Institutional Review Boards—An Academic and Professional Matter

Senate President and Professor of Mathematics, Orange Coast College

While community colleges are not normally thought of as research institutions, an increasing amount of research is being conducted, including analyses of student success data, examinations of teaching strategies and how well they improve student learning, and studies of the effectiveness of student intervention strategies. Because community colleges are not considered research institutions, faculty are generally less aware of the need to have in place processes that provide appropriate protection for research subjects and by extension protection for the faculty, the college, or others conducting the research.

Resolution 13.13 S09, “Institutional Review Board,” (full text available at was referred to the Executive Committee for the purpose of providing more information to local academic senates on the subject before returning the resolution to the body for reconsideration at the Fall 2009 Plenary Session. The resolution states:

Resolved, That the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges strongly encourage local senates to consider the development of local college and district Institutional Review Board (IRB) Committees as a preventive measure to litigation and for the protection of the students and community that they serve; and

Resolved, That the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges recommend that development of IRB Committees be a faculty driven collegial consultation process through each local senate in an effort to establish a culture of compliance regarding protection of human subjects when conducting research and writing grants.

This article provides basic information about Institutional Review Boards (IRB) and their relation to academic and professional responsibilities.

What is an IRB?
In short, an Institutional Review Board (IRB) is part of a review process to ensure ethical standards in conducting research that is derived from classroom experiences involving human subjects and when such projects and presentations become public (i.e., presentations at professional conferences, sabbatical reports distributed throughout the college).

The purpose of the IRB is to review a proposed research project to determine whether participants in the study will be placed at physical or mental risk and, if risk is involved, to certify that the following conditions have been met: (a) risks to participants are minimized; (b) participants in the study (and their guardians) are fully aware of the risks and that individuals may withdraw from the study at any time without any form of penalty; (c) risks to the participants are so outweighed by the sum of the benefits to the participants and the importance of the knowledge to be gained as to warrant a decision to allow the participants to voluntarily accept these risks; (d) rights and welfare of any such participants will be adequately protected; (e) legally effective, informed consent will be obtained by adequate and appropriate methods in accordance with the provisions delineated in Title 45 of the Code of Federal Regulations; and (f) conduct of the activity will be reviewed at intervals determined by the IRB, but not less than annually (Lincoln, 2005).

Generally accepted good practices for the functioning of IRBs have been established and published. Should this resolution be adopted, more information about such practices will be provided in a future Rostrum article.

Why does a college need an IRB?
As a good practice, the IRB serves an important role in the protection of the rights and welfare of human research subjects. An IRB review is beneficial to both the investigator and the institution because such a review certifies that the investigator’s research project is in compliance with ethical guidelines and with state and federal rules and regulations. Moreover, an IRB review may also bring to the attention of an investigator ethical factors which may not have been considered. An IRB review also demonstrates and documents the institution’s commitment to the protection and ethical treatment of human participants.

On a more practical level, an IRB helps a college to avoid both, litigation should research subjects be harmed and federal reprimand for conducting research without obtaining informed consent from human subjects. As more and more colleges search for additional sources of funding to offset declining state support, it is also important to note that eligibility for federal grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Education (DOE) require that the institution have an IRB in place.

The IRB as an Academic and Professional Matter
In general, human research is any activity with the primary intent of securing information from or about human participants for the purpose of advancing basic, clinical, psychosocial, or educational understanding of humans. At community colleges, human research focuses primarily on students and their success. Student Success is one of the academic and professional matters under the purview of academic senates as stipulated in Title 5 regulation. Therefore, it makes sense for the Academic Senate to initiate discussion of this issue for the entire system.

Lincoln, Y. S. (2005). Institutional review boards and conservatism: The challenge to and from phenomenological paradigms. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The sage handbook of qualitative research (pp. 165-181)

O’Brien, R. (2001). An overview of the methodological approach of action research. Retrieved February 18, 2008 from: arfinal.html#_edn11

Stringer, E.T. (2007). Action research (3rd Ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.