Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grad Student Needed 80 IRB Approvals

In an account apparently posted in July 2008, Jennifer M. Purcell describes what she went through to get approval for her dissertation research in education at the University of South Florida.

Purcell was investigating the apparent disparity between the knowledge and skills needed by college faculty, and the knowledge and skills taught in doctoral programs. She wanted to ask college professors what they thought faculty and students should know and who should teach it. A typical question asked how important these professors considered the ability to "appreciate the history and purposes of higher education." (Jennifer M. Purcell, "Perceptions of Senior Faculty Concerning Doctoral Student Preparation For Faculty Roles," Ph.D. diss., University of South Florida, 2007.)

As she describes it,

I was interested in surveying senior faculty at a stratified random sample of 80 research institutions around the nation for my dissertation research. Participation was voluntary, responses were anonymous, the questions posed no risk to participants, and faculty could quit at any time. If any group understands the research process and can make an informed decision to participate, it would be a member of the academy, right?

Rather than declaring the study exempt, her IRB

required that I contact the IRB office at every institution in my sample to be sure I was in compliance with their policies. Too late to back out at that point, I embarked on the tedious, time consuming, and almost comical task of contacting each school. This process took an additional seven weeks to complete. Seven weeks may not appear to be much in the grand scheme of things, but it was one of several unexpected hurdles that did delay my graduation.

Worried that she would not get enough approvals for a valid sample, Purcell added another 42 institutions to her initial pool. Of the 122 institutions, only 35 determined that they were not engaged in the research, and had no business telling an outside student whether she could or could not interview their faculty. Another 35 granted quick approval or accepted the University of South Florida IRB's decision. One rejected the proposal (I would love to see that letter), and three demanded that "one of their faculty members to serve on the committee." Purcell deleted these from her sample.

Most disheartening to Purcell was the failure of almost a third of the IRBs she contacted to reply to her initial request; some did not even reply to her second request. While she sympathizes with IRB workload, she expects better professional courtesy than this. And while she eventually completed her work in good time, as of her writing she faced the prospect of having to file dozens of final reports.

Purcell ends with the recommendation that

that the approval of the home institution IRB serve as an umbrella document for research falling in the exempt, or even expedited, categories even if members of another institution are being solicited for participation. This might encourage more doctoral students in education – and possibly other disciplines as well – to design studies that reach beyond the walls of their own institutions.

The literature of medical IRBs--outside the scope of this blog--is rich in comparable proposals for streamlining review of multi-site studies. But Purcell's study should never have gotten to that point. It should instead have been granted swift exemption with no further oversight.

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