Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Research Methodologies in Science Education: Human Subjects and Education Research

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Research Methodologies in Science Education: Human Subjects and Education Research

Article excerpt

"the general rule is that if there is any element of research in an activity, that activity should undergo review for the protection of human subjects"

-from The Belmont Report

Maria and Alan, both geology professors at a large state university, are submitting a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF). They are planning to study the effect of web-based writing assignments on student learning. During the submission process, Maria notices that the cover page for proposals contains a checkbox labeled "Human Subjects". Alan thinks that they need to check the box, since they will be gathering data from students, although Maria thinks Human Subjects only refers to psychological or medical experiments involving people. Both Alan and Maria are concerned that their decision to check the "Human Subjects" box or leave it unchecked will impact their ability to receive federal funding.


Although the use of the term "human subjects" has evolved in the last thirty years, today the phrase applies to any research that involves interaction with people. This includes not only medical studies, but also any type of social science research, including anthropology, ethnography, and education. Since 1974, federal guidelines nave dictated the procedures that must be followed for federally funded research that involves human subjects (Oakes, 2002). Additionally, most academic institutions have adopted these guidelines to cover any human research conducted by affiliated researchers, including projects with no private, state, or federal research funds. Penalties exist for researchers and institutions that do not follow these rules, with punishments ranging from simple reprimands to removal of all federal funding and cessation of research activities (Dunn and Chadwick, 2001). As a result, scientists are responsible for following all institutional and federal guidelines, and in most cases it is up to the researcher to obtain full human subjects approval before commencing any research that involves human participants.

Most institutions have an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that processes requests for research involving human subjects. In keeping with federal guidelines, many institutions, but not ail, make special allowances for research that involves educational settings, particularly where the research involves students anonymously completing tests or surveys. Most institutions still require completion of the human subjects review form, but approval is often expedited, meaning that the proposal is evaluated in a shorter time frame than is required for full IRB review. These are considered to be studies of "no-risk" or "low risk" to human participants (Figure 1). However, as soon as personal information pertaining to academic records is used, such as grades (even in aggregate), the stakes increase, and the required human subjects process becomes more complicated. Because academic information is considered to be private information, institutions must grant formal permission for the release of such information, particularly to the general public in the permanent form represented by most research publications.


The use of human subjects in research is receiving more scrutiny today than ever before. This is due in large part to serious lapses in oversight that have resulted in repercussions to research subjects, ranging from annoyance to death. While the studies that have received the most attention are primarily in the medical field, all areas of human subjects research are now being held to a high standard, both by IRBs and the government's Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP). Although oversight boards have recognized for over thirty years that researchers cannot always be trusted to put the interests of research subjects ahead of the research itself, we are beginning to realize that the protections that are in place don t always work. …

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