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Research Skills Corner

Research and the IRB

Stephanie D. Davis
Christine (Mi-Seon) Kim
ACRL/CJCLS Scholarly Research Committee

Conducting research on human subjects requires oversight, and in higher education this involves working with an Institutional Research Board, the IRB as it is commonly called. In December 2022, the CJCLS Scholarly Research Committee hosted a webinar on the topic, “Successfully Navigating IRB Processes as a Community College Librarian,” featuring a panel of presenters including Faith Bradham, Bakersfield College in California; Vikki C. Terrile, Queensborough Community college, the City University of New York; and Terra Jacobson, Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois.

During the Q&A discussion, panelists were asked a series of questions:

  • What kinds of structures or support are available for the IRB process at your institution?
  • What challenges did you experience? 
  • What are the potential pitfalls? What are the unspoken norms that you should have known?
  • What surprises did you encounter in the IRB process? What was new for you?
  • What are some best practices? What would you have done differently?

The 38 webinar attendees heard from the three panelists about their experiences working with an IRB. The basic requirement of an IRB is for the researcher to share their research plan, such as any instruments they will use to collect data and information, for review by the IRB to ensure the research follows established protocols.

Each panelist indicated that working with an IRB for the first time is a learning process. Terra Jacobson noted, “I was nervous, but it turned out to not be scary, and they were helpful with the process.” It was also shared that each institution approaches the process differently. Large institutions where research is common, like the City University of New York (CUNY), have a formal process with a point person to answer questions and help researchers. At other institutions, the IRB process is informal and is worked out on a case-by-case basis. Not all community colleges have an official IRB, but rather researchers work through an institutional assessment office or other department responsible for collecting and reporting student data.

During the question-and-answer period, attendees were asked about training, approval time as well as potential pitfalls. All three agreed it is beneficial to get training, if possible. Terra and Faith shared that their learning started when they entered a doctoral program. While approval times vary, two weeks was shared as a common time frame. If an IRB has concerns or questions, revisions are possible. Pitfalls included difficulty obtaining consent from research participants, particularly in the online environment, as well as not fully understanding the difference between exempt and non-exempt research. Survey results showed an interest in continuing the conversation on IRBs and the research process in general.

The Scholarly Research Committee's charge is to advance and promote research by and about community college librarians. Information on Committee activities, including future webinars, is available on ALA Connect.