Human Subjects Requirements and Economic Education Researchers

By Lopus, Jane S.; Grimes, Paul W. et al. | American Economist, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Human Subjects Requirements and Economic Education Researchers


Lopus, Jane S., Grimes, Paul W., Becker, William E., Pearson, Rodney A., American Economist


I. Introduction

All academic institutions that receive funding from the United States federal government are required to enforce regulations that govern the use of human subjects by their researchers. When a study meets the government's definition of research, the principal investigator must submit a proposal outlining the methodology and procedures to an internal Institutional Review Board (IRB) prior to engaging in any research project that includes collecting and/or analyzing data from human subjects. The local IRB must certify that the design is in conformity with the federal regulations before any research project using human subjects may begin. Thus, virtually all university professors in the U.S. who use their students for research into the scholarship of teaching and learning must be familiar with the IRB regulations and practices.

Although many classroom-based educational projects either do not meet the regulation's definition of research or are explicitly exempted from the human subjects protocols, the IRB system may still impose significant costs on project directors. The underlying rationale for the federal regulations and the IRB process is to protect human subjects from potential harm that may result as a consequence of participating in a research project. For some types of research studies, such as medical drug trials, the personal risks may be obvious and potentially serious. However, for classroom-based studies that normally rely on surveys and tests, the risks of personal harm are minimal or non-existent.

In recent years, a small number of high profile cases where careless procedures were employed in medical studies caused universities to tighten their oversight of all human subjects research. These cases included the deaths of two research volunteers, one at the University of Pennsylvania and another at Johns Hopkins University (Brainard 2005). The increased scrutiny and the burdens of conforming to the IRB policies led to public complaints by social scientists and educators whose typical research procedures do not pose significant risks to their human subjects. The 2002 Annual Report of The Journal of Economic Education (Becker 2002) calls into question the necessity of imposing the same IRB regulations that protect human subjects in medical studies to the area of classroom teaching. Risk-averse university officials, observing lawsuits filed against universities for human subjects violations in medical experiments, may "overreact when confronted with human subject committee members' arguments to expand their policing function to classroom teaching." It is argued that overly stringent IRB requirements create unnecessary burdens and hurdles for economic education researchers, and thus, less classroom-based research will be conducted. (1)

This paper investigates the extent of knowledge held by economic education researchers about the federal regulations that govern human subjects research, the perceived costs of these regulations, and whether the regulations significantly affect the quantity and quality of research done in economic education. Our analysis is based on information obtained through a web-based survey directed to those who recently conducted and published research in economic education and those likely to do so. After a brief background review of human subjects' protocols in social science research, we will discuss the survey results and the implications of our findings.

II. Background

The current federal regulations that govern human subjects research evolved from the recommendations of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research which was formed by Congress in 1974. This commission's final report, released in 1979 and popularly known as the "Belmont Report," (2) identified and defined the basic ethical principles on which today's regulations are based. The commission categorized these principles into the following three areas: 1) Respect for persons: To ensure the honor for the personal dignity, autonomy, and right to privacy of individual human subjects. …

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