CASNET Week: Frances Lawrenz and Amy Grack Nelson on What Do You Do When IRB Approvals Differ?

This is Frances Lawrenz and Amy Grack Nelson from University of Minnesota; Amy also works at the Science Museum of Minnesota. We’re part of the Complex Adaptive Systems as a Model for Network Evaluations (CASNET) research project, which has involved observing, interviewing, audio recording and collecting artifacts about adult participants in the NSF-funded Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net).

Because CASNET is centered at University of Minnesota, we first requested IRB approval there. They determined that consent was unnecessary, feeling the research was evaluation-oriented and subjects would be talking more about NISE Net than providing personal information. This raised a dilemma for us. Some team members were also participants in NISE Net and wanted to honor existing relationships and build trust by asking for permission, especially because data would be gathered during meetings. Therefore, we turned to the IRB at the Museum of Science, Boston, which, unlike the University’s IRB, determined that consent was indeed necessary.

Ultimately, we decided to gather consent from all research participants. We discovered that when offered the choice to opt out of certain aspects of the study, people sometimes did so, which would not have been possible had we followed the University’s IRB ruling.

Lessons Learned Engaging with Two IRBs:

  • IRBs have different perceptions of risk.       The two IRBs interpreted risk and the need for consent differently. Because obtaining more consent is usually unproblematic, evaluation researchers should carefully consider research subjects’ needs and research team relationships when making consent decisions. Researchers often have a deeper understanding of the people they are researching than a formal IRB application makes clear.
  • Consent is a process. Some people who originally restricted consent changed their minds to later allow collection of their data. Consent should be an ongoing process, especially in long projects. (Ours lasted 3 years.)
  • Individuals have diverse opinions about what data should be allowable. Despite the fact that some people agreed to data collection, others did not, demonstrating different preferred levels of personal control. Accommodation and acceptance of differing needs are necessary.
  • Obtaining permission can be time consuming.       We developed highly confidential mechanisms for obtaining consent because research team members were also part of data collection. Additionally, someone external to the network managed consent forms that required substantial amounts of time. Taking the time was worth it because the research team’s careful attention to ethical behavior ultimately built a high level of trust in the subjects.
  • Trust is essential. Human subjects are understandably concerned about who is going to learn their personal information and how information will be used. Recognizing this and allowing people to meet their own needs to opt in or out of a study develops trust, which can facilitate the research and the quality of its content.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Complex Adaptive Systems as a Model for Network Evaluations (CASNET) week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from members of the CASNET research team. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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