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Human subjects protection and oral history

A story by Beth McMurtrie in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week details how The Belfast Project, an oral history by independent scholar Anthony McIntyre and scholars at Boston College to interview members of the Irish Republican Army, became tangled in international law. McIntyre, a political scientist who was himself imprisoned for killing a loyalist during The Troubles, undertook the project with the understanding that his materials would be held in trust until the people he interviewed had died. Robert O’Neill, a librarian at Boston College also involved in the project, says he had no such understanding.

In 2008 journalist Ed Moloney published a book, Voices from the Grave, which included excerpts from McIntyre’s interviews of IRA member Brendan Hughes. Hughes describes arresting Jean McConville, a single mother who was killed in 1972 after IRA fighters suspected her of giving information to the Police Services.

In 2011 the Police Services of Northern Ireland, with help from the US Department of Justice, sought The Belfast Project’s recorded interviews for use as evidence in the still open investigation of McConville’s murder. In 2013 Boston College was ordered to turn over portions of The Belfast Project materials.

This case has potential importance for linguists, anthropologists, and all scholars who work with human subjects. McMurtrie’s piece asks what ethical obligations historians have to people they interview. This is, in my opinion, an issue of tremendous importance that should be debated are re-debated by scholars as well as the public.

Oral historians have, for some decades, argued that their work should not be subject to institutional review boards (IRB), the committees within universities and other research institutions set up to protect human subjects by reviewing plans for scientific research. The Oral History Association outlines difficulties that oral historians frequently encounter when dealing with IRBs, which are often more accustomed to biomedical research than to studies of human interaction. OHA offers suggestions for its members to make dealing with review board go more smoothly. Since 2003 the Oral History Association and the American Historical Association have argued that oral history does not meet the definition of “generalizable knowledge” in the US Department of Health and Human Service’s “Common Rule” on the protection of human subjects, and should not be subject to IRB review. Some universities and research institutions require IRB approval for oral histories, while others do not.

Some news stories about the Belfast Project focus on the legal issues involving Boston College and the Police Services of Northern Ireland. (Those issues are prominent in two pieces by On The Media, while the IRB issue gets only a passing mention at the end of the second piece.) The legal issues are important, and should be discussed by people within and outside of academia. Of equal if not greater importance for scholars, though, are the questions of our own ethical obligations to our subjects, and how to balance those with ethical obligations to the rest of society.