Letter/Observer Forum

Research as Free Speech?

Elizabeth A. Yeater and Geoffrey F. Miller’s May/June 2014 Observer article on sensitive-topics research describes their Sisyphean attempts to convince their institutional review board (IRB) that questionnaire research on topics such as trauma and sex does not pose more than minimal risk. They dutifully listed the IRB’s objections, which persisted despite their providing empirical evidence that the objections were unfounded. And they wrote that they “hope that these kinds of participant-reaction studies can help researchers fight against the IRB ‘mission creep’ happening in many of our research institutions.”

But what if an IRB’s concealed motive is to protect its parent institution from potentially embarrassing publicity or frivolous lawsuits? In that case, one would predict that providing more evidence would only lead to new objections, and this does appear to be consistent with Yeater and Miller’s experience.

Academic researchers provide higher quality information in their journals than journalists do in the popular media, and questionnaires are less intrusive than “if it bleeds, it leads” interviews at disasters and crime scenes. Hence, it would appear that the kinds of research Yeater and Miller are concerned about fall under the First Amendment protections of journalism.

I find myself wondering why no researcher has approached the ACLU to test this reasoning in court. Perhaps some senior researcher who is approaching retirement and can put aside career concerns — or perhaps APS itself — could initiate such an action. As the authors point out, there are social costs to not studying abuse — and, I would add, politics, religion, sex, hypnosis, suicide, and other sensitive topics.

Jefferson M. Fish, APS Fellow
St. John’s University, New York City


Actually IRB’s are a form of “prior restraint”. Hamburger argues they are unconstitutional and I agree. The ACLU should take this up. I have raised this question with APA Scientific Affairs and they will not touch it.

Hamburger, P. (2007). Getting permission. Northwestern University Law Review, 101(2).

Thanks for citing the Hamburger article. It is a terrific reference, and is available online.
If APA Scientific Affairs won’t touch it, I guess the question is, “Who will bell the cat?”

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