administered at the same time with two distinct methods. To reach ACJS members, an email list was purchased from the organization requesting non-student members. The 42-item survey, designed in Qualtrics, was emailed to all the members in 2019 with a link to take the survey through a website with a domain name purchased for the study (irbsurvey.com). Description of the purpose of the study and consent form were provided prior to the survey questions, and the survey was designed to take in 20 minutes or less. ASC does not allow the purchase an email list of their members. However, they do sell a mailing list of addresses of ASC members. Therefore, the mailing list of ASC members was purchased requesting non-student members. It was cost-prohibitive to mail the survey. Thus, a postcard directing recipient to go to irbsurvey.com was designed and mailed three times, one-month apart in early 2019. A total of 89 participants completed the survey. Since the survey was mostly quantitative in nature, the authors wanted to further explore findings with participants as well as dig deeper into the few open-ended questions that they may have answered in hopes of gleaning detailed nuanced responses (Adu et al., 2022; Patton, 2015). Thus, at the end of the survey, participants could opt in to being part of a focus group or individual interview in an effort to further explore the experiences of social science researchers and their respective IRBs. A total of 20 participants provided either their email or phone number requesting to be a part of the follow-up study. In Spring of 2020, participants were contacted by a research assistant asking if they would be willing to participate in one of three scheduled focus groups or an individual interview with the research investigators. The interviews lasted one-hour in length and took place via Zoom software and were recorded after consent was obtained. Participants did not receive any incentives or compensation for their participation in the study. Following the focus group or interview, a research assistant transcribed the discussions.

Instrument

The research investigators utilized an interview guide to structure the focus group and individual interview questions. The interview guide functioned as a guide for the focus group questions. If participants responded that they had either positive or negative experiences, the researchers followed up with questions probing the nature of their experience. For example, if participants indicated positive experiences, probing questions were asked about details about their collaboration with their IRBs. If participants indicated negative experiences, questions were asked probing for details about their experience.  

A total of four interview sessions took place between April 17-May 15, 2020 with both researchers present at all group and interview sessions. A research instrument consisting of eleven questions was utilized to guide the conversation. The questions contained in the interview guide were as follows: 1) Could you please explain any positive or negative experiences that you have had when interfacing with the IRB?; 2) How impactful to you personally and professionally were the negative experiences?; 3) Did you have to ever consult an attorney? Explain.; 4) How long did it take for your situation to be resolved?; 5) Did you ever file a complaint? Why or why not?; 6) Have changes be made in the processing of proposals or complaints since your experiences?; 7) What recommendations can you make about IRBs as they function? What improvements would you suggest? Why?; 8) What, if any, specific issues have come up for you in submitting IRB protocols that you feel are unique to criminology and criminal justice research?; 9) Who is the prisoner representative on your university’s IRB?; 10) Have you had any experiences responding to questions specific to your research with your IRB? If so, can you explain some of the issues you have been asked to resolve in your IRB applications and any issues that you have had problems resolving?; and 11) Are there any issues you can think of that are unique to criminology/criminal justice in terms of IRB decisions?

Analyses

The researchers utilized a five-step analysis process proposed by Marshall and Rossman (2016). The first step included the transcription of the recorded interviews which was conducted by a research assistant. Second, the first author created notes and themes that emerged. Next, both authors created a list of codes based on information in the notes. Then, each author reviewed the notes and coded themes to ensure potential other themes were not inadvertently missed. Finally, after reviewing the coded themes and notes, both authors organized the interview data in alignment with these themes as well as noted sub-themes that emerged in the themed categories. The authors repeated this process several times to ensure consistency in coding and the validity of the themes and sub-themes (Patton, 2015).

Results

Participants in the focus group were vocal about what was working and not working with their respective IRBs. Several overarching themes emerged as well as sub-themes falling underneath the main themes from the focus group coded data. See Table 1 for an overview of themes and sub-themes.


Table 1: Emerged Themes

Theme

Sub-theme

Process

Portal submission, excessive details, approval, review process, decision making: ethics, research design, data security

Lack of Understanding

Comfort level, applying own opinions, PC focus, accusing the researcher, suggesting secondary data

IRB Chair

Lacking in social science knowledge, overwhelmed, administrator interference

Legality

Fear of litigation, U.S. focus legal standards, attorney IRB Chair or member

Appeals

Non-existent, weren’t sure, policy just written

Recommendations

Chair role skills, Co-Chair, financial and research support, IRB term limits, all should serve on IRB, educate and train, clear policies, improved submission


Process

One key theme emerged regarding the process of how IRBs function with participants highlighting frustrations with protocol submission as well as reviews of protocols and decision making. In regard to protocol submission, participants stated that the process was cumbersome whether it was just the actual submittal of the protocol or the hoops to jump through to prepare the protocol to be formally submitted. Participants reported:

I'm at a R-1 University with med school and just to complete all the documentation from our end is very difficult because it is set up for the med school, the whole form is set up for the med school. So, you end up having to put a lot of ‘N/A’ and then if it's not something that they feel is not applicable they’ll make you fill it out even though then you have to explain why it doesn’t apply. (Focus Group 1, Participant 2)

Our biggest issue, really, is the software package that we use to fill out the protocols; it is very cumbersome. (Focus Group 3, Participant 3)

Our application form, it’s like 16 pages long now, and a lot of it you’re skipping, you’re just checking ‘no’ or ‘N/A’ and then you go through, and you have to fill out addendum one or addendum two or whatever these addendums are that talk about existing data, working with prisoners, etc. (Focus Group 2, Participant 2)

We actually have in our application for our IRB you have to get permission from your chair, there are three specific questions the chair has to answer and one of those is “does this seem like an appropriate study?” So, he or she can just decide whether or not they agree with whatever your research is and just check “no.” (Focus Group 1, Participant 2)

Specifically, participants noted that IRBs would deviate from their focus on human subjects’ protection when reviewing protocols impacting research designs and faculty and student research projects. For example:

The researchers on the IRB want to change the research design that they get in front of them. So, they’re like: “Well, wouldn’t it be better if you did this?” So, like, butting into things that they are not supposed to, but usually they are pretty focused on human subjects. (Focus Group 2, Participant 1)

Some board members would argue methodology and, you know, others of us on the board would counter that as: it’s not our place deal with methodology, our place is: “is this is properly completed, are they managing risk, is everything set in place?” Our place is not to argue whether or not they should be using a different statistical analysis technique; that has no bearing on the board (Focus Group 3, Participant 3)

I had a student who was delayed for two years for a Master’s thesis project that wasn’t that complicated, but he was interviewing gang members and they were concerned about the safety of the student and none of the members in the review board at the time weren’t social scientists, they were from health sciences, and my student actually had to change the entire study to be able to get it approved, and it took four semesters for it to be approved. So, that was unacceptable, but the members of the board at the time, they didn’t understand the nature of that kind of research…They just held their ground, and there was no scientific rationale behind their arguments; it was like an institutional protection and it was like they were seeing the student as more of a son than a researcher, and they were not respecting the researcher’s decision to engage, voluntarily, in this kind of research (Focus Group 3, Participant 4)

Reviewers being unsure about what the difference is between ethics and methodology; sort of wanting to stop research from going forward because they would have used a different method to answer the question, or they don’t theoretically understand the background of what’s going on; rather than it be trying to actually protect human subjects. (Focus Group 4, Participant 1)

I think IRBs need to be making sure that people on their IRBs have that skill set, and whether, you know, it’s that we need to now have these people who are the ones reviewing the biological and science ones because they know that stuff, and then social science people. I just am finding that this is having more and more to do with this, then sort of, this idea of ethics, and I don’t know what’s driving that. I don’t know if it’s this fear of litigation; I don’t know what’s driving it, I can’t necessarily get my head around what is causing so many IRBs to get very tight in what they want to approve and what they don’t want to approve. If we’re going to do this, if we’re going to play this game that methodology is also going to fall within the rubric of ethical concerns, then I think you need to at least have people who understand what your research is doing, why it’s important. (Focus Group 4, Participant 2)

Another participant expressed concerns about how the focus of IRBs on data privacy, which the participant did acknowledge is important, might impact research. “I worry that the push towards higher regulation of data, which is sort of this mix of IRB and sort of IT folks combining together; that if you’re going to start requiring faculty to pay for data storage, it’s going to put a lot of faculty projects at risk” (Focus Group 3, Participant 2). Other participants decided to avoid doing any research that required IRB review partner with other researchers and use their IRBs rather than theirs. Specific comments included:

I have honestly turned down numerous research opportunities because I don't want to go to the IRB. (Focus Group 1, Participant 6)

I've decided that I don't really want to do a lot of research as a PI and so I collaborate with people at other universities who have much better system. (Focus Group 1, Participant 2)

Lack of Understanding

Several of the participants brought up concerns that IRB members would become uncomfortable with particular topics, apply their own opinions/perspectives when reviewing protocols, wanting to halt research on topics due to their lack of understanding, or even making accusations against the researcher. Comments included:

I find that in the past a lot of IRB members, because of topics, not necessarily because of anything else, start going ‘woah,’ especially within criminal justice. I’ve had to say this where we study bad guys, bad people, and uncomfortable behaviors and uncomfortable things. You know, not everything is going to be whether teachers use Pinterest in the classroom or not; we’re going to study human behaviors. That’s been something that I have found throughout my career being one of those issues with the IRB; having to explain that to them. (Focus Group 4, Participant 1)

…It was in a full IRB meeting that I just had to kind of call out the people and say, you know, ‘we are going to look at things that are going to make other people uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean just because you don't study it that it's not important.’ That’s been sort of my frustration, has been both not understanding methodology all the time, not understanding from a researcher's perspective what delays in the IRB process does to what we professionally want to do and also, just being uncomfortable with the topic is not something meant for you to go back in and, every little nitpicky thing, but it happens. (Focus Group 4, Participant 1)

I am a pretty left-wing person, I'm just letting you know, the PC of the IRB is disgusting. Not only did they not know the topic, but they apply their PC understanding to it, with disastrous results for research and for research that would really support, frankly, of reform and progressive agenda; shooting themselves in the foot (Focus Group 4, Participant 2)

They just…get nit-picky and over-procedural and bureaucratic, not because of the actual substance of what the regulations are supposed to achieve, but rather, because they are uncomfortable with the research, and that’s it. (Focus Group 4, Participant 1)

We had this person that has a background in bioethics, who is on the board, and who stood up in the middle of the meeting; not literally, more figuratively, just started talking; and really called me and one of my research partners’ research unethical in front of an IRB board and that, I mean, hearing someone say that, in front of people that evaluate my research, in a public setting, which, it just that seemed like that was crossing the line (Focus Group 2, Participant 2)

One participant expressed how an IRB administrator suggested that the researcher should simply conduct secondary research noting:

It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion by the IRB administrator that, you know, life would be easier for everybody if we just moved to secondary research for everything, or if, you know, on more controversial topics – which I don't know what that means, you know, for my students – you should be the one, as the principal investigator on those IRB applications because it will make things go easier. I won’t do either, I just won’t, for a lot of different reasons, but that has been sort of suggested, that things would go easier… just look up UCR data, you know… Can’t you just do that? Why are you having to ask people about original data? But, interestingly enough, even when we’ve had secondary data, we had problems with the IRB not understanding. (Focus Group 4, Participant 1)

Other participants explained how IRBs have blocked research in the topic areas of corrections, gangs, domestic violence, or vulnerable populations such as juveniles or sex offenders. As one participant stated, “One of my primary areas is corrections, and there is a tremendous dearth in researching jails, and I'm confident that one of the reasons there such a dearth is because of IRBs” (Focus Group 1, Participant 6). Another added, “I don’t want to work with the IRB with a criminal justice related research project involving minors” (Focus Group 3, Participant 4).

One participant noted that IRB decisions “either swing wildly to overprotection or underprotection because they don't understand the population” (Focus Group 4, Participant 2). To combat any questions or pushback from the IRB, participants would overexplain items in the protocol. One participant stated, “What I have learned to do is err on the side of caution and I over-explain everything when I am trying to get even some like...I had access to the Add Health so I had to get IRB approval to work with the Add Health and I basically over-explained everything so that there would be minimal questions or so that I wouldn’t get too much push-back just because of some on the intricacies of the stuff we look at” (Focus Group 3, Participant 2).

IRB Chair

Some of the participants stated that the IRB Chair was either lacking in social science knowledge or overwhelmed with the workload. One participant described their IRB Chair as knowing “absolutely nothing about prisons” as the Chair has a background as an engineer (Focus Group 1, Participant 6). Another participant noted that their IRB Chair is an “English professor,” thus, the Chair did not have a background in the social sciences (Focus Group 1, Participant 2). In terms of an IRB Chair being overloaded, one participant reported:

IRB does not really get a lot of support from administration or from the institution. For three years, the chair of our IRB was an assistant professor and basically, she found herself getting challenged by full professors who were submitting IRB applications because they assumed she didn’t know anything. The administration didn’t step up to back her up or anything, so she really kind of found herself fighting just to be taken seriously as chair and it was unfortunate for her. (Focus Group 3, Participant 2)

Along the lines of the administration not supporting the IRB Chair, one participant reported that the, “Provost wants us to write in the policy that he can override the IRB…that defeats the whole purpose of an IRB” (Focus Group 1, Participant 1).

Legality

It was not uncommon for participants to highlight that their IRB approached their protocols with a legal lens rather than an ethical lens. As one participant put it, “Our IRB, at this point, is scared as they can be for litigation” (Focus Group 4, Participant 1). The participant recalled how the IRB was not supportive of research that would assist the Department of Corrections and the IRB was quick to reject studies for fear of litigation stating the IRB’s response was “‘nuh-uh, what if we get sued?’…that was their big thing…it is always coming back down to litigation” (Focus Group 4, Participant 1). Another participant expressed, “I feel, at times, that IRB is going beyond the scope of sort of protecting human subjects…sort of protecting the university” (Focus Group 2, Participant 2). Concerning risk, a participant added:

I have colleagues who probably shouldn’t be in the IRB because in their mind, everything is a risk. If you’re going to shut down every piece of research unless it’s secondary research or it’s, you know, I’m asking you what your favorite potato chip is, that’s not going to help anybody with professional growth, it’s not going to help the institution grow. (Focus Group 4, Participant 1)

Moreover, a participant, who conducts cross-cultural research, described how their IRB took a legal lens with consent forms, yet with a sole bias towards U.S. standards reporting, “they just wanted to make sure that all of the U.S. legal requirements were met, but they were less interested in making sure that they had the same meaning cross-culturally (Focus Group 2, Participant 1, April 24th).

A few of the participants stated that there was an attorney who served on the IRB as a member or Chair and reported different experiences. For instance, one participant stated that the attorney member “just got in the way because they wanted to question every single little piece of everything because they didn’t understand anything that we were really doing” (Focus Group 1, Participant 4). On the other hand, another participant reported, “the chair of the IRB at my current institution is an attorney and it's all about ethics, not legal issues” (Focus Group 1, Participant 3). In this participant’s experiences, their IRB Chair adhered strictly to the intended focus of the IRB (i.e., ethics).

Appeals

Participants were probed about opportunities to appeal an IRB decision. One participant stated, “I’ve never seen like an ‘appeal an IRB decision’ [on the IRB website]. I don’t think that there is an entity that you can appeal to, except the IRB itself. I suppose that makes sense to some degree, it would be weird if the Provost could override IRB or anything like that. So, I think instead you really end up having to appeal to them and re-apply” (Focus Group 2, Participant 2). This participant highlighted the absence of a formal appeal policy and the containment of the decisionmaking process solely within the IRB itself.

Another participant stated, “I actually wrote our appeal policy last week” (Focus Group 1, Participant 1). This statement suggests that prior to 2020, there was no recourse for scholars at the university to pushback on IRB decisions. Another added, “I’ve served on the IRB here and the IRB at my previous university, and neither one of those had any process of appeal, of which I'm aware” (Focus Group 1, Participant 6). It wasn’t uncommon for participants to state that they did not know if their university had an appeal policy. As one participant noted, “Overall, I think that what happens instead of an appeal status, the IRB struggles through the application and tries to come up with some level of alternative to morph what is proposed into something that is amenable to all parties” (Focus Group 3, Participant 1). Thus, at this researcher’s university, the IRB does not flat out reject protocols, but it offers feedback and works with the researcher to amend the protocol elements so that it can get approved.

Recommendations

The focus group participants offered suggestions for improving the functioning of IRBs. Several participants focused on the IRB membership as an area that needed improvement, specifically the Chair role. One participant (Focus Group 3, Participant 3) suggested that the Chair of the IRB should be a consistent leader and possess strong leadership skills noting, “an IRB chair that is committed, that is; not necessarily a disciplinarian, but somebody that can run a meeting, I think is a big help. And then, also, somebody who can successfully herd cats and keep all these different opinions going in one direction.” While other participants suggested that a Co-Chair role be created to help support the Chair role or that financial support be given for the Chair role. For example:

I believe the IRBs need to have co-chairs, and the co-chairs need to be a social science co-chair and a natural science co-chair. (Focus Group 1, Participant 6)

Resources available to the chair should be equivalent to a department chair, in terms of course buyout release, stipend; really professionalize it. Obviously, investment in the chair is one of the most important aspects of being able to have a solid IRB and a foundation. Without adequate support and the institutional backing of a chair and a vice-chair; not necessarily of the people who sit on the IRB because I think it is very rare that they’re receiving any stipends or release time or anything like that, but, certainly, the leadership needs to be heavily invested, professionalized and receive better guidance on how to move the institution forward in a way that is pro-research. (Focus Group 3, Participant 1)

We’re a 4-4 teaching institution and our poor IRB chairs; they don’t get any type of relief or anything, so they find themselves with their 4-4 teaching load and then also the IRB requirements, and they have absolutely nothing to really give them support. When they get challenged over stupid stuff, the admin just kind of looks away and doesn’t do anything, aside from complain about how long sometimes things take. So, definitely more support and more resources available would be ideal. (Focus Group 3, Participant 2)

Other suggestions for the Chair role were that term limits should exist for that role or that a qualified IRB Chair not be rotated. Another participant recommended that everyone should serve on an IRB to better understand the process and to promote more collaboration between faculty and the board. The participant stated:

Everyone should have to serve on an IRB, maybe, because it really changes your perspective…., I just thought the IRB was trying to be a pain in the butt, everything was just so irritating, like “Can you change this?” “Can you change that?” It’s like you live to drive me nuts, I think we’ve all felt that way. I think, after serving, I really understood it, and now I talk to the IRB people very differently and more collaboratively, and I think, if there's a way to engender a more collaborative spirit there, it could be really helpful (Focus Group 2)

Additionally, other participants thought IRBs should get back to the basics to educate their members and understand their roles in the research process.

Institutional review boards around the country need to be aware of the federal guidelines for which they are obligated to follow. So that's what I would recommend, that institutional review boards need to have individuals who are educated, they have online training that you can do a course, you can be mentored by people. Whatever it takes to educate the members of the board to understand exactly what they're evaluating when they receive an application for research. (Focus Group 1, Participant 3)

The purpose of an IRB is to protect human and non-human vertebrate subjects. That's the whole purpose. It’s not to find nitpicky little things, it’s simply to protect subjects from undue harm…so just getting back to the roots of what an IRB is about. (Focus Group 1, Participant 1)

Finally, participants suggested IRBs provide clear policies and make the experience of protocol submission much less cumbersome.

They need a very specific set of policies and procedures for the IRB, and as part of that they need to include an appeals process. (Focus Group 1, Participant 1)

So, the way that our IRB works is when I first got here, they actually just had you fill out a Word document that had all the questions, which was really kind of low-brow. Now, they have a form online. The problem is, the form online didn’t save any of your information; often times it wouldn’t submit it, it would just erase everything. So, you had multiple people that were waiting until 11:59 p.m., when everything was due by midnight, and they would spend a while putting in all the information and it would all be erased, and there would actually also be no record that they had put in information. There were some individuals that tried to put in their stuff through three or four times and again, there was no record, and they went to the IRB, and they just said: “Well, we don’t have a record of it, so how do we know?” That was kind of a pain in the butt. (Focus Group 3, Participant 2)

One participant suggested a particularly software submission tool to help with the submission process noting, “We use IRBNet and that works perfectly because it’s really easy to keep track of the protocols, of the documents; I can actually go back ten years and see all the studies that I have presented with my students and all the documents are there, so it’s very convenient (Focus Group 3, Participant 4).

Discussion

Participants in the study predominately reported a range of problems with the functioning, or day to day operations of IRBs, from protocol submission, data storage, to the assignment of the Chair role. Aside from the process issues, responses in the focus groups, it appears that some IRBs are engaging in mission creep (Gunsalas et al., 2007; White, 2007). As White (2007) explains, “the problem is that any research that involves vulnerable populations, regardless of the magnitude and probability of the risks, automatically send the convoluted IRB application form before the full board, which usually leads to the manufacturing of imagined harms, overly paternalistic committee decisions, and revised protocols (p. 477). Along those same lines, previous researchers have claimed that IRBs have shifted their focus from protecting human subjects to now protecting their organization from legal liability (Hessler et al., 2011; Nicholls et al., 2015; Whitney et al., 2008). This assertion was supported by several participants in this research investigation. The finding suggests that IRBs are in need of internal or external reviews to ensure that they are operating in line with their original mission—the protection of human subjects. Additionally, participants reported that when protocols are rejected, the researcher may not be able to appeal the decision. Specifically, participants reported on either a lack of an appeal policy entirely, or a recently adopted appeal policy at their institution. This finding is consistent with the literature noting a lack of policies both in the U.S. and Canada (Nichols, 2015).

The impact of IRB decision making on research conducted in criminal justice and criminology is incalculable. Nichols (2015) reports, “studies have found that upwards of 80 percent of proposals are not approved as submitted, and a number of IRBs have suspended or completely rejected a research proposal” (p. 3). In this research investigation, it is clear that some IRBs may be engaging in censorship as reported by previous researchers (Bledsoe et al., 2007; Feeley, 2007; Katz, 2007; Schneider, 2015). Participants raised concerns about how their IRB would be uncomfortable with their topic or would apply a politically correct lens when examining protocols, and participants explained how their IRBs have blocked research in the topic areas of corrections, gangs, domestic violence, or vulnerable populations such as juveniles or sex offenders. If IRBs are indeed blocking research due to topics, then valuable evidence-based research is not being conducted which not only impacts the population the research is trying to assist but also prevents the field from evolving further. To combat this problem of censorship as well as the other aforementioned challenges, the participants offered several recommendations that could be implemented. Participants recommended specific platforms, such as IRBNet, to improve the process of protocol submission as well as the implementation of clear policies—including appeal policies. Other participants suggested that the IRB receive education and training to ensure the board retains their focus on ethics and refrains from engaging in censorship.

Additionally, participants stressed the importance of the Chair role of the IRB and that the Chair should be skilled, receive support, and be supported with a Co-Chair. There is a diversity of models (e.g., one IRB versus two IRBs) as to how IRBs operate in educational institutions, and how they function is indeed complex. For instance, some IRBs are highly organized and compensate the IRB Chair, while other IRBs are not as well-structured, or the IRB Chair may not be compensated even in the form of a course release. This may particularly be the case in smaller educational institutions. Thus, a policy addressing IRB Chair support and compensation should be nuanced to the specific institution. Moreover, participants expressed how there must be either a Chair, Co-Chair, or member with expertise in the social sciences to assist in reviewing protocols and explaining the nuances to other IRB members. This suggestion is consistent with Pritchard’s (2011) recommendations that IRB be diverse in membership with members holding a variety of expertise. Nichols (2015) reports on the Tri-Council Policy Statement in Canada which provides guidelines to IRBs, known as Research Ethic Boards (REC), as to how to evaluate research proposals that involve human subjects. According to Nichols (2015), the implementation of these guidelines has resulted in not only a more streamlined review process but also the elimination of many problems plaguing RECs, such as censorship or the altering of proposals to gain approval.

Limitations

Although this is the first research study to explore criminal justice researcher experiences and perceptions of their respective IRBs in a focus groups, it is not without its limitations. One limitation of the research was the low sample size. Since the original survey sample only contained 89 participants with only 20 participants electing to participate in a focus group, the final 13 participants who committed to be a part of the focus group represent about 14% of the original sample. Another limitation of the study is participation, or non-response, bias (Bachman & Schutt, 2023). Those participants who chose to complete the survey and opt into the follow-up focus group study did not without any incentive. The lack of incentives could have resulted in many other potential subjects deciding to not take the original survey as it was not worth their time (Groves, 2006). Further, those participants who took the survey may have felt that the topic was important to them in some way (Groves, 2006). Those participants that took the survey and then opted in the future focus group may have been motivated to discuss their IRB experiences. Additionally, it is also possible that these 13 participants are not representative of the original sample and may have opted to participate in this research investigation due to perhaps more negative than positive experiences with their respective IRBs. A final limitation of this research is the use of the focus group. It is possible that participants may not have spoken up as much as they would have liked to as they may have thought that their viewpoints were not held by other group members or due to a few participants responding quickly and in detail to interview prompts (Patton, 2015).

Implications

Criminology and criminal justice research is often inherently controversial, political, risky for human subjects and for researchers, and focused on uncomfortable subjects and difficult research questions. The original intent of IRBs for the purpose of protecting human subjects in biomedical and behavioral research and the importance of protecting human subjects in criminology and criminal justice research calls for attention to the specific research designs that are critical for knowledge production in criminology and criminal justice. Since this is the first in-depth qualitative investigation exploring criminology and criminal justice researchers’ experiences with their respective IRBs, it adds to qualitative criminology through the expression of voices and perspectives not previously heard from in this topic area.

The findings presented here suggest that the scholars in our sample, engaging in both qualitative and quantitative investigations, are being obstructed from conducting research in criminology and criminal justice on the basis of non-human subjects-related reasons such as politics, legal ramifications, and researcher risk. Concerns expressed by researchers indicating that IRBs suggest that researchers conduct secondary rather than primary data is of particular concern. It is difficult enough logistically to collect primary data and any IRB hostility to primary data collection has the potential to halt new data collection and knowledge production. Crime and criminal behavior are dynamic changing with the times (Helfgott, 2023; Milivojevic, 2021) and primary data collection is critical to development of criminological and criminal justice theory.

Criminology and criminal justice research necessarily involve methods and contexts that are uniquely focused on collecting data on sensitive in secretive topics and involves logistically difficult obstacles. The suggestions offered by the participants in this study suggest that IRBs can play a supportive rather than adversarial role that can support critical knowledge production. For example, Brougham and Uttley (2017) suggest that IRBs can play a supportive role in assisting researchers to manage potential risks to themselves and that IRBs are in a unique position to provide the novice researcher with information and caution for their own safety.

The results suggesting that researchers, in our sample, have met with obstacles involving political decisions about their research is of concern when universities are struggling with academic freedom issues (Pfeifer, 2022). This is of particular concern for criminology and criminal justice research given the saliency of the issue of systemic racism in criminal justice in the aftermath of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, the defund the police movement, calls for universities to separate from police agencies, and the political divisiveness that has permeated society, culture, and academia.

Ultimately, IRBs play a pivotal role in knowledge production and scholars depend on IRBs to serve a supportive function to protect human subjects. The policy recommendations revealed in the current study to improve IRB processes, practices, and support offer a road map for ways IRBs can improve their processes and train committee members to better understand and support criminology and criminal justice research. The current study offers a starting point to better understand the IRB experiences of criminology and criminal justice researchers and a road back on key issues including mission creep, politics, and the focus on legal protection rather than human subject risk. Future research examining the perspectives of a larger number of researchers is an important next step to better understand the extent of the issues identified in this study.

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Contributors

Elaine Gunnison, Ph.D., is a Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Criminal Justice, Criminology & Forensics at Seattle University. Her research specializations include life course criminology, female offending and corrections. Her research interests are in the areas of understanding female offending patterns such as desistance and persistence, the applicability of criminological theory to females, and offender reentry. She also has explored pedagogy in the classroom and researchers’ experiences with IRBs. She has co-authored books such as Women Leading Justice: Experience and Insights (2019; Routledge), Women, Crime, and Justice: Balancing the Scales (2017; Wiley-Blackwell), and Offender Reentry: Beyond Crime and Punishment (2013; Lynne Rienner). Her research has been published in various outlets including Crime and Delinquency, Federal Probation, Journal of Community Corrections, Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, Women and Criminal Justice, and the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, and the Journal of Prison Education and Reentry.

Jacqueline B. Helfgott, Ph.D., is a Professor and Director of the Crime & Justice Research Center in the Department of Criminal Justice, Criminology & Forensics at Seattle University. Her research specializations include criminal behavior, psychopathy, copycat crime, corrections/reentry, public safety, police-community relations, crisis intervention in law enforcement, and community/restorative justice. She is author of Copycat Crime: How Media, Technology, and Digital Culture Inspire Crime and Violence (2023; Bloomsbury), No Remorse: Psychopathy and Criminal Justice (2019; Prager/ABC-CLIO), Criminal Behavior: Theories, Research, and Criminal Justice (2008; Sage), editor of Criminal Psychology, Volumes 1-4 (2013; Praeger/ ABC-CLIO), and co-author of Women Leading Justice: Experiences and Insights (2019; Routledge), and Offender Reentry: Beyond Crime and Punishment (2013; Lynne Rienner). Her research has been published in various outlets including Criminal Justice and Behavior, Aggression and Violent Behavior, Journal of Criminal Justice, Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, and the Journal of Community Corrections, and Federal Probation.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Kim Satterfield, M.A., who served as the Research Assistant on this investigation.

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