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The Executive Officer’s Column

Institutional Review Boards and Sociologists’ Experiences

Last fall, the American Sociological Association and other social science and humanities societies participated in a meeting convened by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on the role and scope of institutional review boards (IRBs) in the academic workplace. Over the years, IRBs have played an increasingly prominent role in all campus research involving human subjects, not just federally-funded research (which they are minimally mandated to do). In the humanities, much more than in the social sciences, there has been less of a history of experience with IRB review and with general guidelines for the protection of human subjects.

All of us agreed that we needed to learn much more about IRBs, how they operate, and areas that might need improvement. The presence of IRBs in academic and other research organizations dates back to 1974 when federal guidelines were established for the Protection of Human Subjects (Title 45 CFR 46). While social and behavioral science research was included from the outset, much of the impetus for such guidelines grew out of concerns about informed consent and risks involved in biomedical research. Despite the passage of time, this model of science seems to color the operations of IRBs. Some of our discussion looked to how the work of IRBs might be enhanced by a fuller understanding of the methods and human subjects’ issues involved in behavioral and social science research.

Anecdotally we hear reports about researchers’ interactions with IRBs that cover the spectrum of views—from considering the usefulness of the IRB review (and the preparation leading up to it) to complaining that IRBs prevent or delay research where human subjects have already been well protected. Those of us meeting last fall thought that we should seek to obtain more systematic information. Thus, the ASA, along with other scholarly societies in the social sciences and humanities, is collaborating with the AAUP to examine the role and impact of IRBs on our research.

We are turning to our research communities to generate that knowledge. We know that Institutional Review Boards operate under federal guidelines that describe their policies and practices; yet, each institution’s IRB functions a little differently. In addition, within institutions, IRBs function differently as membership or institutional practices change over time. We expect there is substantial diversity in IRB practices, and we are interested in learning about these differences as well as commonalities.

Each society participating in the meeting agreed to solicit information from its members. We are interested in learning more about how IRBs operate in practice and about the actual experiences of faculty members with IRBs either in terms of their service on such bodies or as a result of having had their research reviewed by them. We are interested in both positive and negative experiences while serving on an IRB or submitting research to an IRB for review or rereview. Students whose work has been reviewed by IRBs are also encouraged to respond, but are asked to note that you are a student.

To gather this information, we invite you to respond to the following questions. You can send your answers to me at the ASA Executive Office via regular mail, e-mail (, or fax (the secure fax number is 202-638-1159). The questions are also posted on ASA’s homepage if you would like to respond electronically. All responses will be held confidential, and no information that could link you to information you have provided will be shared.

Ethical practices in research and the protection of human subjects are important to our discipline. Having your views will contribute to doing this well. Thanks in advance for your participation.—Felice J. Levine

Click here to fill out the form online.

Service on an IRB
Have you ever served on an IRB? If so, please provide the following information:

  • What institution?
  • What year(s) did you serve? We are especially interested in more recent service.
  • What were the circumstances that led to your appointment? Did you ask to become a member? Did someone at your institution ask you to serve?
  • How much introduction or orientation were you provided to carry out your duties as a member of the IRB? Do you think it was adequate? Do you think the IRB understood fully the federal guidelines? Did it operate consistent with the guidelines?
  • Did your IRB review only federally-funded research or did it review other types of research involving data collected on human subjects? Did it review unfunded research? Was student research reviewed? Was research related to course activities reviewed?
  • Were there occasions when you or other members of the IRB were unfamiliar with the research methods under review and found it difficult to reach a decision? How did you handle it? Did you think your IRB was truly able to review all the research protocols that it received?
  • How would you describe the level of agreement among the members of the IRB on their approval of research protocols?
  • Were you released from other duties (for example, through a reduction in your teaching load) while you worked on the IRB? Was your work on the IRB time-consuming? Was it in any other way especially taxing?
  • Overall, did the IRB seem to operate fairly? Did it seem to operate efficiently?
  • Is there anything else you would like to tell us regarding your experiences while serving on an IRB?
Interactions with an IRB
If your research has been reviewed by an IRB in the past three years, please answer some or all of the following questions:
  • How many research protocols have you submitted for IRB review in the past three years? At what institution(s)?
  • In general, how long did the review(s) take—days, weeks, longer? Did the time required for review seem appropriate? Was it too long? Too short?
  • What type of review did your research receive (e.g., exempt, expedited)? Did you agree with the type of review?
  • Did you meet with the IRB to explain your research or did you send materials for review? If you met with the IRB, do you think it helped or hindered your research protocol?
  • Do you think the members of the IRB were familiar with research standards and practices relevant to your research? Did their lack of knowledge harm your research? Did their expertise help your research?
  • Were you asked to alter your research project in some way? If so, what was your response to the request? Was the research eventually approved?
  • Did you find that your research benefited from having your research reviewed by the IRB?
  • Overall, did the IRB seem to operate fairly? Did it seem to operate efficiently?
  • Is there anything else that you would like to tell us regarding your experiences with IRBs?