by Amanda Sturgill
Any time you are studying student learning is a good time to make sure that your intended study is ethical and beneficial. Studying student learning in a global context means the people your students are learning with, such as providers, host families and other students, can add a layer of complexity to the research. When you are looking at publishing data from your global studies research, it generally requires some type of Institutional Research Board approval. Here are some things I’ve learned about navigating this process.
Start early – The IRB process, once your application is complete, can take anywhere from a week to several months, depending on the nature or complexity of your process. You may also (or your entire team may also) have to take an online training course on working with human participants that takes several hours to complete.
Things that make IRB approval take longer include:

Deception – Doing something with participants where they don’t understand what is happening at the time, but you tell them later.

Differentially providing benefit – If you are doing research on students and offering credit, a prize or extra credit for complying (example: Fill out this questionnaire for a cookie or 5 points on a quiz), it needs to be very clear to the committee that students who choose not to participate can still have a way to earn the credit that requires a similar effort. If you reward compliant students with extra credit for filling out a questionnaire, but ask non-compliant students to write a 5-page paper for the same incentive, you can expect difficulty with your IRB

Summer – If you are at a campus that has low summer activity or low research activity overall, it is unlikely that the IRB will take up a complicated proposal outside of the academic year.

Think local (study global : )   ) Although federal laws govern IRB process, there is definitely a local flavor to IRB decisions. Find a faculty member at your campus who is successful at the KIND of research you hope to do (questionnaires, interviews, observations, whatever) and ask them to talk about their process for gaining approval and what they have learned before you begin your proposal.  This is much faster than going through multiple rounds of application and revision. If an IRB member is from the home department of a team member, this can be an opportunity to ask for a pre-review assessment from that person.
Pay attention to requirements – Being on an IRB is a challenging and time-consuming job, and usually, it is faculty service (aka on top of teaching and research requirements). There will likely be a very specific process and format required, and you would do well to follow it compulsively. When you irritate people by making them work harder to figure things out, that can work against you.
Remember both risk and benefit – Studies where the benefits to either the participants, to society or both clearly outweigh the risks to participants are studies that get permission to be conducted. Make sure you clearly explain both benefits and risks to participants.
Consider risks broadly – Just because you are not causing physical pain does not mean there are not significant reputational or psychological risks in your study. For example, if you will ask students to complete blog posts on their experiences so that you can analyze them, and the students write in a public blog that the host family uses physical discipline with children, could that have negative repercussions for that family? How about if they write that the host mother is under-educated and not very good at making household decisions? How about if they write that another student is having difficulty adjusting?
Strive for anonymity – If you can, collect data without personal information. If you can’t, try to remove it at the first opportunity (after you match interview or assignment coding with student success measures, for example). If you can’t do that either, strive for confidentiality (where you don’t share personal information).
Have a plan for data – Good global experiences are often personally disquieting at key points, and many projects are looking for evidence of this. A data breach could mean that sensitive information shared with your team is now made public. This could conceivably be disastrous for the student. How will you prevent this? Most IRBs will accept data stored in an office that only the investigators have access to, or in electronic files that are password protected, although your mileage may vary. Be sure to check with someone on your local IRB.
Informed consent is essential – Making sure participants in a study know exactly what is happening to them and how they can refuse or get more information is at the heart of approval for most IRBs. Ask for examples of successful informed consent forms and scripts from your institution and use them as a model.
Remember that it’s not just students who need protection – If you are interviewing host families or host university professors or friends, they need to be able to give consent and know how their data will be used as well. (n.b. this may require translation of materials in advance – plan for this in your timeline)
Global learning carries a lot of potential for ethical concerns, as our learners encounter real people in their real contexts. As instructors seek the best learning experiences for their students, ethical research on the instructional process matters.

This post is adapted from a presentation at the 2015 summer meeting of the  Integrating Global Learning with the University Experience: Higher-Impact Study Abroad and Off-Campus Domestic Study research seminar
Amanda Sturgill (@DrSturg) is Associate Professor of Communications at Elon University.  She has professional experience in newspaper journalism and marketing communications, and her research focuses on the intersection of education and community-based work, the relationship of region and media, and on new technologies and the news. Amanda routinely teaches study abroad courses and has published on methods of reflection in service-learning abroad.

How to cite this post:

Sturgill, Amanda. 2015, July 7. IRB-Approved Global Studies Research. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from