Year 1 Civic Projects

Students in Year 1 at Minerva do "Civic Projects" in the community, and these often include human subjects research that requires evaluation by the IRB. Here is essential information, structured in the form of an FAQ.

What are the most likely interactions with the IRB for Year 1 Civic Projects?

There are four most likely paths groups will be on. Below are the four, each with an example of teams working with a civic partner that will be delivering a workshop on gender identity to minors ages 10-17

  • Not collecting or analyzing information from people. Team Alpha will be researching similar workshops that have been done in the past, compiling for the civic partner a list of common content, materials groups have used to promote their workshops, etc. This team will not be collecting or analyzing any information from people, and so will not need to interact with the IRB. Of course, plenty of #ethicalconsiderations and topics of #professionalism still apply!
  • Collecting/analyzing information as a "journalist". Team Beta will be interviewing three people who have led similar workshops at other organizations, asking them questions about what was successful vs. challenging, and any other wisdom they want to share. Importantly, none of the questions are about the people being interviewed and are only about the topic. This group will need to read more about IRB policies for doing journalistic projects, and then submit the form to request "exemption from further review".
  • Collecting/analyzing information as a "product tester". Team Gamma will be asking several people to experience a draft version of the workshop and give feedback on it. They will hold two "practice" workshops: one with staff members of the civic partner who were not involved in developing the workshop, and one with Minerva students who are not working with this civic partner. After doing each "practice" workshop, this group will ask the people who acted as "practice" attendees to provide feedback about what they thought was good vs. what should be revised. Importantly, none of the questions are about the people and are only about the workshop (e.g., "What was your favorite part" is about the respondent and so should not be asked, but "What was the strongest part of the workshop" is about the workshop and so okay). This group will need to read more about IRB policies for doing product testing projects, and then submit the form to request "exemption from further review".
  • Collecting/analyzing information as a "scientist". Team Delta will be designing (and analyzing the results of) a multiple-choice exam that will be given to the children before and after the workshop. They will use the results of the exam to draw conclusions about what topics this population comes in knowing, which topics they learn the most about during the workshop, and which topics they are still confused about after the workshop. Because they are collecting information about people and then analyzing it (for example, with p-values) to make general claims, they are doing "Human Subjects Research" in the way that scientists do (rather than journalists or product testers) and so will need to submit their project plans for IRB review and approval. This will require much more work, including developing a full consent procedure and data management plan. Indeed, because the study includes a "vulnerable population" (children) the study will need to be evaluated by the full 5-person IRB rather than being able to be processed more quickly by just one member.

Why do Year 1 Civic Projects often require interaction with the IRB, when some similar activities (e.g., an assignment in Empirical Analyses) do not?

There is a crucial difference between practicing doing research and actually doing research. Imagine you do the following:

  • Randomly assign 100 people to either (A) watch a 30-second advertisement about the importance of recycling, or (B) watch a 30-second advertisement about the importance of voting.
  • Give all participants a questionnaire with questions about how much money they think the government should spend on "clean energy" initiatives.
  • Analyze the data to see if participants answered the questions differently depending on which 30-second advertisement they watched

If the above steps were done as part of an assignment to practice doing research, then it would not be the responsibility of the IRB to review and approve your research; the IRB's main job is to review and (potentially) approve plans for actually doing research. Thus, for an assignment to practice research, you might see a section on your assignment instructions that says something like:

  • "The MU IRB has reviewed this assignment and categorized it as “not human subjects research”. This categorization is because the assignment is about practicing research methodology, rather than trying to make generalizable claims about humans. Notably, this means that the work being done in this assignment would require review and approval by the IRB if it were being done with the goal of making (and perhaps then publicly sharing or publishing) generalizable claims."

Importantly, it is essential that you continue to consider #ethicalconsiderations and #professionalism when you are practicing doing research. First, doing so is part of practicing research. Second, the people contributing to your assignment are having the same experience regardless of whether your goal is to practice vs. actually do research, so thinking about their welfare is important regardless of your goal!

Notably, however, your Year 1 Civic Project is not just about practicing doing something--you are interacting with a real-world organization and hopefully doing a project of real-world value for them, and thus if you are engaging in research activities you should be actually doing them, and thus your work would require interaction with the IRB.