In her contribution to the PS symposium, Melissa Michelson argues that “real-world practitioners” will often know more about relevant ethics and law than will the members of an IRB.
[Melissa R. Michelson, “The Risk of Over-Reliance on the Institutional Review Board: An Approved Project Is Not Always an Ethical Project,” PS: Political Science & Politics 49, no. 02 (April 2016): 299–303, doi:10.1017/S104909651600024X.]
Michelson’s essay is a commentary on the Montana postcard fiasco, also mentioned by Yanow and Schwartz-Shea. Michelson notes that a New Hampshire version of the experiment had been deemed exempt by the Dartmouth IRB, and that generally IRBs are the wrong tools to monitor such research.
There were clear potential consequences that the researchers should have considered. Sending postcards to a large portion of the electorate in such a close race should have raised red flags about the possibility of altering the outcome of the election. Sending postcards with partisan information in a nonpartisan judicial race in a state that had recently endured dark-money scandals should have raised red flags about how the recipients of the mailers would react to outside money coming into their state. Sending postcards linked to elite out-of-state universities should have raised red flags about how the voters of Montana would react to being the guinea pigs in a research experiment.
None of these concerns was likely to be revealed through the IRB process. IRB members are not likely to be experts in electoral law, and it is unreasonable to assume that they would have noted the possible illegal aspects of the experimental proposal.