Independent research at Princeton has given several students the opportunity to conduct exciting new studies, including traveling to other countries in order to get first-hand experience engaging in other cultures. Just a few months ago, I even flew out to Los Angeles to interview television producers for my thesis. While the opportunity to meet new people and learn about their life-stories is undoubtedly a transformative experience, these types of projects wouldn’t be possible without one particular group’s approval: the IRB.
To conduct any research that involves human subjects, Princeton’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) has to review your study in order to ensure the safety of the participants. For instance, if a study involves at-risk individuals (e.g. children or prisoners) the IRB will need to check the parameters of the study in order to make sure no one gets hurt or feels coerced into participating. But with 15 sections worth of information to fill out, the IRB form can be quite intimidating to go through–it even scared me away from including human subjects in my junior paper! But after some encouragement from my adviser, I partnered with a fellow SOC major and worked through the seemingly endless document.
Having completed the process, here are a few tips that I think will make the form easier to navigate:
Principal Investigator (Section C)
After reading the instructions and filling out the General Information, the form will ask for the names of the people involved in your study, including the Principal Investigator (PI). Although you may be conducting your own study, students are not eligible to be PIs. As a result, you should list your JP or Thesis Adviser as the Principal Investigator. Further down the form, you can enter your own information and receive IRB notifications by checking the “Email Communication” box beneath your name.
Study Design (Section E)
This portion of the form asks for the purpose of your study. If you’ve already filled out an application for funding, this is the perfect place to copy and paste some of the materials you developed for your funding proposal. Otherwise, you can write a paragraph that details the basic information of what your research is about and what you hope to learn from the study. Based on that information, you can check the boxes for the Research Components, fill out the Study Procedures, enter the Number of Subjects, and add the Study Populations accordingly. When it comes to the Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria, some factors to consider describing are the professions, age, race, and gender of the people you intend to be your participants.
Confidentiality (Section I)
Confidentiality is arguably one of the most important components of the IRB form and it’s designed to help protect people’s Personal Identifiable Information (e.g. name, mailing address, email address, etc.). When offering a participant confidentiality, you’re informing them that you and your fellow researchers are the only ones who will have access to their identifiable information. Confidentiality should not be confused with anonymity, as this would mean that not even the researchers would be able to identify who participated in the study. Consequently, this section will require you to explain how you intend to keep your participants’ personal information private. A few suggestions include:
- Storing papers and detachable media in secure locations (e.g. a locker, a filing cabinet)
- Using passwords to protect documents online and on your computer
- Activating your computer to lock after approximately 20 minutes of inactivity
- Compressing and encrypting files for the secure transfer of information
- Deleting confidential data after the study is concluded
You can find more specific ideas using this helpful table.
Supporting Documents (Section N)
Once you’ve made it to the end of the form, you’ll be asked to attach any supporting documents you have. Depending on the study, this may include your human consent form (you can simply download and modify the template), interview guides, survey questionnaire, and potentially more.
While the other sections of the IRB form should be relatively straight-forward, you can always ask your adviser for assistance or contact the IRB directly. You can also find a classmate to work with through the document. If you’re having problems navigating eRIA, you can use this Quick Reference Guide. Additionally, don’t worry if you receive the status, “Approve Pending Revisions.” Simply work with your adviser to make some final modifications and re-submit your form. Finally, take your time and be patient with the process; submissions are usually reviewed within 5 business days and only 1% of submissions need to undergo review by the Board. If you’re pressed for time and are fairly sure the Board will need to convene about your proposal, you can time your submission accordingly, and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to conducting your study!
–Taylor Griffith, Social Science Correspondent