Protecting the Community: Lessons from the Montana Flyer Project
by Jeremy B. Johnson, Carroll College
In October 2014, flyers appeared in mailboxes of Montana voters that positioned nominees for the state Supreme Court according to an ideological scale. The study, authored by researchers from Stanford and Dartmouth, was met with public outrage. The Commissioner of Political Practices in Montana asked me to vet the ethics of the study. The investigation led me to conclude that current Institutional Review Board (IRB) practices are inadequate for evaluating research involving field experiments in political science because there is no explicit attention in the process to protect a community. I believe the IRB should mandate that researchers explicitly address implications about how their research could affect the communities they study. Ethics scholars evaluating field research in political science were prescient in forecasting the problems evident in the Montana case.