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Research Ethics Are Focus of New Review Process for Students’ Independent Projects

Research Ethics Are Focus of New Review Process for Students’ Independent Projects January 16, 2013
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This past fall, students on three ACM off-campus study programs had some new materials packed into their research “toolkits” as they embarked on their independent study projects. As part of an initiative aimed at strengthening the project experience, the students followed the same steps that an on-campus Institutional Review Board (IRB) would require for projects involving human subjects.

“It’s vital that students learn about the ethical principles involved in conducting research or other types of inquiries, and then incorporate those principles into the research question and methodology of their projects,” said Joan Gillespie, ACM Vice President & Director of Off-Campus Study Programs. “The process we’ve instituted protects human subjects and makes sure that all students doing independent projects on our programs are aware of ethical principles, no matter what topic they are pursuing.”

Fall 2012 Tanzania ProgramStudents, faculty, and staff at the field site during the fall 2012 Tanzania Program, one of the ACM programs that now has an Ethics Review process for student projects.

Photo courtesy of Molly Margaretten

“There’s another practical reason for students to go through the review process,” Gillespie added. “The Ethics Review clears the way for a student to publish the project, or to use the data and results of their off-campus work as the basis for a research project or thesis back on their home campus.”

Under federal regulations, any research project – that is, a “systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge” – that involves the collection of data through “intervention or interaction with human subjects” may be subject to review by an IRB to ensure that the subjects are properly protected. Faculty at ACM colleges have been grappling with how to interpret and apply the regulations to student inquiry projects, whether they take place on campus or during off-campus study.

ACM’s new Ethics Review process grew out of the work of a group of faculty and staff from three ACM member institutions – Beloit, Carleton, and St. Olaf Colleges – that organized a symposium in February 2012 aimed at helping ACM colleges address the ethical, educational, institutional, and legal challenges of protecting human subjects during research projects undertaken by undergraduates.

For more on this topic, see “Do No Harm: Research Skills and Cross-cultural Learning” by Joan Gillespie in ACM Notes.

The ACM Symposium on Protecting Human Subjects in Student Inquiry Projects was the brainchild of Jo Beld (political science, St. Olaf), Greg Buchanan (psychology, Beloit), and Nathan Grawe (economics, Carleton). All were involved with these issues on their own campuses, and saw the consortial connections as a way to share expertise and ideas for effective ways to meet the growing challenges.

With a grant from the Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) project, an ACM program supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the three professors studied the issues surrounding IRBs, collected information about what ACM colleges were doing in that area, and planned the symposium, which drew participants from all 14 ACM institutions.

The result of this collaboration was a set of recommendations, approved by the ACM academic deans, that was implemented on ACM program sites in Tanzania, India, and Chicago this past fall. The process begins before students head off-campus, with assignments to read a packet of materials on ethical research standards and complete an online tutorial, Protecting Human Research Participants, developed by the National Institutes of Health.

Molly MargarettenMolly Margaretten

As faculty director of the fall 2012 Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins program, Ripon College anthropologist Molly Margaretten was closely involved with implementing the Ethics Review process on that program. She built the review process into her Research Methods course, which prepares the students for their field practicum projects and a six-week fieldwork stint in and around Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania.

As they developed their project proposals in the early weeks of the semester, the students filled out forms detailing their plan for protecting human subjects. About half the students did projects in archaeology or ecology and animal behavior that did not involve human subjects, so they completed the forms fairly quickly, said Margaretten. Other students in the program were engaged in cultural anthropology projects, which required more rigorous attention because of their interactions with human subjects.

“We spent a long time working on their informed consent forms [given to interviewees],” she said, “and having their participants be completely aware of what the project entailed, who [the students] were and their reasons for being there, and trying to minimize any potential negative impacts.” Confidentiality, such as protecting interviewee’s individual identities, was a central issue for the students to address.

Research ethics encompass more than just working with human subjects, Margaretten noted, and she and the students discussed the principle of “creating the least disturbance possible” when conducting any kind of project. For example, when biology and ecology students are in the field collecting plant samples and observing animal behavior, she said, “they just try to be as unobtrusive as possible and not cause distress to animals or degrade the environment by their presence.” For students conducting archaeology projects, she emphasized the importance of keeping meticulous field notes, since excavation changes a site forever.

Margaretten reviewed all of the students’ projects, sending the sensitive cases to the ACM Ethics Review Panel and, for a couple of projects, to the IRB at the student’s home campus. The ACM panel included Buchanan and Sandra Shumaker, Director of Knox College’s Vovis Center for Research and Advanced Study, who also participated in the Symposium on Protecting Human Subjects.

Overall, the students were receptive to the review process, according to Margaretten, and it was a good tool for getting them to look at the big picture. “It’s something to help protect them, too, and their research goals, [as well as] the people they’re working with,” she said. “I think it was also helpful for my course, because it showed [the students] the entire research process, starting with your methods and then how you’re going to disseminate this information after you’re done with your project.”

“Based on what we learned from our experience in the fall and the feedback from IRBs at the ACM colleges, we’ll continue to refine our procedures,” Gillespie said. The programs involved in the process during the spring 2013 semester will be Botswana: University Immersion in Southern Africa; the Chicago Program: Arts, Entrepreneurship, and Urban Studies; and Costa Rica: Field Research in the Environment, Social Sciences, & Humanities. ACM’s new Jordan: Middle East & Arabic Language Studies program will have the Ethics Review process in place for student projects when it begins in fall 2013.


Chicago Program: Arts, Entrepreneurship, & Urban Studies
India: Culture, Traditions, & Globalization
Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins

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