Written by: Kathleen McKinney, Cross Chair in SoTL at ISU
Both on my home campus and at external SoTL conferences or workshops, issues around obtaining institutional approval for SoTL as human subjects research are often raised. Given differences in what is meant by SoTL as well as in IRB (or similar groups) process and policy by institutional type and country, it is difficult to be too specific or to generalize in offering advice. Each SoTL scholar/researcher should learn the IRB/human subjects’ culture, policies, and process at their own institution. Below, however, I offer a few key points that may be of interest.
If you are planning a SoTL project involving faculty/staff or students as participants and you plan to generalize from that work or to share it with others, you likely need to complete and submit an IRB protocol for approval. Some of the key issues you must address in your IRB protocol include:
- Possible risks to participants
- Possible benefits to participants
- Protection of confidentiality and/or anonymity
- Avoiding coercion or perceived coercion in participation
- Accurate and detailed informed consent statement/procedures
According to the current Chair and Compliance Officer of our IRB at ISU, there are two sets of common errors or weaknesses in SoTL IRB protocols they review.
- Lack of Clarity: Your SoTL IRB protocols should clearly describe all aspects of the research project being proposed. Don’t assume the IRB members share your understandings of SoTL or your discipline. This information may need to be included in more than one place in the protocol and appendices.
- Inadequate Risk Identification and/or Benefit Explanation: In human subjects research, including SoTL research, there is rarely a case where there are no potential risks to participants. All risks must be clearly identified and explained. You should consider both current and future threats for participants. You should also make clear all actual and probable benefits (clearly distinguishing the two) to the student participant and others who may benefit. Discussion of risks and benefits must be included in response to relevant questions on the protocol AND in the actual informed consent statement and procedures.
Researchers often wonder whether there are circumstances that would preclude the need for an IRB Protocol for a SoTL research project. It is generally best for you to write an IRB protocol for all SoTL research and let your Department IRB representative or the IRB members decide what level of review (exempt, expedited, full) is appropriate. There may be a few situations where a protocol is not needed. These decision flow charts are to help IRB members and researchers make such decisions.
For additional and more detailed information, resources, examples, check out the resources below.
- Web pages on ISU Research and Sponsored Programs pages including ‘Tips on Informed Consent’
- Resources and links on ISU SoTL Research and Human Subjects web page including Frequently Asked Questions, Tips for Content of SoTL Protocol, and examples of various materials
- SoTL and IRB workshops on the ISU campus provided on an occasional basis
- Consulting/advice from the Cross Chair and/or SoTL Scholar-Mentors and/or your IRB department rep at ISU