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Help! How do you complete an IRB for what barely seems like research?


SeriousSillyPutty
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The short version: Anyone have tips for know good examples of IRBs for "participant observer" research?

 

Extended version:

I have an internship this summer with the education/outreach department of a big physics lab (woohoo!).  They give a smalls subsistence allowance, but not enough to actually pay for travel/housing, so I asked my department how I would go about getting summer funding from the University, like students do when they stick around for the summer.  (This is a PhD program, but people aren't in research groups, and do all sorts of odd things while taking classes.)  The department head helped me out and said that I needed to present the internship as research with me as a "participant observer", which would involve writing down everything I did and observed.  It seemed like as stretch to me, but he suggested it, and he knows his business.  He said I would just have to fill out an IRB.  I had never heard of an IRB, but looked it up and surmised that it was paperwork to ensure I wasn't doing sadistic psychological experiments on people.

 

I applied for summer funding, received some, but got bogged down in coursework -- not to mention visa applications and travel arrangements for this internship -- and didn't get to the IRB until the semester ended a week ago.  On our IRB system website, it looks like there are three pages: One for a research summary, one for demographics, and one for listing who the researchers are.  This is manageable, and I got help with the first page.  Turns out that there are several more pages asking for way more detail on pages you can't see from the home screen.  Again, if I knew about IRBs, this would be obvious, but this is all a whole new world to me.

 

Most of the questions didn't seem to apply, because I wasn't collecting participants or anything, I'm just planning to do an internship! Plus, I'm applyig for exempt status (which applies to regular educational activities and public observation) so it seems that much more odd to fill out all this stuff about recruiting participants and such. This should have been submitted forever ago, so I just filled it out to the best of my abilities.  One thing required a department head signature, so I emailed him asking for it.  Big mistake.

 

Here's what he wrote:
"Who is the faculty sponsor for this project?  I fear that as written it will not pass IRB.  You must have clear study procedures.  A methods section is essential information as well as analysis descriptions.  Do you have a protocol for gaining participant approval.  I can not approve this unless you have a fully articulated study plan and a faculty sponsor.  Have you seen examples of IRB requests?"

He's saying in the most gracious way possible that what I have is B.S. and I really shouldn't be trying to get him to sign something so obviously not ready for prime time.  And it's true: I didn't have a clear protocol for gaining approval, because with exempt status I got the sense I didn't need it.  I didn't have much for methods and analysis, because I didn't think there was any method and analysis beyond doing the internship and writing everything down -- because that's the sense I had gotten from him when we talked originally.

 

So now I look lazy, I made the grad student adviser look neglectful (after she agreed to be faculty supervisor at the last minute when I learned -- from the form -- that I needed one), I took up the department chair's time on stuff I should have run by adviser first, and have generally made a mess for everyone.  Oh. And I'm leaving town for over three months in 23 hours.

 

Now I'm trying to do damage control  and would appreciate any and all insights.  (Unless your answer is to google my question... I figured that one out; I just thought some actually human beings might point me to the good stuff more quicky.)

- I'm going for an internship, and have presented myself in this light to my future summer supervisors.  What is acceptable "research" to do under these circumstances, and what kind of procedure is expected.

- Do others have examples of IRB forms filled out for similar projects, that aren't primarily designed as research anyway?

- It seems a lot of the IRB questions really don't apply to the day-to-day observations I'd be making.  If I try to make things more formal (claim I'll be doing interviews and such) then it seems I might lose the chance of IRB exempt status, but if I don't make things more formal, how can I create a procedure?  What kind of privacy protocols do I need for something that seems so public?

 

It's extra hard because I have a very limited idea of what the internship will involve... the whole reason I'm going is to learn more about what they do there.

 

Thanks for reading my angst!

 

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SSP, this is going to be a brief reply but I'll come back to this in a few hours and add more information if I remember. If I don't, send me a PM.

 

Okay, so I'm sure I and many others have examples of IRBs. But, the forms are different at each institution (and the ones at my institution have changed 3-4 times in my 5 years here), so I doubt looking at those would be of that much help. What you really need is to look at a recently approved IRB for someone doing similar research (so someone doing participant obsrevation).

 

Some of this is, I think, you not understanding what IRBs really do. Even observation has the potential to be harmful to the participants depending on how that data is used. For example, you're observing in a lab. What happens if you see someone breaking scientific protocols or fudging data? Do you report this to their supervisor or do you just record it in your notes? If you opt for the latter, what happens if/when you go to publish something based on these data and those notes? Do you out the breach of protocol then? And, no matter when you do so, will reporting the breach of protocol cost someone their job? These are the kinds of things IRBs are concerned with and that you have to make clear in the methods section of your proposal. When you say that "no harm will come to participants", you have to offer options for what you'll do in the event that someone reports to you (or, less likely, calls your IRB or department) that they've experienced harm. Do you stop the study? Do you refer them to counseling services? Again, these are the kinds of questions they're looking for answers to.

 

You can absolutely create a procedure without doing interviews. How many hours a day will you be observing? How will you decide who to observe and when? Are you following a person, an experiment, a lab? How often will you record your observations? What types of observational data will you be recording? Are you going to record what people do, make notes on their conversations, write down quotes, take pictures, etc.? Are you going to make the data anonymous and, if so, how? (By which I mean, how will you protect the confidentiality of the people you are observing? You have to think about this in terms of your data collection and any subsequent writing you might do using these data.) I think you might be better off thinking about this in terms of what kinds of research questions are you interested in that could be answered by collecting this data. Then, what kind of data do you need to collect and how?

 

Hopefully this is a decent starting point. Good luck!

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Every IRB is different. They all work with the same laws and standards regarding research and ethics, but every institution has their own process and IRB culture. One of the few universals is that the IRB wants you to be able to do your work. Call them. They should have a study coordinator who can help you. Chances are you can tell the coordinator exactly what you are planning to do, and he/she will tell you how to answer each question.

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Every IRB is different. They all work with the same laws and standards regarding research and ethics, but every institution has their own process and IRB culture. One of the few universals is that the IRB wants you to be able to do your work. Call them. They should have a study coordinator who can help you. Chances are you can tell the coordinator exactly what you are planning to do, and he/she will tell you how to answer each question.

 

I am going through the IRB process for this summer (I do have to interview people so what I'm doing is actual research). I was absolutely lost because the paperwork at my school is geared toward biomedical science, so I ended up calling, as mpheels suggests. They took me step-by-step through the paperwork.

Edited by CageFree
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When I filled my IRB for the first time I got advice to walk through it with the person in charge of my program before officially submitting. It was great advice because she helped me with the details I wasn't sure about and then because she was already familiar with the application, she took it to the committee and helped get it approved very quickly. I also had examples of (somewhat) similar proposals but going through it with the person in charge was by far more useful than anything else.

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This is a weird situation.

 

I was going to suggest you propose some sort of qualitative research, but I'm not sure how that would work- for example, if you'd have to get consent from everyone you meet with? Maybe if you propose some sort of qualitiative research with completely anonymous data collection you can get it through. I'm really not sure how this sort of thing would work though, it doesn't really seem appropriate to go through the IRB as-is. I'd definitely call and talk to them.

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Thanks for the insights. It's good to know that these things are confusing for most newbies.  Because originally I thought it was a small thing, I just talked to the grad student adviser when I started the form and found I needed an official faculty adviser... but it's been awhile since she's done an IRB, and hasn't had to do one with the new system.  I'll try contacting the IRB office directly I think, in addition to getting help from the adviser as best I can long distance.
Our system also seams more geared toward biomed research, but since I'm applying for IRB exempt status, it provides a template for a participant information sheet rather than a consent form.
A (non-academic) friend suggested I wait until I get to the internship and know more of how it will work and what I can do.  I have a three-month internship. I like the idea of getting my bearings then writing something after I know what I'm talking about, even if the research period had to be shorter.  I'm sure it varies school to school, but do you have any sense of how fast the turnaround could be on an IRB?

Thanks!

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Turnaround varies widely. For fully exempt, turnaround at my current institution is 4-6 weeks. At my MA institution, it was 2-4 weeks. Either way, that means wasting a decent chunk of your internship. My advice is to write broadly and include as many potential topics/categories as you can, submit as soon as you can, and then revise/modify with the IRB as necessary.

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Actually, I've done a lot of IRB submissions, but I just don't understand the situation. Are you working with your internship site to do the submission, or your adviser at your unrelated university? It sounds like the latter, but that doesn't make any sense to me.

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PyschGirl1, why would the latter NOT make sense? Typically, if you're doing a project that involves two universities, you need approval from the IRB of both. I worked on a multi-university study (we were at University A and conducting interviews with students at College B and University C). Our school, University A, handled the bulk of the IRB. But, we needed to get approval from the IRBs of College B and University C.

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PyschGirl1, why would the latter NOT make sense? Typically, if you're doing a project that involves two universities, you need approval from the IRB of both. I worked on a multi-university study (we were at University A and conducting interviews with students at College B and University C). Our school, University A, handled the bulk of the IRB. But, we needed to get approval from the IRBs of College B and University C.

 

Yes, I know how it works. I meant for designing the project, not for the IRB process.

 

From OP:

"I have an internship this summer with the education/outreach department of a big physics lab (woohoo!).  They give a smalls subsistence allowance, but not enough to actually pay for travel/housing, so I asked my department how I would go about getting summer funding from the University, like students do when they stick around for the summer.  (This is a PhD program, but people aren't in research groups, and do all sorts of odd things while taking classes.)  The department head helped me out and said that I needed to present the internship as research with me as a "participant observer", which would involve writing down everything I did and observed.  It seemed like as stretch to me, but he suggested it, and he knows his business.  He said I would just have to fill out an IRB.  I had never heard of an IRB, but looked it up and surmised that it was paperwork to ensure I wasn't doing sadistic psychological experiments on people."

 

This was my interpretation:

- Student at University A gets an internship this summer with University B doing some sort of education/outreach.

- University B pays the student $x, which is not enough for the student to live on.

- Student then discusses situation with people at University A and asks how the student can get extra funding.

- Professors at University A tell the student to submit an IRB for some sort of observation research to get funding, which the internship is not designed for.

- The student now wants to submit an IRB submission to University A about a made-up study observing students at University B, of which, according to the OP and my understanding, University B has no awareness of and is not working with the student to design a project.

 

Again, maybe I misunderstood, but I just reread the OP and I came to the same conclusion.

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Thanks for the insights -- and sorry for the delayed response; I thought I had GC set up to notify me of updates, but apparently not.
Anyway, PsychGirl's assessment is essentially right, although the summer internship location isn't associated with a university.  The general purpose of the internship is help with the educational programs -- so while it could include visitor studies, it most likely will revolve more around actually teaching or designing curricula.  Part of the purpose of any internship is to see how things are done in a given situation, and since the situation is pretty unique, my adviser suggested that I may be able to pull some research out of the experience to contribute to a future publication.  So it's not that I'm trying to cheat the system -- I do intend to learn broadly useful information from my experience -- it's just that it seems like such an obvious part of the internship experience.  And, if I want to do something that's not an obvious part of the internship experience, then I would need to get clearance from the people doing the internship, and it didn't seem appropriate to talk to them about a side project before learning what my real duties will be.
Anyway, I've been in such a whirlwind getting ready for the move that I wasn't able to finish the IRB ahead of time.  I did call the IRB office and talk to someone, and he said that for exempt status it should only take 2-3 weeks for approval.  I meet my summer supervisor tomorrow, so this week I should be able to broach the topic and get a clear insight into what he things is and is not kosher.
Still -- if anyone has examples of Research Methods or Analysis sections of IRB forms for participant observation style research in something other than ethnography, that would be awesome.

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Still -- if anyone has examples of Research Methods or Analysis sections of IRB forms for participant observation style research in something other than ethnography, that would be awesome.

 

Like I said before, examples will only help you if they're from your institution. Every institution uses different forms and has different language that they do and do not allow. For example, the language that I used for participant observation at my MA institution would not fly with my PhD institution. You need to reach out to people at your university if you want samples.

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