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October 14, 2004

University Senate Matters

Psychosocial disciplines & the IRB

Since I became a Senate vice president last year, one of the complaints I often heard from faculty concerns dealings with the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Such concerns were voiced privately as well as at meetings of Faculty Assembly and Senate Council.   I’m  pleased that the administration heard these concerns and has responded by establishing an IRB advisory committee for psychosocial research. The committee, which I chair, was established in response to faculty and researcher concerns about how best to meet federal research guidelines in a way that also facilitates research. One mission of this committee is to “facilitate bidirectional communication between the research community and the IRB.”  This column is one attempt to do so.

Our psychosocial advisory committee already has been successful in working with the IRB to develop new procedures for researcher certification.  Currently, the content of the web-based teaching materials and tests is centered on issues of most direct relevance for medical researchers.   We have identified an alternative that is more focused on pychosocial issues, and hope to have this available next semester.

The committee also contacted faculty who were teaching research methods courses to let them know more about the IRB and provide a short handout for students.  Please let me know if you were not contacted and would like to be.

One issue that is often confusing is when IRB approval is required. In general, the technical answer is that anyone doing research based on interacting with people needs IRB approval.  Such interactions might include observations in public or private locations, as well as interviews.  Asking people to complete a survey or to write responses to questions would also qualify as research if the intent is to publish the data or an analysis of the data.  Even a writing project asking people to describe some personal experiences, if those writing samples or an analysis of them were to be published, would qualify as research.  Thus, much of what social scientists do qualifies as research. Some of the work done by those in the humanities also would qualify.

There are a number of teaching activities that do NOT qualify as research that need IRB approval.  When we administer tests in the classroom to evaluate our students, IRB approval is not required.  Other cases are less clear. For example, I often have students develop a set of simple questions that are compiled into a survey. The students administer this survey to other students and collect anonymous answers. These data are analyzed and used in writing papers for the class. This is done for teaching purposes only. There is no intent to publish these data. Such activities are considered as educational assignments and as such do not qualify as research and do not need IRB approval. This distinction is somewhat unclear, though, and the IRB psychosocial advisory committee is working to develop clearer guidelines about when classroom projects qualify as research and need IRB approval.

As the Senate liaison on the committee, I would like to know about any IRB concerns you have. The new director of the IRB office, Chris Ryan, and the new IRB chair, Richard Guido, have been very responsive in working with our committee to resolve problems.


Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 4

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