See also Ethics, Privacy and surveillance.
It is interesting to compare the anti-IRB sentiments below, which often complain that the conceivable harms of social and behavior research are negligible, versus arguments made by privacy advocates, to whom any individual data is potentially harmful. Are they neglecting privacy harms? Are privacy harms limited when we’re talking about scientists and not companies or governments?
Hamburger, P. (2004). The new censorship: Institutional review boards. The Supreme Court Review, 6, 271–354. doi:10.1086/scr.2004.3536972
An interesting argument that federal mandates that funded research go through Institutional Review Boards are unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment. The First Amendment was originally intended to protect against licensing requirements: laws requiring new books or pamphlets to be licensed by a governmental authority before publication. An IRB is the research equivalent of this, and Hamburger argues that Congress and federal funding agencies cannot impose a licensing requirement through the back door of funding conditions. Hamburger also argues for the existence of all kinds of chilling effects on research, giving anecdotes of researchers who gave up on certain ideas because of the difficulty of wading through IRB bureaucracy, and arguing that constraints on research that may be embarrassing or stigmatizing limits conduct that would be considered perfectly normal by, say, a journalist. It’s hard to quantify the chilling effect or give systematic evidence of its existence, except through anecdote, which weakens the case, but a stronger case would be very difficult to develop.
Note that the key is the requirement for prior IRB approval – Hamburger does not think it unconstitutional to, say, make researchers liable if they should harm someone through research, for which they could be sued.
Dingwall, R. (2008). The ethical case against ethical regulation in humanities and social science research. Twenty-First Century Society, 3(1), 1–12. doi:10.1080/17450140701749189
Questions the common origin story of IRBs, and suggests their growth into the humanities and social sciences is a recent phenomenon, driven more by a desire to make research feel legitimate than by actual ethical problems. Harms from social science research are often limited, and Dingwall gives examples of ridiculous requirements, such as an IRB requiring a “linguist seeking to study language development in a preliterate tribe” to “have the subjects read and sign a consent form”. “The increased regulation of HSS research has coincided with the rise of a surveillance society”, so while government agencies can gather large data unchecked, those seeking to uncover wrongdoing or investigate marginalized groups are severely limited by needless IRB rules: “How helpful is it when the only ethnographers of Islamic youth in the UK are undercover police or security service agents?” Dingwall is concerned that over-regulation will limit the voice of vulnerable groups, who end up being avoided in research because of the IRB difficulties of studying them, and ossify ideas instead of encouraging dissent.