Bioethics Blogs

United States of America Frees Oral History!

This morning sixteen federal agencies announced revisions to the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, effective 19 January 2018. The final rule preserves and clarifies the NPRM’s deregulation of oral history. This is a great victory for freedom of speech and for historical research.

The NPRM somewhat confusingly listed a number of activities “deemed not to be research” in §__.101, then presented the definition of research itself in §__.102. The final policy more logically defines research, then lists “activities … deemed not to be research.”

Whereas the NPRM excluded “Oral history, journalism, biography, and historical scholarship activities that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected,” the final rule offers a broader exclusion:

For purposes of this part, the following activities are deemed not to be research:
(1) Scholarly and journalistic activities (e.g., oral history, journalism, biography, literary criticism, legal research, and historical scholarship), including the collection and use of information, that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected.
[§__.102(l)(1)]

(Emphasis added, because I can.)

So freedom depends on the activity, not the discipline, with literary critics, law professors, and others who interview individuals benefiting. Another section of the announcement notes that this provision will also apply to political scientists and others who hope “to hold specific elected or appointed officials up for public scrutiny, and not keep the information confidential.”

The announcement explains the reasoning:

In these activities, the ethical requirement is to provide an accurate and evidence-based portrayal of the individuals involved, and not necessarily to protect them from public scrutiny.

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.