tales of irb

A friend of mine e-mailed to tell me about a problem she is currently having with her IRB. She’s involved with a longitudinal survey of a disadvantaged population. They are going to be collecting a new round of data. Her university’s IRB is saying that an Adverse Event form needs to be filed for each person that has died between the previous round of data collection and the current round.

If you were doing a medical intervention study on a population, then Adverse Event forms are used to keep track of the possibility that maybe your intervention is killing people. To my knowledge, there has never been a recorded instance of somebody dying as a result of answering survey questions, although metaphorical dying of boredom is not infrequent. (Incidentally, once upon a time in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, I documented fairly carefully that, net of a large battery of controls that would have satisfied the causal-pushovers of a bygone era, people who refused to participate in the WLS were more likely to die than people who did not. A bonus question on one of my research methods exams was to offer three possible explanations.)

Has anyone else heard of survey researchers being asked to do this?

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

15 thoughts on “tales of irb”

    1. i can beat that.
      recently a good friend of mine was told not to thank respondents in the survey recruitment letter because it could be coercive to assume their cooperation.


  1. Having just completed the CITI course yesterday, I can tell you this is not one of the items that is listed among “adverse events” requiring updates to the IRB paperwork. Also, the CITI course is terrible.


    1. “Also, the CITI course is terrible.”

      I feel like we don’t even need to be talking about research ethics to say this. We could, frankly, make this the standard signature of every academic researcher.

      “I agree that Oklahoma has a much better chance of making it to a bowl game this January than Kansas. Also, the CITI course is terrible.” See–works in any context!

      Per the real question, I’d concur that this is neither a requirement under the IRB training most of us receive nor is it something I’ve ever heard of being demanded nor does it make any sanse.


    2. I’ve been documenting one of the problems with CITI’s training for social and behavioral research, and trying to get them to fix it. See here and here.

      But yeah, this doesn’t seem to be a problem that can be laid at CITI’s feet.


  2. This is precisley why tenured professors (too much of a time commitment for tenure track) from any social science discipline conducting research that involves human subjects should consider volunteering for an apppointment on their college/university IRB.


    1. Um, I’m not sure “volunteer” is the word, but I got my arm twisted to be on mine. It does not help much. The staff control the process, not the faculty members of the IRB. I have had 0.0 impact, except to make people mad.


  3. Jeremy, I think you’re missing a great inspiration for your next work of interactive fiction here. Who wouldn’t like to read/play a story about a super-villain sociologist who invents a survey instrument that can selectively kill respondents? Sort of like Babel-17, only weirder.


  4. The New York Times had an article yesterday on proposed reforms to federal IRB guidelines. The article wasn’t that specific, but a quick glance at the Federal Registry suggests the new rules might be very good for most sociologists. For example, “Thus, research conducted with competent adults, that involve educational tests, surveys, focus groups, interviews, and similar procedures would qualify for the new Excused category, regardless of the nature of the information being collected, and regardless of whether data is recorded in such a manner that subjects can be identified.”


    1. One would hope. These are already “exempt.” Except my campus has a rule that the IRB (i.e. the staff director of the IRB) decides whether you are exempt, and you have to fill out just as much paperwork to get declared exempt as for a full review.


      1. Exactly, that is the proper bureaucratic response. Stuff does need to be “reviewed” but most of the things we do are exempt from additional scrutiny based on the “duh” criteria. On our IRB, that means that whoever is “on-call” for expedited exempt reviews briefly looks over and approves the request for approval. It’s a fairly small waste of time, but if you need it for a grant proposal you can’t push the deadline.


      2. No one ever said anyone who worked on Morningside Heights would remain sane for any length of time.


  5. The new regulations have the promise of cleaning out a lot of our issues with over zealous IRBs. They propose to effectively classify all survey work as Exempt, and greatly simplify the process. They will be paying more attention to privacy issues, which then become an issue for us if university accounting offices continue to want SSN collected whenever there is a subject compensation.

    The challenge will be to not let this simplification be stopped by what has become the compliance industry (e.g., AAHRPP).


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