My HSC rant

In the US academia world, if you wish to publish anything in which any human being was used in any way for research, you must obtain approval to work with human subjects from the Internal Review Board.  And, if you wish to publish any kind of research in which human beings were not used, you must let the IRB know that you didn’t use humans.

In theory, the idea makes sense.  It’s a result of experiments like the Tuskegee Experiments, where thousands of Black men were given syphilis without their knowledge.  It’s good to try to prevent such monstrosities like that from recurring.  But, when the process to obtain approval is a tedious struggle, it’s going to hurt research in the long run.

The forms you must complete are confusing, the rules are hard to decipher, the process takes forever, and the customer service sucks.  And, that’s in addition to all of the internal organizational problems our local IRB is having.  (There have been news stories published since summer about how our local office got in trouble and is having to reorganize.)

Here’s the tragic comedy I’m currently enduring.

I want to do a discourse analysis of all the tweets that were posted to the public time line on Twitter during the last presidential debate.  I will not be talking to anyone who posted the tweets; I will merely be reading what they’ve already posted.  These tweets are publicly available, and they contain no identifying information, unless the person posed some.  So, I do not believe I am working with human subjects. I’m working with already-existing data. However, an instructor informed me that she did a similar study and had to get approval.

October 10:  I called the HSC office  to ask if I needed to get approval.  I was told that I had to send an email with my question and they would not answer it on the phone (although on their website, they do say to call with any questions.  Nice.). So, I sent the email.

October 14: I received a response in which they attached a form and told me I had to fill out the form and return it.  Once they review the form, they will tell me what the next step is.  However, the email did not contain the attachment. So I sent an reply asking for the form.

October 15: Received a response to my request with the form attached.  Discover that the form doesn’t work.  I can’t select anything.  But, if I could fill it out, my responses indicate that I don’t need HSC approval (it says so on the form!) I send an email back explaining that I can’t use the form, but I can tell I won’t need HSC approval, so can we just leave it at that?

October 20: Receive a response that said the document is protected and to read the attached document for instructions on how to unprotect it.  The attached document had 4 lines in it.  Why wasn’t that info just included in the email?  It didn’t matter, anyway, because the instructions were written for a PC and I use a Mac.  I tried to figure out how to unprotect the Word document on my Mac without success.  So, I put the file on a thumb drive and took it to a PC–only to find out their instructions didn’t work!  After about 15 minutes of playing around, I figured out how to hack the form so I could check the two stupid boxes.  I sent them an email with the attached form that will show them that I do not need to get approval and am waiting for an email response back confirming that.

I think I’d be laughing at all this if it were happening to someone else!


October 21:  Received an email telling me that I am required to submit an application to work with human subjects.  WTF???  I am not working with humans in any way.  I am reading data that is available on the Internet. This is absolutely ridiculous. It’s things like this that make me understand how graduate students can snap and shoot their textbooks off their balconies!!


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jamie on October 20, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    I feel your pain. I went through this with the CHI project last year. I know Kevin Makice did some data collection on the public timeline for Twitter. If you haven’t talked to him yet about how he got approval for that I’d see what he has to say. Plus he loves any project that involves Twitter. 🙂


  2. Posted by Will Ryan on October 20, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    The problem is their is a general lack of accountability on their end. It stands to get worse in the coming years.

    I have some terror stories.

    1) I had submitted a form and then they responded asking some minor changes. I make them and say there was one more thing that I was going to change later that evening (which I do). A week later, I get mail from them showing acceptance (it was a different cover sheet, but I thought that was just a mistake) the approved informed consent sheet was mine as well as all the others. I do the study, and later try to amend it. Well, it turned out they never actually approved me. So it took 2 months of back and forth to finally get the first submission in, then the amendment after weeks of ignoring me.

    2) I’m currently beginning month 2 of waiting for them to get back to me on a study I submitted in early August.

    The problem is that right now they are more into resolving issues of liability rather than moral obligations. I have never been satisfied with the process and I fear it is only going to get worse.


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