How-to LibParlor Contributor

The Importance of Research Ethics

LibParlor Contributor Erin Richter-Weikum writes about her experiences with submitting to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and shares tips for making it through the process.

Erin Richter-Weikum is an Online Librarian at American Public University System and she lives in San Francisco.


I have been working in academic libraries for over five years now. The first two years coincided with my getting my MLIS, and the next three were spent juggling two part-time academic library jobs while working on my second master’s in Research Methods and Statistics (RMS). It was while working on my second Master’s degree, not my MLIS, that I learned how to effectively conduct research on my own.

“…it is my responsibility to protect my participants’ right to privacy regarding any information I collect during my research, whether it be first-hand interviews or secondary data.”

One of the most important classes I took while in my RMS program was Research Ethics. In this class we discussed different ethical dilemmas that researchers face. We covered the philosophical, such as the trolley problem, but we also discussed real ethical conundrums researchers have come across and discussed different ways we could approach those problems. My biggest takeaway from the course was the importance of thinking about the people involved in any research project. I recognized that it is my responsibility to protect my participants’ right to privacy regarding any information I collect during my research, whether it be first-hand interviews or secondary data. This is where IRB comes in.

IRB: What is it and why should I care?

The Institutional Review Board (IRB), also sometimes referred to as the Ethics Review Committee, is a group of people who review a proposed research project to ensure ethical conduct of research.

“If you are using data that can identify an individual, or identifiable data, then it is considered “human subjects research” and you must submit for IRB review.”

IRB is the committee that review your research project before you are allowed to begin collecting data and working with human participants. IRB review is required if you plan to use human participants for your research project. If your research involves qualitative or mixed methods research, chances are you will be required to submit your research project for IRB approval. For quantitative research it will depend on the data that you are using. If you are using data that can identify an individual, or identifiable data, then it is considered “human subjects research” and you must submit for IRB review. If you’re not sure, I would recommend contacting your IRB office and asking; it’s better to take the extra step up front rather than making an assumption that could lead to a rejection. This leads to my final reason that you should care about IRB review: IRB approval is critical if you plan to publish the results of your research. If you are going to be putting in all of this time and effort, chances are that you want to publish or present your results to others. In order to do this you’ll need to make sure you followed all of the proper protocols, including obtaining IRB approval, otherwise your research practices, research ethics, and results may come into question. That’s doubt you just don’t need in your life.

I have gone through IRB twice at two separate Universities within the past year for a single research project. I had to submit IRB with the University of Denver, where I was going to school, and then I had to submit IRB again with the University where I intended to conduct my research. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it was. The important thing to take away is that I’ve gone through IRB with two separate schools and had to fill out two entirely different forms for submission and had very different experiences at these institutions.

IRB Approval Process

This process will be different for everybody since there are a plethora of factors that will contribute to how the process will look for you, but I wanted to provide a general outline of what the IRB process may look like so you’ll have some idea:

  1. Think about your research project. Envision every aspect of it and how you will complete all of those steps and ask yourself a lot of questions. What methodology will you use? How will you select participants? How will you collect data? Will you be conducting interviews/focus groups or distributing surveys? Will you be recording your interviews? How will you be managing your data? It helps to write it all down in some way just for you so that you can begin to visualize how all the components fit together.
  2. Organize. Now that you’ve written down what you need to do, organize your research process into steps to help you get started.
  3. Contact. Is there anyone else you would like to work with on your project? Are there any offices or organizations you would like to work with? You can begin to feel out potential partnerships and alliances early. This is also a good time to reach out to anyone, including the IRB, with questions you have about your research.
  4. Full, Expedited, or Exempt. Check to see if you are eligible for expedited or exempt review. If you do not qualify for either of these you will need to undergo full board review.
  5. Fill out appropriate IRB forms. There should be a checklist that will include which forms you need to fill out and which additional documents you need to attach, such as the recruitment email or the survey questions. If you wrote down all of your research points already (as 1 and 2 suggested) this will be much quicker.
  6. Complete CITI Certification. The CITI program is an online training program designed to educate faculty and students about ethics surrounding human subjects research. The information about CITI training, including which modules to complete, should be available through your school’s IRB website or office.
  7. Double check you filled out and attached all of the correct IRB forms.
  8. Submit your IRB Packet.
  9. Wait… Your school’s IRB website should include how often the IRB committee meets so that you’ll have some idea of how long it will take before hearing back. For my first school, I had to wait three months before I heard that my research project was approved. The second school only took three weeks.
  10. Celebrate! You’ve just been approved to move forward with your research!  What are you waiting for, get started! If you need to wait to get started on your research, make sure to check how long your IRB approval is valid for since this will affect how long you can hold onto your data.

Takeaways From My Experience

It was very important that I had my entire research project planned out and well thought through before filling out and submitting the IRB forms. This included having my research narrative, my methodology, how I would be collecting, managing, storing, saving, and sharing my data (for both qualitative and quantitative data since this was for a mixed methods research project), who would have access to my data, my recruitment email and interview questions, and my completed survey. It’s important to have every part of the research project thought out and planned before submission because once you receive approval you can begin collecting data immediately.

“It was very important that I had my entire research project planned out and well thought through before filling out and submitting the IRB forms.”

Every school is different and prioritizes working with new researchers in different ways; it is always important to reach out to either the IRB or Institutional Research office first when beginning to put together the parts of your research project. My own experience showed me that one IRB office was very helpful, and the other one was… less than helpful. If you have an IRB office that is fantastic, then awesome!  You’re off to a great start!  Research tends to be collaborative and having a supportive presence in the IRB or IR office can make a huge difference.

If, on the other hand, your IRB office is less than helpful, don’t feel discouraged!  The best advice I can offer is to speak with others who have submitted their research for IRB review at your institution and ask about their experiences or for advice. You may have a colleague who can help guide you through which forms to fill out or provide feedback if you feel comfortable letting them read through your research narrative. Librarians are helpful and wonderful people!  Don’t be afraid to ask for advice in blogs, forums, or social media if you can’t turn to your colleagues for advice.

(Hopefully) Helpful Advice

  • Not every research project is going to require IRB!  Check with the IRB office first to ask if your research project is going to require review.
  • IRB is going to be different at every institution, so be sure to check what the requirements are.
  • There are special restrictions for working with vulnerable populations. Vulnerable populations include children, pregnant women, and prisoners. You should check with your IRB office for more information about which groups of people they classify as vulnerable populations.
  • Check to see if you are eligible for expedited or exempt review. If you do not qualify for either of these you will need to undergo full board review.
  • It can be challenging and sometimes frustrating to fill out all of the proper documents, but it is important to be as thorough as possible when filling it out so that you give yourself the best chance of passing review the first time around.
  • Ask for advice from anyone you know who has gone through IRB. I have been approached by multiple colleagues and classmates who have asked for advice about how to complete an IRB form for the first time. I am more than happy to sit down and talk through which forms to fill out and whom else it would be useful to talk to before submitting the IRB review forms.
  • Remember, the purpose of IRB is to protect everyone involved. Think about how your research can impact others and always think of your participants safety and anonymity first.

References & Further Reading

IRBNet: https://www.irbnet.org/release/index.html

Thomson, J. J. (1985). The trolley problem. The Yale Law Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.trolleydilemma.com/

University of California, Irvine Office of Research. (n.d.). Levels of review. Retrieved from: https://www.research.uci.edu/compliance/human-research-protections/researchers/levels-of-review.html

University of Virginia IRB Office. (n.d.) Vulnerable populations list. Retrieved from: http://www.virginia.edu/vpr/irb/hsr/vulnerable_subjects.html


Featured image [CC0], via Pexels. 


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The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

1 comment on “The Importance of Research Ethics

  1. Pingback: Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries – The Librarian Parlor

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