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Symposium Will Focus on Issues Involved in Conducting Research with Human Subjects

Published: February 2, 2012

Students at ACM and other liberal arts colleges have increasingly engaged in research projects that gather information from and about people. For example, students might interview immigrants in the local community to understand why they moved to the area, or administer a survey to residents in Tanzania about their attitudes toward the nearby national park, or study the prevalence of diseases in a particular area of Botswana.

When the focus of a project is people, the need to protect the rights and well-being of those human subjects can pose significant challenges, especially in the context of research conducted by and with undergraduates. The ways that ACM colleges can best address those challenges will be the focus of the upcoming ACM Symposium on Protecting Human Subjects in Student Inquiry Projects on February 23-25 at Carleton College in Northfield, MN.

All 14 ACM colleges have their own Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), composed of faculty and staff, which help students understand and apply ethical principles to inquiry projects involving surveys, interviews, observations, and other forms of data collection with human subjects.

The federal Office for Human Research Protections offers helpful policy guidance concerning the protection of human subjects, according to Jo Beld, Professor of Political Science and Director of Evaluation and Assessment at St. Olaf College. Beld, one of the organizers of the Human Subjects Symposium, underscored the importance of those guidelines, but noted that "many people are encountering unnecessary and repeated ambiguity in interpreting and applying human subjects regulations to student projects."

The symposium is the second phase of a broader, year-long effort, entitled "Protecting Human Subjects in Student Inquiry Projects: Addressing the Educational Ethical, and Legal Obligations of Liberal Arts Institutions," which received a grant from the ACM Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) project. FaCE is supported by generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

"Protecting Human Subjects" aims to develop streamlined, institutionally- and inter-institutionally-appropriate, and federally-compliant policies and procedures for ensuring that subjects in student projects are protected.

The first phase involved a study group of faculty from several ACM colleges. This past fall, in consultation with the federal Office for Human Research Protections, the group drafted materials related to human subjects protection in student projects, including policy recommendations and sample educational and administrative documents that will serve as working papers for sessions at the symposium.

"This project required a big investment of time up front, to sort out these issues and to provide guidance that will be really useful," Beld explained. "But [these efforts] should save lots of time in the long run. If we can think through the hard stuff together and get good input from the Office of Human Research Protections, we can develop materials that everyone can use."

At the symposium, participants will review these draft materials, with the aims of coming to consensus on the types of projects that require review by an IRB and preparing educational materials that are specific to the types of projects undergraduates are most likely to conduct. Beld said she expects the symposium will include representatives from all 14 ACM colleges, as well as ACM consortial staff

In reviewing the drafts generated by the study group, symposium participants will seek to address the following kinds of questions:

  • What kinds of projects constitute "research" as federally-defined and should require IRB review?
  • What do students need to know about the basics of human subjects protection (minimizing risk, protecting privacy, securing informed consent, etc.) when working on projects that are not subject to IRB review?
  • How should faculty and students be educated about the complicated issues involved in protecting human subjects?
  • How should responsibility for the oversight of student projects involving human subjects be shared when the project is undertaken through an inter-institutional course or program (such as an ACM off-campus program)?

Ultimately, the goal of the symposium is to address the complexity and ambiguity surrounding human subjects regulations and to produce resources that can be useful enhancements to the work ACM colleges are already doing. "Having the materials developed collectively and having had input from the federal office should make them attractive to ACM institutions," Beld noted.

"Protecting Human Subjects" will also benefit ACM’s consortial off-campus programs, many of which include a student research component. "The ACM, like its member campuses, is in the process of reviewing standards for ethical research on its off-campus programs," said Carol Dickerman, ACM's Director of International Study Programs. "The symposium provides us the opportunity to work together with the colleges to develop a consistent policy and process for the review of student research proposals which, on the one hand, recognize the need for projects to be reviewed and, on the other hand, takes into account special factors pertaining to off-campus study."

Recommendations and resource materials from this project will be posted to the "Protecting Human Subjects" project page on the ACM/SERC website. While the documents may not be finalized during the three-day symposium, Beld said that the study group plans to complete the documents for use in September.

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