Resources for Dealing with the IRB Process: Sample Applications, Consent Forms, & Organizations

February 24th, 2014

In my three previous posts, I discussed IRB issues around the definition of generalizable research and the associated issues of risk and consent. In this post, I get more practical and provide some resources to help you navigate the IRB process for your own project. I have included three kinds of resources: examples of completed approved IRB applications, examples of consent forms, and links to independent commercial IRB organizations who have experience with research in informal contexts.

IRB Applications

Several organizations have been kind enough to share completed IRB applications for the benefit of the informal science education community. In order to make these available, they had to first remove any information in the application that would violate the privacy of the organizations involved. Reading these completed applications requires careful attention. They are complex and each is slightly different, as they all used a different IRB application form. Rather than including complete applications, I have excerpted the most relevant parts of the longer ones.

National Science Festival Network

Exempt application from the University of California, San Diego

This is a relatively simple application that requested (and received) an exemption from the consent requirement. The key in this application is that all data collection was done anonymously. The project’s purpose was to gather feedback and outcomes data for science festivals in four locations around the country. Data were collected both at the science festivals themselves and at student activities held throughout the year. In both cases, survey instruments were administered to a sample of participants, who filled them out without providing any identifying information. Hence, not only was there no risk to participants, but the process of gaining consent would have actually constituted more of a risk, as identifying information would have to be collected.

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)

Umbrella Protocol for Access Algebra

Thanks to Marcie Benne and the Evaluation and Visitors Studies Division of OMSI for providing this approved application for the Access Algebra project, which produced an exhibit called Design Zone, focusing on algebraic reasoning. This application is much more complex than the previous one because it covers data collection from both visitors and staff, using a variety of methods: questionnaires, surveys, interviews, observation photography, audiotaping, and videotaping. I’ve excerpted the most relevant parts from this long application. This portion describes OMSI’s overall approach to consent, differentiating between adults and minors and between adults who have been explicitly “invited” to participate and those who are in non-invitational settings, then describes details of consent for each method and audience.

This portion shows the signs that they posted for implied consent for videotaping adults; these are similar to those I described in my last post and derive from Josh Gutwill’s work.

This portion includes consent forms for adults and minors in both English and Spanish. Note an important point on pages 3 and 4: before they were actually used, the language in these forms was simplified to be appropriate for minors between the ages of 7 and 14, who were the target audience for the Access Algebra project.

Sharing Recordings: Excerpt from an Exploratorium Protocol

In the comments around my second blog post, there was a discussion about how the sharing of data – including in publications – affects consent. If data are collected strictly for internal purposes, there is less risk to participants. As soon as data leave the setting in which they were collected, there is more chance that privacy issues will arise. The Exploratorium has developed a policy to determine where they can share video recordings of minors, based on whether or not they have obtained parental consent.

Basically, the Exploratorium has a general policy that identifiable recordings of either adults or minors made in public spaces (e.g., on the exhibit floor) can be shared in educational settings, which they define explicitly in the linked document. In these public spaces, permission for a minor can be obtained through implicit consent or by the signature of either a parent or a non-parental adult. However, in the case of minors recorded in non-public spaces (e.g., in focus groups or interviews in classrooms), implicit consent is not acceptable. If a non-parental adult signs the consent form, the video can only be shared within the Exploratorium.

Working with Staff: Excerpts from the Zoo and Aquarium Action Research Collaborative

In the last few years, several projects have designed and studied professional development programs for educators in informal contexts. The staffs involved in these projects are themselves the subjects of research and, as such, need to give their informed consent to be studied. The Zoo and Aquarium Action Research Collaborative (ZAARC) is a project I have been leading along with John Falk; its goal has been to support zoo and aquarium educators in doing action research about issues that arise from their practice, and to study the professional development process and its outcomes. The consent form for staff participating in ZAARC explains to participants what data will be collected, how it will be used, and how much identifying information about the project will be included in writing.

The Art of Consent Forms: A Very Simple Example

One of the challenges in doing research with a diverse public audience is crafting consent forms that are appropriate for people with a wide range of reading abilities. It’s easy for consent forms to get unwieldy and complicated and thus fail in successfully informing visitors of their options. This form, which was part of a TERC project developing and evaluating math materials in libraries, does a great job of keeping the form short and readable. This form has a readability level between 5th and 6th grade; many word processors will calculate a readability level for you automatically. Thanks to Marlene Kliman at TERC for letting me share this example.

Commercial IRBs

Several commercial IRB organizations have been recommended to me as having particular expertise in dealing with IRB issues in informal contexts. I list them here because credible, professional colleagues in the field have suggested them. If you know of any other “informal-context-friendly” IRBs – or represent one yourself – please add the contact information in the comments section at the end of this post.

Final Thoughts

As funders require evidence of the impact of educational interventions in informal contexts, more projects will have to design and carry out substantial research as part of their work. The recent National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) solicitation, for example, includes a Research in Service to Practice project type category that “specifically focuses on research that advances knowledge and the evidence base for practices, assumptions, broadening participation, and emerging educational arrangements in STEM learning in informal environments.” We hope that the IRB issues discussed in this blog series will be relevant and useful for the growing community of researchers and evaluators who are engaged in building knowledge to better understand and improve practice across the many sectors of the ISE field. Let’s keep the discussion going.