Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Undergraduate Issue

Volume 26 Number 2
Spring 2004

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Gail McGuire and Kristen Budd
Gail McGuire, left, and Kristen Budd
Photo by Matt Cashore

Subject to the Same Rules

by Elizabeth E. Hunt

Kristen Budd has a keen interest in people. She's intrigued by how they interact with each other and with the social structures around them. The Indiana University South Bend senior might not have discovered these facts about herself if it hadn't been for a sociology methods class she picked up, after deciding that a pre-med track wasn't for her.

As it was, the course switched on a light for Budd, suddenly illuminating not only a major, but also a possible career path. She took another sociology course, then another. In each course, she found she liked the same part best: the research component. Whether the course assignments took her out onto the IUSB campus to survey other students about their views on dating or to her computer for data tabulation, Budd says she was hooked on the systematic accumulation and analysis of information that forms the core of academic research.

So when a favorite sociology faculty member asked Budd if she'd like to undertake a full-fledged research project in the field, the South Bend native jumped at the chance. By now a sociology major, Budd had a future mapped out that was likely to involve graduate school, an advanced degree, maybe even a job in a sociology department of a research university. No time like the present, she figured, to gain the same kind of research experience that a faculty member or other professional researcher would have.

Budd didn't know then, but she was about to gain a kind of experience no researcher wants to have. Along with every other IUSB researcher conducting projects that involve human subjects, Budd received word last fall that her project, built around interviews with low-income mothers, would have to stop—immediately. IU's central administration had discovered that the IUSB institutional review board, the body that reviews and approves human subjects research, had not been performing its role correctly. The university halted all ongoing projects that the South Bend IRB had approved.

Even though Budd had completed all her human subjects paperwork before starting her research, she learned that her study would need to be reviewed again by the IU Bloomington IRB and gain its consent before her work could continue. All she could do was wait. "It wasn't fun," she admits. "But the safeguards are definitely necessary. Protecting the research subject is the most important thing."

A setback like this, coming out of the blue and through no fault of her own, might have soured another student-researcher. But it didn't faze Budd. She wanted the same kind of research experience that a professional researcher might have—she got it, she reasons, and then some.

Situations such as Budd's, however, may raise questions about how undergraduate research is monitored and evaluated. Can undergraduates who are just learning the ropes really be seen as full-fledged researchers? When it comes to research that involves people, should these students be subject to the same rules as seasoned faculty members?

The last question is an important one, says Peter Finn, a professor of psychology and chairman of the Bloomington IRB, because it's important to understand that all human subjects researchers, no matter who they are, must follow the rules and procedures that govern this type of research. In this way, undergraduate researchers and faculty researchers are exactly alike. There is no leeway for researchers who are new to the game.

But not every research-like activity is research, says Finn, and that's where confusion can start. "We have a very specific definition of research when it comes to activities that are governed by federal and university regulations," he explains. "It's data collection, the purpose of which is to add to the body of 'generalizable knowledge.'"

Such a definition eliminates from the outset many activities that take place in universities, Finn says, and monitoring these endeavors is not necessary. For example, journalists and journalism students may, in some cases, conduct interviews in a very similar way to that of a sociologist or political scientist. But they are not subject to regulations that oversee human subjects research because their goal is different. They do not aim to contribute to the body of generalizable knowledge; instead, they are reporting news or otherwise creating journalistic accounts of their particular subject matter.

So how do you know if a project is contributing to generalizable knowledge? It's often more straightforward than you might think, believes Finn. Researchers have venues—journals and academic meetings, for example—for exchanging and responding to each other's work, and these venues are the clearinghouses for generalizable knowledge. "When research will be published in a scholarly journal or presented at an academic meeting, it's an indication that the work is contributing to the body of generalizable knowledge," says Finn. "In fact, it's quite a reliable indication. It's what we look for when we look at projects."

Despite this reliable indicator of which research falls under human subjects oversight, undergraduate projects can still create confusing situations, for several reasons. First, what about classroom activities that are designed to teach research methods? For example, would students taking part in class project aimed at helping students learn to conduct surveys need to gain approval before asking their fellow students to fill out a questionnaire on fast-food preferences?

No, says Finn. Such a project would not add to generalizable knowledge. "People may call it research," he notes, "but it doesn't fit the definition." An exception to this rule of thumb, however, involves classroom activities that could create "significant risk" to their subjects, or those that would engage "vulnerable populations" such as children, non-English speakers, or others who could not make an informed decision about taking part in the project. "In these cases, we would want an IRB to be involved," says Finn. "Somebody around the university has to monitor projects like these, and an IRB would be the obvious choice."

Another seemingly gray area for evaluating student research that involves human subjects is created by journals and conferences designed specifically to showcase undergraduate research and creative activity. As colleges and universities begin to understand the extent to which research participation enhances an undergraduate education, such forums are increasing across the nation.

Exceptionally rich in undergraduate research opportunities, IUSB, for example, has three student journals: the interdisciplinary IUSB Student Research Journal; New Views on Gender, IU's only undergraduate journal focused on gender; and Analecta, an award-winning literary and arts publication. Conferences for undergraduate researchers are on the rise, too, with IUSB hosting its own student research conference each spring and sending students to wider meetings such as the university-wide IU Undergraduate Research Conference, the Midwest Student Sociology Conference, and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (being held at IUPUI this spring).

In fact, with its Student/Mentor Academic Research Teams (SMART) program, IUSB "is a fabulous environment for student research," says Gail McGuire, IUSB associate professor of sociology and Budd's research mentor. "Our students gain invaluable experiences outside the classroom, working independently."

But does all this undergraduate involvement spell an overload for IRBs? Not necessarily, says Finn. While some of the human subjects work carried out for these projects meets the IRB definition of research, not all does. "When a project is specifically designed for an undergraduate journal or conference, we don't typically think of that as adding to generalizable knowledge," he says. "Undergraduate journals are not journals to which a scholar in the field would be likely to turn." His advice for students and faculty members is to seek advice about whether or not a project must gain IRB approval before tackling the time-consuming paperwork.

Still, there are times when it can be important for undergraduates to jump through the hoops of human subjects research approval, even if a project aims initially at an undergraduates-only outlet. IRBs do have an educational mission, Finn notes, and a part of that mission is to help teach promising young researchers what is involved in working responsibly with human subjects. In the IUB psychology department, he notes, all honors students complete a project that requires them to seek IRB approval. "When there's a high probability that a student will go on to a career that includes research, then it is appropriate that the committee review that student's project."

Even when undergraduates are engaged in projects that don't meet the IRB definition of research, they are gaining valuable knowledge and experience, Finn says. "An active education is a great thing," he says. "Research experiences are wonderful training."

McGuire agrees, adding that, whether or not a student plans on a research career, involvement in independent projects can build skills from problem-solving to assertiveness to endurance. "Research is a lesson in endurance," she says. "You're just working away, and the vast majority of your work won't show up in the final project."

Endurance was indeed one of the lessons that Kristen Budd learned, persisting in a project despite the campus-wide human subjects research moratorium that stopped her project cold for a time. But Budd feels only fortunate to have had the research experience at all. Not only will the skills and information she gained stand her in good stead as she applies to graduate programs in sociology, but the experience—setbacks and all—cemented her sense that research will be a part of her future. "I love it," she says simply. "I fell in love with it from the first, and I like it even more now."

Elizabeth E. Hunt is editor in chief of the Indiana Alumni Magazine.