Why have a formal Human Subjects Research policy?
The Ronin Institute is built on two core principles: truth and empathy. Pursuit of the truth is a bedrock principle, but scholarship does not take place in a vacuum. We have a duty of care to consider how scholarship is performed, and to collectively ensure it is performed in ethical and humane ways, especially when it involves other people.
US-based academic institutions have “Institutional Review Boards” (or IRBs – they go by various other names in other countries; in the European Union they are called “ethics committees”) whose role is to review studies involving people or their data (“human subjects” in institutional lingo). IRBs cover not just research that involves direct interaction with people, but also data collected via surveys with people.
The entire IRB process has been formalized and codified by many US Federal agencies, such as the US National Science Foundation and the US National Institutes of Health, that are typically implemented with legalistic and bureaucratic rules. Because IRBs can be time-consuming to set up and run, their very nature indirectly performs a form of gatekeeping on the kinds of research that can be published.
Thinking critically about the ethical issues raised by human subjects research very much aligns with the Ronin Institute’s core value of empathy. Furthermore, the ability for some Research Scholars to publish and fund their research at all often requires IRB approval, and enabling scholars to do that work is very much in keeping with our core mission of supporting their scholarship.
We are therefore attempting to design our ethics review process to keep the core focus on the reason IRBs exist in the first place: to prevent harm, while both conforming with all relevant US legal codes, and minimizing the bureaucratic aspects as much as possible. Ultimately we want Research Scholars to carefully reflect on ethical issues surrounding research involving human subjects, rather than viewing this merely as a set of bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
To this end, we have developed the following Ronin Institute Human Subjects Research policy. We require all Research Scholars to abide by his policy, whether or not you are currently planning to do human subjects research. Even though these considerations may be irrelevant to the work of many Research Scholars (research in theoretical physics or musicology come to mind), it is important for all scholars to be aware that the potential exists for a formal review of research involving human subjects.
Being a legal document, we realize it may not be obvious how the policy below will work in practice, and we are currently developing a plain-language interpretation and will publish it alongside the legal version.