Implementing an Institutional Review Board (IRB)

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This month’s question is answered by Hannah Spirrison, Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Jim Woehrle, Associate Director of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, and Planning and Chair of the IRB, both from Antioch College. 

Dear Hannah and Jim, what guidance would you offer an institution that is starting an Institutional Review Board (IRB)? Do you have any advice for avoiding pitfalls, etc., when implementing one?
When starting an IRB at your institution, remember that you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Once you have ensured that you are meeting federal requirements, look at other institutions to gain an understanding of common practices. Reading the IRB policies and FAQs at other colleges and universities helps you develop policies, procedures, and means for communicating IRB proceedings and regulations that are most appropriate to your unique institution. Start by looking at existing IRBs at institutions that you would consider to be peers. As a small, liberal arts, teaching-based college, we found that the IRB policies at research universities were generally more detailed-oriented and comprehensive than would be necessary for the research occurring at our institution. Reviewing IRBs at other liberal arts institutions provided us with examples of IRB policies that met all federal requirements but were applicable to our research community.

Before finalizing your policies and supporting documents, brainstorm hypothetical issues that may arise after the IRB is implemented. Think particularly about issues related to institution-specific factors (e.g., Senior Projects, popular methodologies, level of student research) that may not be addressed in IRB policies at other institutions. Adjust your documents as needed to address these hypothetical issues. If you make these changes early, you can avoid scrambling to make a rushed decision when the question arises during an IRB review.

As soon as the IRB and supporting policies are in place, focus on communicating with the research community at your institution about the role of the IRB. As a "young" IRB, we still face challenges with both faculty and student researchers who engage in research without IRB review simply because they are not aware that IRB approval would be required. It is critical to educate all potential faculty and student researchers about research policies at your institution. Aim to have IRB training sessions implemented into periodic faculty meetings and courses where students will be engaging in research.

Once the IRB is operational, you will uncover issues that need discussion and exploration. As you encounter issues, set aside time to discuss them as an IRB. Remember that you are setting a precedent for the IRB at your institution, so your decisions have future implications. It is also important to take time to discuss issues so all IRB members fully understand the rationale for IRB policies and decisions. If not, IRB members may inadvertently communicate misinformation.

These tips represent a few of the many things that we have learned in implementing the IRB at Antioch College. As a final takeaway, remember to make sure that your decisions and policies support the fundamental purpose of the IRB - to protect human participants in research. Allow this purpose (along with the federal requirements) to guide your work, and you will be well on your way to successfully implementing an IRB at your institution.




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