Institutional Review Boards and Professional Counseling Research

By Robinson, Edward H.,, III; Curry, Jennifer R. | Counseling and Values, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Institutional Review Boards and Professional Counseling Research


Robinson, Edward H.,, III, Curry, Jennifer R., Counseling and Values


Institutional review boards (IRBs) are responsible for regulating and safeguarding research with human participants in academic institutions in the United States. The authors explore (a) the historical impetus for IRBs, (b) the ethical values and principles as core components of the review process, and (c) the American Counseling Association's (2005) standards for ethical research, In many ways, IRB review and counseling research are complementary, yet some challenges and obstacles unique to counseling research also exist and are elaborated in the article, Implications for counselors initiating research projects and suggestions for implementation are provided.

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Counseling research is critical to assessing client outcomes based on therapeutic approaches, gaining insight into counseling strategies for diverse populations, training and educational strategies for counselor preparation programs, and much more. A plethora of activities constitute research. According to Skarbek, Henry, and Parish (2006), "research is an activity that tests a hypothesis, draws conclusions, and contributes to generalizable knowledge" (p. 26). The majority of counseling research involves human participants. Today, research is regulated for ethical purposes to ensure that participants remain safe and that harm is minimized, while maximizing the potential contribution of the research. Much of the safeguarding function of research involving participants is conducted by institutional review boards (IRBs). Chadwick and Dunn (2000) described IRBs as "the officially empowered guardian of rights and welfare of human research subjects" (p. 19). The history surrounding the formation of IRBs is rich, and today the context of research necessitates the involvement and ongoing evolution of IRBs and the review process. The purpose of this article is to outline the historical impetus for today's IRBs, the IRB process, and the current challenges and complements of the IRB process in counselor research.

Historical Antecedents

Contemporary IRBs have their historical antecedents in years of scientific research involving human participants wherein physical or emotional damage was inflicted upon individuals. The catalyst for change was the 1946-1947 Doctors' Trial, the court case involving physicians from the Nazi regime whose documented atrocities against the Jewish people included medical experimentation. The Third Reich doctors had used prisoners of Dachau and other concentration camps to perform torturous clinical trials--including injecting the individuals with typhoid fever germs, performing emergency "operations," studying the effects on humans of barometric pressure changes and sleep deprivation, and more (Gordon & Prentice, 2000). Many of these experiments resulted in severe psychological trauma and disabling physical injury; some ended in death.

One tactic the Nuremberg trial prosecution team used to establish negligent and criminal medical practice by SS doctors was the expert consultation and testimony of Andrew Ivy. In his testimony, Ivy presented the principle ethics of research that guided doctors in civilized society, thereby creating the basic framework for how clinical experimentation was to be ethically conducted. From this trial, a legal precedent was established for future research involving human participants. Ivy established four basic rules: (a) consent for participation must be obtained from human participants; (b) anticipated results must be justifiable; (c) there must be no reason to believe that harm or death will be the result of participation, and all unnecessary injury will be avoided; and (d) only persons qualified to conduct research will do so (Gordon & Prentice, 2000). These rules perpetuated conscientious changes in policy and protocol from many groups conducting research in the social sciences and medical fields.

One such example involved the World Medical Association (WMA). …

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