Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Princeton IRB Delays Student Research

The Daily Princetonian reports a sociology major's difficulties getting IRB approval for her senior thesis on Brazilian immigrants' changing perceptions of gender roles.

"It's such a long process that it thwarts your field work efforts," [Christine] Vidmar said, noting that the review board does not meet to approve proposals during the summer. "I've been waiting since I got back to school. The first deadline that I could apply for was in October. It's November now, and I still can't officially go do my interviews."

. . .

Vidmar noted that a well-researched thesis may require up to a year of field work, adding that review board hurdles make it more challenging to complete sufficient research. "If you're a senior and you don't have a thesis chosen by the spring of junior year then you can't start field research until November or December of senior year, which is really late," she said. "You need to be in the field in order to know what questions you're going to ask, but in order to be in the field you need to have given the IRB your questions ahead of time."

As horror stories go, this one is mild. But consider the following:

  • While details are lacking, Vidmar's proposed research sounds to be exempt under federal regulations; she's just interviewing adults about their perceptions of gender.
  • Princeton demands full board review for "almost all proposals," offering expedited review only on "an exception basis."
  • The IRB does not meet for three and a half months in the summer and requires proposals to be submitted two weeks in advance of the meeting. Hence, a student who misses the late-May deadline must wait almost four months until late September for review.

Put these together, and it seems that Princeton has built a substantial impediment to students who would like to interact with people as a capstone to their undergraduate training but are unable to write detailed research protocols six months in advance.

This is not to say that undergraduates should be sent into the field without training or supervision. But review by at the department level, as suggested by Felice Levine and Paula Skedsvold; subcommittee review, as practiced at Macquarie University; or researcher certification as permitted at the University of Pennsylvania, might well achieve the same or better levels of oversight as full-board review without delaying the work and discouraging the curiosity of a student researcher.

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