Student-Staffed Institutional Review Board (IRB) Implemented by Psi Beta Chapter!

An Institutional Review Board is a panel of individuals familiar with the ethical safeguards required to protect participants who serve in research studies. IRB panel members are trained to review research proposals to assure that research participants are treated according the American Psychological Association’s research ethics code. Psychologists, like all scientists, and their research students are expected to submit their research proposals to their institution’s IRB panel for review and approval before they are permitted to gather any data. Among other things, the IRB panel members review proposed studies to assure that participants are presented a thorough and adequate informed consent statement in which they are told about any risks for participating and informed that they can withdraw without penalty from the study at any time. If the study involves deception, it is important to debrief the participants after they complete their role in the study. Safeguards should be in place to protect the identity of each participant and to assure that information provided by the participant remains confidential. It is also important that participants leave the study in a positive frame of mind and feel they’ve made a meaningful contribution to the study and to science. A key task for the IRB is to assure that the study’s potential benefits to science and society outweigh any risks the study may present to the those who serve as participants.

Not all community colleges have an established IRB panel and process. If the college does have an IRB, its review turn-around time may be too slow to accommodate studies designed and conducted within a single semester. Irvine Valley College does have a college-wide IRB, but the psychology department has encouraged an increasing number of psychology students, especially Psi Beta members, to participate in research teams. Each research team is chaired by a student who has completed introductory courses in research methods and statistics. Each research team enjoys the guidance of a psychology professor. As the number of student research teams conducting studies grew – nine teams this semester – our college-wide IRB could not manage the workload in a timely manner.

How the student-staffed IRB was created and implemented:

1. Recruitment and training – Early in the semester, a professor presented a lecture on research ethics. Within that lecture, he described the APA research ethics and the IRB process. He then announced formation of a student-staffed IRB that would be charged with reviewing proposals submitted for all research teams in the course. Incentives for students, he said, included an opportunity to learn first-hand how IRBs function, protecting the rights of those who volunteer to serve as participants in our studies, something IRB members could add to their CV, and reducing the workload on the college-wide IRB. One requirement was that IRB panel applicants had to have already completed the research ethics component of the department’s research methods course. A second requirement was that applicants were required to complete the NIH Office of Extramural Research online training [see ] and then submit a digital copy of their certificate of training to a professor who co-chairs the student-staffed IRB. Seven students completed the training.

2. Proposal screening – Each research team prepared and submitted an IRB proposal [see ] and supplemental documents (e.g., recruiting script, informed consent, a copy of the questionnaire, debriefing script). Nine proposals were submitted for review. On a Friday afternoon, the IRB met to review the nine proposals. Seven students (all IRB panel members) and two professors (IRB co-chairs) attended and sifted through the proposals. Five proposals were approved to begin data collection. Four proposals were “approved with conditions” meaning that the proposing research team was asked to correct one or more things deemed unacceptable (e.g., deception will be used, but no debriefing was planned; potential participants will not be adequately informed of the risks; some spaces on the proposal form were left blank). It should be noted that prior to screening the proposals, the faculty serving as the IRB co-chairs informed the student panelists that if they felt it best, they had the option of forwarding a problematic proposal on to the college-wide IRB.

Here are some lessons learned from our initial student-driven IRB experience. Aside from assuring that research teams carefully consider the ethical treatment of participants while designing their studies, completing the IRB proposals seemed to help teams plan their studies and stay on schedule. We need to provide the IRB panel members with an evaluation form having prompts that helps them conduct a thorough screening of each proposal; the form we used needs revision. We prepared paper copies of each proposal for each panel member; this was very wasteful and left us with piles of paper. Next time we will post digital copies of the proposals so the panel members can read them before and during the IRB meeting. Timing is very important. We plan to add the IRB review date to the course syllabus, and build in time for the research teams to respond to and resubmit unapproved proposals within a week. Many of our IRB documents can be found on the IRB resource webpage at Please feel free to adapt these resources for your own use.

In conclusion, many studies being conducted by community college psychology students would likely require IRB screening if being conducted at a university. Furthermore, community college students need and deserve to become fully aware of the purpose and functioning of the IRB process.


IRB panel reading research proposals. Those pictured (starting on top left and moving clockwise) include Tiffany Chan, Quinton Delgadillo, Ana Beltran-Castillo, Elise Ulwelling, Dawn Murphy, Sarah Kulpa, and Estrella Serrato.


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