IRB Guidance: Oral History

This page describes what is meant by the term "oral history" based on guidance put forth by the Office of Human Research Protection*.

When making the decision as to whether oral history or similar activities require IRB review, the IRB takes into account the prospective intent of the investigator and the definition of "research" under the federal regulations.  Per federal regulation 45 CFR 46.102(l) research is defined as "a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge."

Specifically, for the purposes of this guidance, the requirement for IRB review of such activities hinges upon whether:

a)   The activity involves a prospective research plan which incorporates data collection, including qualitative data, and data analysis to answer a research question; AND

b)   The activity is designed to draw general conclusions (i.e., knowledge gained from a study may be applied to populations outside of the specific study population), inform policy, or generalize findings.
General principles for evaluating whether Oral History type activities require IRB review:

1.    Oral history activities, such as open-ended interviews, that ONLY document a specific historical event or the experiences of individuals without intent to draw conclusions or generalize findings would NOT constitute "research" as defined by HHS regulations 45 CFR part 46.
2. Systematic investigations involving open-ended interviews that are designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge (e.g., designed to draw conclusions, inform policy, or generalize findings) WOULD constitute "research" as defined by HHS regulations at 45 CFR part 46.
3. Oral historians and qualitative investigators may want to create archives for the purpose of providing a resource for others to do research. Since the intent of the archive is to create a repository of information for other investigators to conduct research as defined by 45 CFR part 46, the creation of such an archive WOULD constitute research under 45 CFR part 46.
Investigators are advised to consult with the IRB Office regarding whether their oral history project requires IRB review.

*This guidance document was adapted from UMassAmherst's guidance on Oral History.