When research is speech, should it be regulated?

Consider a study that has the following characteristics:

1. The procedure will consist of the researcher telling people things and/or asking them questions, and recording their responses in some fashion.

2. The participants are all legal adults, and are not drawn from any population or setting that compromises their ability to give consent (e.g., prisoners or the severely mentally ill).

3. The participants are all free to decline to participate or to discontinue participating after they start. “Free” means that if they decline or discontinue, they will face no negative consquences (relative to if they had never been invited to participate in the first place) .

4. Everything the researcher says to the participant must be true. The researcher cannot deceive people, and the researcher cannot make promises or commitments that will not be kept in good faith.

5. At the start of any interaction with participants, the researcher will identify him- or herself as such.

6. The researcher will not break any applicable laws.

If an investigator certifies that a study meets these criteria, should the government or a university scrutinize and regulate it any further?

Under the current IRB regulatory system, if a researcher wants to ask people some questions and find out their answers, the researcher has to jump through a whole lot of hoops and wait for various administrative delays. You have to complete pages and pages of paperwork, which includes submitting all of the questions you want to ask; wait a period of time (often weeks or longer) for administrators and IRB members to review the application, which will include somebody reading over the questions and deciding if you are permitted ask them; obtain consent in writing (unless it’s waived, which only happens under narrow and unusual circumstances); and if your inquiry takes longer than a year, go back to your IRB annually to get your permission renewed.

Yet if the researcher’s interactions with participants only involve talking with them, isn’t it just speech (you know, the free kind)? There has been a movement in recent years to clarify that fields like journalism, oral history, and folklore are exempt from IRB oversight. Unfortunately, the debate is being waged on the wrong terms: whether these fields produce “generalizable knowledge,” rather than whether their activities are protected by the First Amendment.

I think it’s fair to ask whether anybody doing #1 above is engaging in protected speech, regardless of whether they are a journalist or a political scientist or anything else; and if it’s speech, whether the government and universities ought to treat it accordingly. (I added nos. 2-6 to address some common and reasonable boundaries on free speech; e.g., we regulate speech to children more carefully; we don’t protect fraud; etc.) I’ll admit there may be something I’m missing out on — some way that a researcher could harm people with questions — besides boring them to death, of course. Sadly, the standard argument for regulation rests upon comparisons to Nazi war crimes. It would be nice to hear the advocates of regulation give a serious response to the free speech and academic freedom issues.

Should we fire all the adjuncts (and hire them back for real)?

I just came across a thought-provoking interview with Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP. The video is titled Twilight of Academic Freedom. It deals with the consequences of increasing numbers of “contingent faculty” in higher education — the adjuncts, visiting professors, instructors, and various other titles for instructional staff who do not have the protections of tenure.

Right now, many universities are looking for ways to save money, and one way to do that is to hire fewer tenure-related faculty and shift the teaching burden onto adjuncts who are hired for as little as the uni can get away with paying. (It’s worth noting that this trend started well before the current recession, though I wouldn’t doubt that it’s accelerated.) Nelson is concerned about universities that are moving toward having an increasing share of teaching done by such contingent faculty.

Adjunct positions have a useful place in universities when used for the right reasons. One such reason is to expose students to perspectives that come from outside of the academy. For example, my undergraduate Abnormal Psychology class was taught by an adjunct whose main job was as a clinical psychologist at a hospital. That gave her a wealth of stories and practical experience that she could bring to the classroom.

But using adjuncts as a cost-cutting measure is a different thing. Many adjuncts will tell you that the system exploits instructors who work at low wages as a way to remain in the game while they hunt for better-paying permanent jobs. Those jobs typically don’t exist in high enough numbers to hire everybody who’s circling in the adjunct holding pattern.

Nelson offers a different line of argument, one that stems from the core reason tenure exists in the first place: academic freedom. To quote from the interview, “Academic freedom and job security are inextricably linked.” Tenure ensures that a professor can choose what to teach based on professional judgment. Direct review of those decisions is made by professional peers, protecting individual faculty from legislators, donors, regents, and others who might wield their considerable influence to drum out professors who don’t fit some outside agenda.

Nelson is not just worried about individual adjuncts being vulnerable. Even more ominous are the systemic risks of a university shifting to an adjunct-heavy portfolio. Hiring the occasional adjunct at an institution with a solid core of tenure-protected faculty is not likely to be a problem, as long as tenured faculty care enough about academic freedom that they’ll raise a stink if an adjunct is being subject to inappropriate pressure. (It’s sort of intellectual herd immunity.) But without that core, when too many of your faculty could be threatened for teaching something that someone does not like, the institution loses an important protection. Just look at the battles over secondary school textbooks in biology and history for an example of the kind of political infighting that can result. Is that where higher education could end up — with a state board telling me what to teach and what textbooks to use? I hope not, but Nelson presents good reasons to worry.

MIT restricts academic freedom?

According to an article at Ars Technica, the faculty at MIT have voted to require that all academic publications be open-access. More specifically, the policy requires that when submitting an article to a journal publisher, authors must grant MIT a license to distribute the work for free, and authors have to provide the publication to the MIT provost. If you want to publish with a journal that refuses to allow open access, you have to submit a written request and get approval from the provost.

I’m all for open public access. But I am also all for academic freedom. When a university dictates where its faculty can publish, that seems to me to set a dangerous precedent. If a university can say that faculty cannot publish in Journal X because the university doesn’t like the journal’s copyright policy, who’s to say that the next step isn’t “Don’t publish in Journal Y because we don’t like their editorial position on [fill in controversial issue here]”?