IRB Approval

A little while ago, I promised a few of you that I would write about the entire process-turned-fiasco that was the application for IRB approval for my thesis project. While I was very upset at the time, I am now feeling much better about this, but I still feel the need to talk about what happened (and this will also be a section in my thesis, you can be sure of that!). The names of the people and institution involved have been left out of this post on purpose. If you are familiar with this situation, please do not post any identifying markers in the comments.
First, a little background. For those of you who have never attempted a research project through a college before, here are some things you should know. If your research project does not involve human subjects, meaning if you are just analyzing a theory or a published, written work, you do not have to seek IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval. You can just go ahead with your project as planned. If you are dealing with human subjects – conducting interviews, surveys, collecting data from tests, etc. – you must apply through the IRB. The IRB’s job is to check your methodology for your study and make sure you are compliant with governmental guidelines for research involving human subjects. These governmental guidelines are in place to protect institutions and participants from any harm that might incur from the study. Usually, this includes things like keeping participants anonymous if they are minors, developing an informed consent form that tells the participants what they are getting in to, etc. The IRB’s job is not, however, to dictate your research methods. Only to check them to make sure they are compliant. This will become very important later.
I should also mention at this time that there are a few ways your project can be exempt from IRB approval, meaning you don’t need their approval to proceed. These include, but are not limited to:
  • Collecting an oral history – If you do this and present it without analysis, you can fully disclose your participant’s identity without IRB approval
  • Working with any kind of public writings or behaviors (ahem… blogs, anyone?)
  • Researching any kind of existing data or documents (again, blogs?)
An over-simplified version of my research method was as follows:
  1. Find feminist bloggers willing to participate.
  2. E-mail them the consent forms.
  3. Have them sign, scan, and e-mail the consent forms back to me.
  4. Send the interview questions to the bloggers.
  5. Have them answer the questions and send them back to me.
  6. Analyze the results and publish them on my blog.
While I was not planning on simply collecting an oral history of feminist bloggers’ literacy practices (I was planing on analyzing the responses and coming to some sort of conclusion), since I was planning on interviewing subjects who are not minors about documents that are publicly available, I didn’t see a problem with my research method. Imagine my surprise, then, when I received this message from the IRB chairperson (just an excerpt follows):

The IRB recently reviewed your research proposal and the committee had some concerns.

Modifications should be made to your proposal which address the following minor concerns. An explicit statement should be made in your informed consent document which informs the reader that minors are not eligible to participate. Within the first paragraph of the informed consent document the word literacy should be explained in more simple terms. In your application (12. Safeguarding Subject’s Identity) you need to explicitly state that you will safeguard all the physical and electronic data collected, and briefly describe how this will be accomplished (e.g., physical data sheets will be stored in a file cabinet in a locked office).

Besides these minor changes, the committee’s major concern was with respect to your planned means of dissemination. Most specifically, we were concerned with the option to eliminate investigator-participant confidentiality…an interview/survey conducted electronically, via email as suggested in this proposal, allows for misrepresentation. Authorship is essentially unverifiable. This can be a risk to the value of the data collected, but this risk is accepted by the investigator. However, in this instance, unverifiable authorship places the community at risk because interview answers can be displayed in the public domain and associated with a participant’s identity, an identity which cannot be confirmed…

There is also a concern as to the motives of participation if financial compensation is awarded due to internet traffic to a participant’s blog/website which would be linked from your own blog…

Given these concerns, the IRB did not feel we could grant approval of this project in its current form. We encourage you to modify your proposal and resubmit.

As I mentioned in a previous email, the project could be greatly simplified with risk minimized if you explored or other similar options for the administration of your interview/survey. This type of option can provide anonymity to the participants, and a simplified informed consent process could then be utilized. Your proposed process of obtaining informed consent is burdensome, and could deter participation. I did check and was happy to find that surveymonkey does allow respondents to answer questions in an essay format and no word/character limit is imposed on answers unless you create one. This is an option worth investigating…

There are a few reasons why this response frustrated me, not least of which was the fact that I had spent 6 months working on developing this methodology, and had expressed concerns about about the anonymity of my participants, but my professors told me my project should be exempt because of the reasons I mentioned above. Furthermore, in this e-mail the IRB chairperson was concerned about financial gain due to increased traffic to blogs – seriously? On top of that, there was the concern expressed that authorship of the interview questions was unverifiable. Except that I am a participant-observer, meaning I have already established a relationship with my participants, allowing me to vouch for their identities. And, in addition to that, I cited literacy ethnographic interviews – interviews that explore a specific culture or group – that had already been completed online in this fashion, with identities disclosed within the research, and here the IRB was dictating my method by requesting that I conduct a survey, not an interview.

Oh, and then there was that bit about deterring participation with my cumbersome method. I guess they missed the part where I said I already had 20 participants lined up and ready to go.

After the initial shock, I sat down and thought about (and had many conversations about) some of the things I was absolutely not willing to compromise. First, I did not want to complete a survey. The entire point of the interview process was to: A) simulate the relationship bloggers have with each other using the very literacy practices they would be discussing in their interview, and B) find out about the participants’ own definitions of feminism, and I believe one’s feminism is as much a part of one’s background and identity as anything else. So I decided that I would use pseudonyms if I must, as long as I could talk about the bloggers’ personal experiences to some extent. I thought that not disseminating the interview responses on my blog was a viable option, but the verification of identity had never stopped me from posting guest posts before. However, I figured I needed to compromise something in order to do the research I wanted to do.

This wasn’t in accordance with with the English department wanted me to do, though. They were behind my project 100%, and felt that what the IRB committee told me wasn’t right. They were, to use the words of my professor, “embarrassed” that the IRB felt the need to dictate my method, even though that is not their job, and that they knew so little about research methods outside of their own fields. (Did I mention that only one IRB member was from any humanities field – and he said my project should be exempt? The rest were from hard science backgrounds.) They were also very worried about what a decision like this about my project might mean for future projects in the humanities. So I gratefully let them take the lead. After several long e-mails and phone conversations between the English professors and the IRB chairperson, they struck a sort of compromise. Here is my revised method:

  1. Find feminist bloggers who are willing to participate.
  2. E-mail them the consent forms. They have two options: A) I may disclose their identity within my research (not on my blog!) and cite their blogs within my research (not on my blog!), but they must have their consent forms notarized. B) I may use a pseudonym or pen name (still not on my blog! See a theme here?), in which case they do not have to have their consent forms notarized, but I can also not cite their blogs in my research. So, if they want me to cite their blogs, but also use a pen name, they must have their consent forms notarized anyway.
  3. They will send those forms back to me, and I will e-mail them the questions upon receipt of their consent forms.
  4. They will respond to the interview questions in a Word document and e-mail the questions back to me. They must only use ONE e-mail address – the one they used when they started corresponding with me – for this project, too, just in case they really aren’t who they say they are.
  5. I can analyze their responses once I receive them, provided I have signed and notarized consent forms in my possession and they have only corresponded with me using one e-mail address.
And they were worried about deterring participation with my first method? Phew! My professors took all of this to mean that the IRB did not want me conducting this research for whatever reason and actually wanted my participants not to participate, thus making my study fail. Luckily, there’s no stopping feminist bloggers on a mission. I have more possible participants now than when I started.

And, are you ready for some irony? When I received IRB approval with my revisions, the IRB chairperson e-mailed it to me in an attached Word document. I was tempted to e-mail him back and ask how I could verify his identity, but I settled for this blog post, instead.

8 thoughts on “IRB Approval

  1. This is a really fascinating example of how far behind the curve academia is when it comes to research which involves the Internet and online communities. There are *lots* of ways to verify identities of your participants which are probably better and less burdensome, if identity is the issue!

    Especially since identity (or online persona) seems pretty key to looking at how feminist communities online function. Knowing who people are is an important part of understanding how they came to feminism and what kind of role they play in online communities.

    It does kind of sound like some extra barriers were created here to make it harder to conduct your research. Not having a single person from, say, a sociology background to review your methods is pretty reprehensible as well.

  2. Yeah… that whole thing is kind of ridiculous, and sad, but commonplace. I’m in research methods this semester (or just finished it), and I’ve learned that it’s really hard to get anything done from a non-quantitative standpoint. Even when I explained that my proposed research study (which I may do, someday, but not under the pretenses dictated to me) was participatory, feminist, critical theory-based, and qualitative… it was still recommended that I have a control group and a quantitative survey to “triangulate” my data. This response was from my social work research methods classmates, and my RM professor who favors qualitative approaches herself… I can’t imagine how an IRB would have responded. Basically, I said “fuck it” and did it my own way, and someday when I do this project on my own, I won’t follow the criteria. I decided only to include a control group if the “research felt it necessary” and I used the quantitative data, but I didn’t relinquish the aims of my project and I got a point knocked off on data analysis because it probably wasn’t typical enough for social work research. I’m not sure that the IRB wanted your project to literally fail; sometimes I just think researchers don’t get it. Quantitative researchers don’t have to triangulate their data with qualitative methods very often, do they? At least they allowed you to do the project with some changes, though–ten years or so ago, it probably would have been scrapped completely. I feel your pain! I’m glad things are going along smoothly now. I’m still shocked you had to include NOTARIZATION, though. That seems insane!!!

  3. I would be happy to participate if you still need anyone, have anything notarized as needed, and even take a photograph of myself with my driver’s license and a printout of the page showing I own the domain name if they are so concerned I might be exploited. Especially if there’s a potential that I could make mad cash from traffic from your blog, especially since my blog doesn’t have any ads.

    I had similar issues with my master’s project. Apparently doing phone interviews with state officials about the public policies around HIV in Texas prisons is also likely to result in anguish to the interviewee or something.

  4. Ashley on

    Skye –
    Sorry it took me so long to get back to you! If you’d still like to participate, shoot me an e-mail (you can find the address in the upper portion of the sidebar on the blog) and we’ll get started!


  5. I’m sending you an email because I’d also be interested in participating, if you need any more fems. It looks like you’re in Chicago – I would have met you if I’d gone to the Chifems tweetup. I originally RSVP’d yes, but then my family got picked to film a TLC/Discovery Health special on gender neutral parenting, and the tweetup was on one of the days of filming. So, bummer. Maybe next time.

    (btw, found you from the carnival.)

  6. Pingback: Only the Photogenic Need Apply | Small Strokes

  7. Susan Banks on

    Hello my name is Susan Banks, I am a student of Kaplan University working on a masters degree in criminal justice. Currently I have been working on my thesis paper, my topic judicial corruption and how it affects the community. I ahve been working on this since November of 2010. I wrote several drafts of my submission papers to the IRB and still no approval. At first I wanted to write a paper simply on how people are affected my judicial corruption by using other peoples research. At the suggestion of my thesis committee I changed it.
    The change included a survey that I would take out to the community and survey people on judicial corruption. The more information I submitted the more questions the IRB had. My survey was not going to ask for any personal information such as name or address. Only basic information on age, income and so on. I am rewritting my proposal so that it is a descriptive research project, using other peoples work. Hopefully this will get them to aprove my propsal since I wont be using any living human subjects for my paper.

    • Ashley on

      Sorry you’re having these issues. That totally sucks. It sucks even more that you feel the need to rewrite your proposal. I wish that weren’t the case for you, as your study sounds really interesting. Is there a way you could talk to your IRB and find out how you could get them to accept it? Do you have any professors that would go to bat for you? That’s what I had to do, unfortunately, but it really paid off. Do keep me updated on your process, though, if you can!

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