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Student fights research board

  • Michael Carney argues that journalism projects should not face institutional review.
By MARY JO FELDSTEIN, Missourian staff
May 13, 2001
A journalism graduate student is the first to challenge an MU policy requiring research projects to be approved by a federally mandated review board.

The challenge has forced university officials to re-examine their definition of what kinds of research require governmental review. It also brings up a possible conflict between governmental review and First Amendment freedom.

The student, Michael Carney, said that requiring a governmental organization to oversee journalistic projects violates the First Amendment.

“My position is clear: Journalists should not have to seek prior approval from the government before reporting,” said Carney, a reporter and teaching assistant in the School of Journalism’s state capital reporting program.

MU faculty and students like Carney who use human subjects in their research projects are required by the university and the government to submit a research application to an Institutional Review Board for review and approval.

MU, like all institutions that receive federal funding for research on humans, is required to maintain an Institutional Review Board, whose job is to ensure that the people used as research subjects are properly advised and protected.

Carney sought IRB approval for the research component of his capstone project for his master’s degree. His application outlined how he would contact journalists and editors and ask them about the effects of presidential polling. After his application was denied, Carney began protesting the policy.

“I submitted an application for a license to practice journalism,” Carney said. “I am ashamed at myself for doing this. In hindsight, I should have never participated in this process.”

Carney said some of the requests made by the board constituted prior restraint, when work is censored before publication or broadcast. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the First Amendment bars prior restraint of journalism or other forms of free speech.

Carney said he would rather not graduate than obtain IRB approval for the project.

Carney’s challenge has prompted the MU Office of Research, which is responsible for the IRB, and faculty at the School of Journalism to discuss changing how the board handles journalistic projects. That review could also affect reviews of other research in the humanities and social sciences.

Carney’s case

When Carney submitted his application on Feb. 7 he assumed it would be stamped “exempt,” the approval given to all projects posing minimal, if any, harm to the subjects.

After waiting about six weeks, he hadn’t heard from the IRB, but he began conducting his research anyway. Carney was facing a due date — the project is a requirement for his May graduation.

Two weeks later Carney’s application was denied.

After receiving the denial, he e-mailed Michele Reznicek, IRB compliance officer, to further explain the journalistic nature of the project.

Carney said journalists usually do not promise confidentiality to sources before asking questions. They negotiate the terms of an interview based on the trust established between a journalist and a source.

In rejecting Carney’s proposal, Reznicek asked Carney to provide a sample of his questions and more information on how he would handle consent and confidentiality issues.

“They’re forcing me to change the way I interact with my sources,” Carney said. “It’s hard enough to get sources to talk to you, never mind injecting the government into that relationship.”

On April 16, Reznicek granted contingent approval to Carney if he would advise subjects they could contact the IRB for more information on human-subject research. He refused, on the ground that no government agency should have review power over journalistic work.

Two days later, Reznicek revoked the contingent approval and informed Carney he had violated state and federal law by conducting research without the board’s approval.

The problem behind the problem

The IRB’s rules have been applied for decades to other forms of research, such as medical and psychological studies. Then, late last year, MU’s campus IRB underwent an audit by the federal oversight board, the Office for Human Research Protection.

The audit was prompted by a 1998 ruling by MU’s health sciences IRB that Jack Curtis, a cardiologist at University Hospital, had failed to obtain his patients’ consent for a study that resulted in an article he published in 1996.

MU is not the only campus under scrutiny. In early 2000, research facilities were shut down at Duke University for four days when the school was found to be in violation of federal regulations. The University of South Florida was audited after a medical professor conducted unapproved experiments on human eyes. At Brown University, professors were monitored after a complaint regarding the university’s prison research.

Since MU’s audit began, the IRB has written an official set of policies and made stronger efforts to educate researchers and faculty about which projects need approval, said IRB board member Michael Kramer.

Kramer said that since the audit began, the IRB has been “pickier” and “more careful” when reviewing research applications.

Reznicek has to review about 350 projects a month. Some scholars have complained that, since the audit began, approval time has taken so long it has compromised their research.

“The biggest problem is it takes too long to get approval, and it’s slowed up dissertation research as a result,” said Pam Benoit, chair of the communicationdepartment.

But some faculty members at the journalism school said tougher enforcement does more than delay research; it infringes on their First Amendment rights.

“As journalists, we are asking an outside organization, which in this case is an arm of the federal government, to approve or disapprove of a journalistic project,” said Stuart Loory, a journalism school professor and one of Carney’s faculty advisers.

Possible solutions

Under a proposed IRB policy revision circulating among university lawyers, administrators and faculty members at the journalism school, certain projects would not have to undergo IRB review because they do not fall under the federal government’s definition of research.

The revised policies would not be limited to journalism projects. Communication projects and any others that fall outside the federal definition of research would not be subject to IRB review.

Associate Vice Provost Robert Hall, who oversees the institutional review process, said the regulations are already written. MUis trying to “apply the IRB regulations in the most efficient and fair manner possible,” he said.

The determination of whether a project needed review would depend on the project’s research methods and where the researcher intended it to be published. Projects deemed reviewable research will continue to be sent to the campus board for review.

Hall and Reznicek have both said they have no interest in reviewing journalism.

In an e-mail to Loory, Hall said he would be comfortable allowing the school to decide what is journalism and what is research as Loory has requested.

But the journalism school itself is divided about the difference between what is journalism and what is research.

Esther Thorson, associate dean for graduate studies, would not comment specifically on the Carney case, but said that under the journalism school’s current guidelines for master’s projects, the projects should go to the IRB.

“If it’s a research component, under the current system it seems pretty clear it should go to the IRB,” Thorson said.

Loory said projects such as Carney’s are research, but they do not fall under the government’s guidelines for research that has to go to the IRB.

The journalism faculty also has not agreed on who should decide which projects go to the IRB.

The students’ own faculty advisers should decide, Loory said. He said faculty members could make that decision about their own projects.

Thorson said the guidelines should be clear enough that participants know which projects need to be sent to the IRB.

She said the graduate faculty needs to sit down and discuss whether the master’s project guidelines should change.

“I think now that the IRB has gotten much more strict, I think it’s time we look at it, and I hope we do that next fall,” Thorson said. “We could say it could become some sort of scholarly project that’s more journalistic in nature.”

Carney never received IRB approval but he will graduate. After discussions with Thorson and Hall, he wrote for his research paper an analysis of the IRB and how it could affect journalism. He will also include, as an appendix to his project report, about 50 pages of interviews he conducted without IRB approval.

After graduation, Carney will join Reuters, an international news agency, as a reporter stationed in Jerusalem.

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