Institutional Review Boards and Oral History: An Update

The best way to characterize current federal policy on the protection of human subjects in research, Institutional Review Boards (IRB), and oral history methods is that regulatory changes are pointed in the right direction, but are still in flux.

As part of the proposed changes to the common rule, interview methods like oral history which preserve the unique perspective of an individual and do not lead to systematic, “generalizable knowledge” are exempted from the definition of research for purposes of IRB review. Here is the specific language with our highlights:

“(l) Research means a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge. Activities that meet this definition constitute research for purposes of this policy, whether or not they are conducted or supported under a program that is considered research for other purposes. For example, some demonstration and service programs may include research activities.

 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.”[ ]

The implementation of these regulations has been delayed twice, first in January 2018 and again in June 2018. They are now supposed to take effect January 21, 2019.

However, as an interim measure, three “burden reducing” components of the proposed rules can go forward. One of these is the implementing the revised definition of research that exempts oral history and other scholarly activities as noted above. Here is the relevant section of the Federal Register indicating that these burden reducing provisions may go forward:

IRBs can implement the burden-reducing provision that exempt oral history projects immediately. For researchers at institutions where oral history does not already have an exemption from review, we recommend bringing these changes to the attention of your IRB and request implementation of the exception for oral history as indicated in the regulations.

We continue to monitor these developments and keep the oral history community informed of new developments.


Louis M Kyriakoudes and Kristine McCusker, co-executive directors, the Oral History Association

Scroll to Top