Completing research at UT? Get acquainted with the IRB, UT’s most frustrating department

Travis Knoll

The Institutional Review Board may sound like a distant federal agency, but it is a part of completing research at this University, and its byzantine regulations are the stuff of legend. If you are a student doing any sort of work with human beings for your thesis, from interviews to surveys, you will have to talk to the board soon (mid-March to early April for summer approval) to finalize a long and bureaucratic approval process. 

Ask a professor about the IRB, and they will tell you that the office is “a world apart” from the rest of the University. Graduate students might tell you that world is one of archaic online systems and unnecessarily dry compliance modules. Although the IRB is important for regulating research, it can seem more like an unnecessary burden than a legitimate watchdog. But the IRB is necessary for conducting quality research, and its lack of funding and perceived impotence unnecessarily harms students’ enthusiasm for gaining valuable research experience. 

The IRB’s purpose is to ensure that information collected from human subjects for research projects is done so with those subjects’ knowledge and expressed consent. To a certain degree, they also have leeway to vet the methodology of University students and faculty and to give advice as to how to improve research design. 

The board exists to prevent national and international research abuse, such as the time when U.S.-backed syphilis experiments in Guatemala between 1946-48 in which 1,300 Guatemalans were infected with syphilis and other STDs without their consent. Although the paperwork and review process is a pain, IRB regulations protect research subjects. And for many students, having a steady hand double-checking their work can help them avoid larger academic headaches as well as nasty lawsuits for the University.

But weighty regulations don’t always mesh well with international research. When, as an undergraduate at UT, I sought opinions on films relating to my thesis on Argentine cinema from Argentine nationals, the consent process brought charges of “U.S. imperialism” from my subjects. Adult participants, who only had to verbally agree to participate, would roll their eyes upon seeing the long information letter I gave them. “Why does a U.S. university insist upon imposing its standards and consent concerns on researchers who have to work in Argentina? Why do I have to read a form to answer questions about a movie?” one person asked. The IRB was for them a symbol of the U.S. penchant for avoiding lawsuits through a mountain of paperwork for even small endeavors and the U.S.’s perceived tendency to impose its standards well outside its borders.

A few other oddities complicate applying for IRB regulations when completing international research. The IRB, for instance, only has consent form templates for English and Spanish. The researcher is responsible for drafting consent forms for any other language needed. Many times, regulators go on the “honor system” that the forms are accurate, because the IRB does not have the language experts needed to review language documents in languages besides English and Spanish. One casualty, I suppose, of decreasing state support for universities. 

Rules regarding future data use are also vague. For example, the IRB can construe proposals to limit students’ research results to their theses only, forcing the students to seek approval for further use of data already collected. When I spoke to sociology professor Mary Rose, she said she understood the importance of making sure data collection ensures privacy and is used ethically. She was surprised at that limitation, saying her team published several articles using one data set on jury decision making without putting in a specific request for  each use.

Another problem with the IRB: Many times, a handful of reviewers get stuck reviewing hundreds of tedious applications in a period of a couple of months, meaning delayed approvals and cursory feedback on proposal design. 

But ultimately, research watchdogs like the IRB like to remind us that procedures and consent are about human dignity and not just avoiding liability. Clear and concise regulations, more funding, more staff and closer collaboration could help make that notion more of a reality for students and professors doing research.

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.