IRB and (social) information research

Having returned from CHI and the CHI2010 microblog research workshop, I’m jazzed–new problems to tackle, studies to run.  In other words, the conference did just what it should; it gave me ideas for new research projects.

One of these projects is time-sensitive (I can’t go into detail because doing so will bias the results.  More on that later.)  As they put it on the Twitter search page, it’s what’s happening right now.  More seriously, the questions need to run within a few days of CHI’s end.  But the study will involve asking real people a few questions.  For a researcher at a university, this means that I must get human subjects approval from my local institutional review board (IRB).

It’s easy to kvetch about IRB’s.  See the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s piece, Do IRB’s Go Overboard? In fact, I’ve found the IRB officers at my institution to be extremely helpful, so I’m not going to kvetch (thinking of strategic ways of posing IRB applications recently led me to the very interesting IRB Review Blog that offers nuanced, substantive reflections on the subject).

As anyone who has sat through a university’s research ethics training knows, IRB’s were created in the wake of several odious and damaging studies.  This motivation is clear and impeccable.

But for those of us working in research related to information use, especially in domains such as IR, HCI, and social informatics broadly construed, the risk of damage or exploitation of subjects is often (though not always; privacy issues can be problematic) minimal.

But more interestingly, I think our work challenges the basic model that underpins contemporary research practice in the university.

My point in writing this post, is not to argue that we should occupy a rarefied, unsupervised domain.  But recently I’ve dealt with several particular matters that suggest that research on information behavior (mostly HCIR work) pushes some matters to the fore that I think will soon be more general.  The following is a brief list.  I invite elaborations or arguments.

  1. crowd-sourced studies.  Services like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk offer a huge opening for IR research, as an upcoming SIGIR workshop makes clear.  What is the status of turkers with respect to human subjects approval?  In a future post I’ll describe in detail my own experience shepherding an MTurk-based study through university approval channels.
  2. search log analysis.  This isn’t a new problem wrt to IRB, and it definitely does raise issues of privacy.  But I wonder where more broadly informed studies of user behavior fit into this picture.  As an example, I was recently given permission to use a set of query logs without human subjects approval.  These logs were already in existence; I got them from a third party.  However, in a new study I want to collect logs from my own system.  Initial interaction with IRB led to the decision that this work must go through the application process.  Likewise, clickthrough data raised red flags.
  3. real-time user studies.  As I mentioned above, I’m in a situation where I need to collect information (essentially survey data) from Twitter users now.  Until very recently the subject of this “survey” didn’t exist, and it won’t exist in any meaningful sense for long.  I anticipate that this issue will be common for me, and perhaps for others.

Again, my point in writing this is not to say that I should have carte blanche to do research outside of normal channels.  What I am saying is twofold:

  1. Research on information interactions is pushing the limits of the current human subjects/IRB model used by most universities.  This is evidenced by unpredictable judgments on the status of projects.
  2. I think the community of researchers in “our” areas would do well to consider strategies for approaching IRB and other institutional hurdles.  We don’t want to game the system.  But I think the way we describe the work we do has an impact on the status of that work.  If current models are going to change, it would be great if we could (by our interactions with relevant officers) influence those changes in a positive way.