Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Critics of Institutional Review Board (IRB) practices often base their charges on the claim that IRB review began with and is premised upon a "medical model" of research, and hence a "medical model" of risk. Based on this claim, they charge that IRB review, especially in the social and behavioral sciences, has experienced "mission creep". This paper argues that this line of critique is fundamentally misguided. While it remains unclear what critics mean by "medical model", the point of contemporary human research subjects regulation remains the same across all domains of research. That point is to protect the autonomy of human subjects, primarily through the use of informed consent. In fields as different as biomedical self-experimentation and ethnography there is the danger of losing sight of subjects' autonomy. Critiques of the so-called medical model are sometimes libertarian and sometimes utilitarian in spirit. Either way, such critiques have not yet demonstrated that these philosophical schools of thought have the resources to guard against the potential risk of harm that lexically prioritizing the autonomy of human subjects does. Precisely because IRB review recognizes that human subjects research occurs in different fields using different research methods, IRB review requires researchers to explain their particular methods, the particular risks of harm created by these methods, and the implementation of procedures by which subjects may autonomously consent to precisely those risks.

Publication Citation

Heidi Li Feldman, What’s Right About the Medical Model in Human Subjects Research Regulation, in THE FUTURE OF HUMAN SUBJECTS RESEARCH (Cambridge: The MIT Press forthcoming 2014)