What is the difference between a professor teaching and conducting research? When does a professor need an Institutional Review Board to provide oversight on their project? The NSF has had this come up often enough, presumably, that they wrote a vignette on their website.
So, let’s take a quiz!
The NSF presented the following scenario: “Professor Speakwell teaches undergraduate courses in linguistics in which he demonstrates variability in both the syntax and vocabulary of spoken expression across individuals and cultures. Professor Speakwell involves his students in active learning in the classroom. He brings recordings of spoken English to class and calls on students to say whether they find the example grammatical and to explain or guess what the utterance means.”
Pretty straightforward, right? A professor is a teacher. But most professors move from role-to-role like a chameleon: researcher, artist, CEO, etc. depending on their discipline.
But, here’s the question:
“Professor Researchit, a colleague of Speakwell’s, uses these same techniques with undergraduate student volunteers to do research on variables that predict understanding of utterances. Dr. Researchit develops a protocol, and obtains IRB approval and students’ signed informed consent. Professor Researchit tells Speakwell that he had better get IRB approval and student informed consent since he is doing the same thing.”
Is Professor Researchit Correct?
Danielle Griffin, Ed.D., associate director of the Research Integrity and Oversight Office in the Division of Research at University of Houston was asked to weigh in on this vignette. She answered by saying, “No, Speakwell is not doing the same thing. Speakwell is teaching, not doing research.”
“The keywords in the first paragraph are ‘involves his students in active learning in the classroom.’ Active learning and research are two different things. They are doing hands-on learning about how to conduct research,” she went on to say. “Professor Researchit is actually doing research because the students are participants and the subjects of the data collection.”
When does a professor need an IRB? The government’s Health and Human Services website boasts an Office for Human Research Protections. You can find a “decision tree” there. It helps professors to determine whether an IRB is required for their research. Every institution has something similar; for instance the University of Rhode Island offers a similar tool to figure out the IRB process in a flow chart. The overarching rule is that if you are using human subjects in a clinical trial — you do need IRB oversight.
According to the University of Iowa, “publicly available data do not require IRB review. Examples: census data, labor statistics.” But they also provide a dense, comprehensive list of what else can be conducted without an IRB in place.
The Big Idea
When in doubt of whether you need an IRB or not, reach out to your institution’s IRB facilitators or the office that handles oversight, ethics and integrity. The Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) Office at the University of Houston, for instance, “supports and educates the research community in all areas of compliance with federal regulations concerning human subjects, animal subjects, conflicts of interest, grant congruency and responsible conduct of research.” It’s better to be safe than sorry, but if the lesson you’re teaching benefits the student, it is probably not a research project.