Bioethics Blogs

Belfast Project: No lawyers, few historians (and no IRB)

Discussions of the ill-fated Belfast Project at Boston College often frame the issue as what can happen to an oral history project in the absence of IRB oversight. But a recent account of the project in the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as subsequent discussion, suggests that the real problem was a lack of involvement by lawyers and historians.

[McMurtrie, Beth. “Secrets From Belfast.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 26, 2014.]

No lawyers

The introduction to a follow-up webcast on the Chronicle site exemplifies the framing of the controversy as one over IRBs:

How is oral history different from other forms of scholarship? What obligations do oral historians and their colleges have, for example, if a subject reveals sensitive information? Who is allowed to hear these recordings and when? And should oral-history projects be vetted by institutional review boards?

But the webcast might better have asked, should oral-history projects be vetted by lawyers?

Here’s what we learn from Beth McMurtrie’s story:

In 2001, Robert O’Neill, head of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College, told researchers Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney, “I am working on the wording of the contract to be signed by the interview[ee], and I’ll run this by [historian] Tom [Hachey] and university counsel.” But, the article explains, “Mr. O’Neill never did check with a lawyer about the wording.”

This may have been the step when the project went wrong. Indeed, the researchers see it that way. As researchers Ed Moloney, Anthony McIntyre, and Wilson McArthur put it in follow-up statement:

Following the disclosure in the current edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education that Boston College misled ourselves and the participants in the oral history project into believing that the donor contract or agreement for interviewees had been vetted by the college’s legal advisers when it had not been, we are consulting our attorneys about the legal implications.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.