I want to talk today about what many of us here have alluded to in other posts: the approval (and beyond) process of conducting ethical human research. What grew out of really really unethical primarily medical research on humans many years ago now has evolved into something that can take up a great deal of your research time, especially on a large, long-duration grant such as ours. Many people (including me, until recently) thought of this process as primarily something to be done up-front: get approval, then sort of forgotten about except for the actual gaining of consent as you go and unless you significantly change your research questions or process. Wrong! It’s a much more constant, living thing.
We at the Visitor Center have several things that make us a weird case for our Institutional Review Board office at the university. First, even though it is generally educational research that we do, as part of the Science and Mathematics Education program, our research sites (the Visitor Center and other community-based locations) are not typically “approved educational research settings” such as classrooms. Classrooms have been so frequently used over the years that they have a more streamlined approval process unless you’re introducing a radically different type of experiment. Second, we’re a place where we have several types of visitor populations: the general public, OSU student groups, and K-12 school and camp groups, who each have different levels of privacy expectations, requirements for attending (public: none, OSU school groups: may be part of a grade), and thus different levels and forms of obtaining consent to do research required. Plus, we’re trying to video record our entire population, so getting signatures from 150,000+ visitors per year just isn’t feasible. However, some of the research we’re doing will be our typical video recording that is more in-depth than just the anonymized overall timing and tracking and visitor recognition from exhibit to exhibit.
What this means is a whole stack of IRB protocols that someone has to manage. At current count, I am managing four: one for my thesis, one for eyetracking in the Visitor Center for looking at posters and such, one for a side project involving concept mapping, and one for the general overarching video recording for the VC. The first three have been approved and the last one is in the middle of several rounds of negotiation on signage, etc., as I’ve mentioned before. Next up we need to write a protocol for the wave tank video reflections, and one for groundtruthing the video-recording-to-automatic-timing-tracking-and-face-recognition data collection. In the meantime, the concept mapping protocol has been open for a year and needs to be closed. My thesis protocol has bee approved nearly as long, went through several deviations in which I did things out of order or without getting updated approval from IRB, and now itself soon needs to be renewed. Plus, we already have revisions to the video recording protocol staff once the original approval happens. Thank goodness the eyetracking protocol is already in place and in a sweet spot time-wise (not needing renewal very soon), as we have to collect some data around eyetracking and our Magic Planet for an upcoming conference, though I did have to check it thoroughly to make sure what we want to do in this case falls under what’s been approved.
On the positive side, though, we have a fabulous IRB office that is willing to work with us as we break new ground in visitor research. Among them, us, and the OSU legal team we are crafting a strategy that we hope will be useful to other informal learning institutions as they proceed with their own research. Without their cooperation, though, very little of our grand plan would be able to be realized. Funders are starting to realize this, too, and before they make a final award for a grant they require proof that you’ve discussed the basics of your project at least with your IRB office and they’re on board.