composition and research ethics

An interesting question on the WPA list regarding the publication of research involving human subjects in composition courses. Typically, what we are talking about here is something like the following: students in an FYC class interview people or do a survey; they include the results in a research paper; and then publish their papers on the public web and/or send the results to a relevant public official (e.g., an administrator at the college, their political represenatives, etc.).  It's not hard to imagine research that would be unethical and damanging, but then again it's not hard to imagine essays that would not be "research" that would still be unethical and damaging. For example, hypothetically a student could write an essay about his/her roommate's sexual activities. And maybe the student would get an F on the paper, but the student could still publish that paper online on his or her own.

What we have here is a clash of two competing sets of ethics. The IRB approaches its ethics as a categorical imperative to be applied universally to all "research" undertaken under the auspices of the university. So there are your two limits. What constitutes research? And what activities are undertaken as part of the university? For example, if I did some large scale survey for my research, I would need IRB approval. If, as a citizen and parent, I organized a survey through my PTA and wrote a report to the school board, would I need IRB approval because I am an employee of the university? I don't think so. How about if I put a poll on my blog about who you think will win the Super Bowl? What if the poll is about which kind of cell phone you use or what social media you like? If I get close enough to my research area do I suddenly need approval? Or is my blog beyond the auspices of the university? (n.b. Since an online poll like that is wholly unscientific, I don't think it could ever be considered "research." Certainly no journal would ever accept such a survey as evidence of anything.)

But that's just one side of the ethical clash. The other side is disciplinary ethics, where we recognize the value of writing to real audiences and we encourage students to participate in the public sphere (problematic term, I know). From this perspective, the requirement of approval from an IRB threatens this ethical committment by making this goal of publication practically unachievable (unless an IRB is going to be able to approve 1000 research proposals in a two-three week span). While every IRB is different, I think in general their intentions are good (no need to complete the homily). They would like to teach students about ethical research practices. I think writing a proposal to an IRB would make for an interesting, real world writing assignment. The IRB would have to have the logistical resources to make it possible for students to propose and carry out research within the scope of about half a semester. That would probably mean establishing a subcommittee to deal specifically with these requests.

What's interesting to me though is how social media really intensifies this whole matter. Suddenly it becomes so easy for students to publish their research outside of the classroom. Suddenly the hypothetical goal of having students participate in the public sphere as writers becomes easily achievable. It raises interesting questions about the limits of the university to review their students' speech acts. If a student does research for a paper in a class, and the professor has no intention of publication as part of the course, then general practice states that no IRB review is necessary. But what if that student, after the course has concluded, decides to publish that paper on a blog? Should the IRB start reviewing every research project in every course?

The definitions of public and private, as we know, are starting to blur, as is our conception of publication. There are research practices that undeniably can benefit from IRB review. But the grey areas are growing rapidly.