Loyola University Chicago

Institutional Review Board

Oral Histories

Guidelines for Oral History Interview Projects

There has been considerable debate regarding whether or not oral history interview projects require IRB review.  Such projects do, indeed, require review if they are designed to contribute to generalizeable knowledge. If there is uncertainty about whether a particular project requires IRB review, investigators are encouraged to contact the IRB chairperson or Compliance Manager for assistance before beginning a project, as the IRB cannot review research proposals retrospectively.
A. Type of review
In most cases, oral history interview research qualifies for expedited review by Loyola’s IRB. Review by the full IRB would only be required if: a) the interviews may involve more than minimal risk (e.g., they gather information that may place individuals at risk if revealed or they explore stressful, emotionally charged areas) or, b) the research involves participants from a vulnerable population (e.g., prisoners, mentally disabled). If you are uncertain about the type of review your project requires, please consult with the Assistant Director for Research Compliance in the Office of Research Services.

B. Preparing your “Application for IRB Review”
The application is a general form that has been designed for all types of research. Thus, some of the points under each question on the application may not be relevant to your project. However, please read the application carefully and respond thoroughly to each point that is relevant. It is very important that the IRB reviewer have sufficient information to make the necessary judgments about the project and the consent process. Some areas that are especially important to address in oral history interview research are:

  1. Explain approximately how many individuals you will interview, who they are (not names, but basic characteristics), how they are being identified, and how they will be contacted or recruited. In many instances, oral history interview projects involve a small number of specific individuals who the researcher can readily identify and contact directly by phone, mail, or e-mail, (e.g., officers of a company during a particular period, individuals in charge of a specific project). For these types of projects, you can describe these individuals and tell how you will contact them. If the initial contact is by phone, a script or outline of what they will be told about the project should be included. If a letter or e-mail will be sent, it should be included. In other instances, participants may be drawn from a larger group of individual who meet specific criteria (e.g., persons who attended Woodstock, persons who served in the Korean War) and the process of finding and recruiting these individuals may be more complex. You should describe the selection criteria and indicate approximately how many individuals you are planning to recruit. You should also describe the recruitment process, including any materials such as advertisements, flyers, or letters that you will be using.
  2. Give a good description of your interview. First, begin with some basic information such as the purpose of the interview, where it will be held, approximately how long it will last, who will conduct the interview, and how the information will be recorded. The IRB does not require a specific list of all questions you will ask. If you are doing a structured interview and have a list of questions, then this list should be included. However, if your interview is less structured, you should describe the general nature and scope of the interview and general areas to be covered. You should also give questions that may be used to open areas of inquiry or other specific questions that you plan to include in the interview.
  3. Explain how data will be recorded, who will have access to the data, and how it will be used. You should address not only how you will use the data for your project, but any future uses or archiving of the interview. If the interview addresses very sensitive areas, then confidentiality may be an issue. If so, procedures for ensuring confidentiality of the interviews and protecting the identity of participants in reporting of results should be described. Often in oral history interviews where privacy is not a concern, researchers prefer not to guarantee confidentiality and may, in fact, wish to identify participants. If this is the case for your project, then discuss this and be sure you describe how you will ensure that participants are aware of how the interview will be used and have consented to the use of their name.  Finally, if sensitive information about third parties may be obtained during the interview, consideration should be given to ways of protecting their privacy.
  4. Describe a consent process that conforms to the ethical/legal guidelines of the Oral History Association and the Federal regulations governing informed consent. In most cases, a written consent form is used and this form should be attached. The IRB recommends that the processes of obtaining consent for the interview and of obtaining permission, if applicable, to archive the interview "Deed of Gift" be handled separately. Sample forms are located below in the Consent Form Templates section of this Manual. You may adapt these forms for use in your project.

C. Important Issues to Consider

The issues of how the interview will be used and confidentiality of the interview are especially important in oral history projects.  As you write your consent form, keep in mind that what you say about uses and confidentiality will depend on the nature of your project.  See below for some general suggestions in this regard.

Uses:  You may conduct oral history interviews for your own scholarly purposes and/or to contribute to a public archive as source material for other research.  If you wish to place the interview in a public archive, then you should be prepared to explain this to the participant during the consent process at the outset of the interview.  You should also have a separate “Deed of Gift” form for the participant to sign at the conclusion of the interview.  The sample consent form is written as if the interview will be used for a specific scholarly project conducted by the investigator and also donated to an archive.  If you will not be donating the interview to a public archive, the portion about a “Deed of Gift” is not necessary.  However, it is still essential that you explain how you will use the interview for your scholarly work and publication, who may have access to the tape, and what you will be doing with the tape.  (As you think about what to tell participants about what you will be doing with the tape, consider the following questions:  will you be transcribing the tape, will be destroying the tape at some future point, will you be keeping the tape for your future work, will you be allowing other researchers to use the tape?)

Confidentiality:  Participants have the right to have their interview treated confidentially unless it has been clearly indicated otherwise.  Thus, it is very important to address confidentiality during the consent process and in the consent form.  As noted in point 3, if you are gathering information about sensitive areas, then it may be important to keep the information confidential and you should have a plan for protecting the identity of participants.  This should be explained in the consent form.  Often, however, privacy may not be a concern and you may wish to use participants’ names.  The sample consent form is written for this type of circumstance; it explains the use of names and gives them the option of not having their name used (in most instances, it is appropriate to give participants this option).  If the use of the person’s  name is critical to your project (e.g., they are a public figure or noted expert) and you do not feel that it is necessary to give them the option of anonymity (the interview gathers no sensitive information that might harm or embarrass them), it is very important that your consent is written to explain that their name will be used and that they are agreeing both to participate in the interview and to have their name used in any transcript or reference to any information contained in the interview. 

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