6.7.1 The IRB is a floor, not a ceiling

Many researchers seem to hold contradictory views of the IRB. On the one hand, they consider the IRB to be a bumbling bureaucracy. Yet, at the same time, they also consider the IRB to be the final arbitrator of ethical decisions. That is, they seem to believe that if the IRB approves it, then it must be OK. If we acknowledge the very real limitations of IRBs as they currently exist—and there are many of them (Schrag 2010; Schrag 2011; Hoonaard 2011; Klitzman 2015; King and Sands 2015; Schneider 2015)—then we as researchers must take on additional responsibility for the ethics of our research. The IRB is a floor not a ceiling, and this idea has two main implications.

First, the IRB is a floor means that if you are working at an institution that requires IRB review, then you should follow those rules. This may seem obvious, but I’ve noticed that some people seem to want to avoid the IRB. In fact, if you are working in ethically unsettled areas, the IRB can be a powerful ally. If you follow their rules, they should stand behind you should something go wrong with your research (King and Sands 2015). And, if you don’t follow their rules, you could find you are out on your own in a very difficult situation.

Second, the IRB is not a ceiling means that just filling out your forms and following the rules in not enough. In many situations you as the researcher are the one who knows the most about how to act ethically. Ultimately, you are the researcher and the ethical responsibility lies with you; it is your name on the paper.

One way to ensure that you treat the IRB as a floor and not a ceiling is to include an ethical appendix in your papers. In fact, you could draft your ethical appendix before your study even begins in order to force yourself to think about how you will explain your work to your peers and the public. If you find yourself uncomfortable while writing your appendix, then your study might not strike the appropriate ethical balance. In addition to helping you diagnose your own work, publishing your ethical appendices will help the research community discuss ethical issues and establish appropriate norms based on examples from real empirical research. Table 6.3 present empirical research papers that I think have good discussions of research ethics. I don’t agree with every claim by the authors in these discussions, but they are all examples of researchers acting with integrity in the sense defined by Carter (1996): in each case, the researchers (1) decide what they think is right and what is wrong; (2) they act based on what they have decided, even at personal cost; and (3) they publicly show that they are acting based on their ethical analysis of the situation.

Table 6.3: Papers with interesting discussions of the ethics of their research.
Study Issue addressed
Rijt et al. (2014) field experiments without consent
avoiding contextual harm
Paluck and Green (2009) field experiments in developing country
research on sensitive topic
complex consent issues
remediation of possible harms
Burnett and Feamster (2015) research without consent
balancing risks and benefits when risks are hard to quantify
Chaabane et al. (2014) social implications of research
using leaked data files
Jakobsson and Ratkiewicz (2006) field experiments without consent
Soeller et al. (2016) violated terms of service