Vulnerability, Coercion, and Undue Influence: From the Mud into the Muck?

According to the NPRM, “the only vulnerability that needs to be considered is vulnerability to coercion or undue influence, and not other types of vulnerability.” It therefore replaces all standalone uses of “vulnerable” with “vulnerable to coercion or undue influence.” This change is justified on the basis that it will “provide greater consistency and clarity in IRB consideration of vulnerability of subject populations in research activities and appropriate protections,” where the vulnerable populations in question are “children, prisoners, pregnant women, physically or mentally disabled persons, or economically or educationally disadvantaged persons.”

Two provisions of the Common Rule (§107.a and §111.a.3) currently discuss vulnerability without further specification, whereas one (§111.b) discusses vulnerability to coercion and undue influence. Deleting §111.b’s reference to coercion and undue influence, however, would achieve consistency while making even fewer changes than the NPRM proposes. The proposed revisions, then, rest on improved clarity rather than improved consistency.

I doubt that narrowing vulnerability by adding the terms “coercion” and (in particular) “undue influence” adds much clarity. Rather, these changes may reduce protections against research flaws other than coercion and undue influence without offering counterbalancing advantages for the research enterprise. Read More