American Sociological Association

Case 55. Research by Students


Jane Gates, a graduate student, wants to assess cultural differences in response to pain in cancer patients for her dissertation. Vincent Parodi, her dissertation supervisor, suggests that Gates contact an oncologist at a nearby medical school to help recruit cancer patients for the study. In consultation with the oncologist, Gates estimates the number of patients she might be able to interview and the "best" way to contact them. She successfully defends her dissertation proposal and then learns that she must submit it to the medical school institutional review board (IRB) before starting the project. The IRB challenges the merit of the study and whether the interviews which Gates plans will unnecessarily burden patients who are seriously ill. The study is seen by the IRB as largely a replication of previous work on only a small number of patients that will not likely result in new generalizable knowledge. Gates is angry and feels that her work is being unnecessarily obstructed by an IRB with a "medical mentality". She decides to go somewhere else to recruit participants.


  1. What is the responsibility of the department in which Gates is a student and her supervisor, Professor Parodi, to assist her in planning and implementing the study for her dissertation?
  2. Has Gates violated any ethical principles in deciding to go somewhere else to conduct her study?


Departments have the responsibility to educate students in ethical principles that guide research and institutional procedures (such as IRBs) for ensuring that the principles are upheld. It is not clear whether Professor Parodi has adequately advised Gates about the role of IRBs in planning and implementing research since she learned about the medical school IRB just before she was about to begin her study. Gates is free to find another source from which to recruit subjects. However, she would be wise to not dismiss outright the feedback she received from the medical school IRB. She should request consultation from the IRB about the ethical issues they raised about her study.

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