The Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Westminster College updated its guidelines for research projects, requiring students to submit their proposals for the board to keep on file. The addition is a slight change to prior guidelines, which only required certain projects to file applications for review.
The changes were announced early December, prompting concern among faculty — largely in the social science departments — who thought it may hinder students’ abilities to complete surveys in a reasonable time.
Updated guidelines will require students and faculty to submit their proposals to the IRB to keep on record. However, it won’t require every proposal to undergo approval — keeping the guidelines mostly the same.
“There’s no major change,” said Sheryl Steadman, chair of the IRB. “This decision to ask for copies of the surveys or proposals […] is new.”
The updated guidelines don’t require a review process for every project, despite concerns from faculty members who worried students wouldn’t get the same hands-on learning. Several faculty members brought these concerns to the IRB, with roughly five or six from the psychology department alone, according to Steadman.
“The one thing that has been added [to the process] that hasn’t been there is that we want a copy of any survey, any research, any questionnaire that is going out,” Steadman said. “So that if we get a question at the IRB committee […] I can go to my files” and answer them.
Steadman said this will tighten the research process at Westminster, easing past concerns brought to the IRB.
This added process was needed, she said because undergraduate students are completing much more research — prompting the IRB to keep track of projects in case questions or concerns are raised.
“It’s just a quick look to see, ‘Does this need review?’” said Debbie Tahmassebi, provost of Westminster. “And if it doesn’t, they [still] have a copy.”
Under the IRB guidelines, most student surveys involving human subjects are required to undergo a review process before beginning research. However, several are eligible for exemptions.
“The only thing IRB is reviewing is human subjects, that’s what they do,” Tahmassesbi said. “They’re just looking at federal regulations.”
Students can apply for an exemption — meaning they won’t need IRB approval — if their research is being used for educational purposes or includes the use of anonymous educational tests, collection of existing anonymous data or certain taste or food quality studies.
If the study does not pertain to those categories, it cannot be exempt. However, students can still apply for an expedited review if it qualifies as “minimal risk.”
This means “that the probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort anticipated in the research are not greater in and of themselves than those ordinarily encountered in daily life or during the performance of routine physical or psychological examinations or tests,” according to the Decision Tree documents on the Westminster website.
Projects can qualify as minimal risk if they involve surveys on non-controversial topics or the use of non-invasive recordings.
If the research does not qualify for expedition or an exemption, it must undergo an IRB review process.