Rhetorical Strategies for Working with Institutional Review Boards

Elizabeth L. Angeli and Z. Koppelmann

Computers and Composition Online



While not all RC researchers encounter problems with their IRB, problems can arise if researchers are not prepared to work with them. The following narratives show how two RC researchers have worked with both various IRBs, and each narrative highlights our suggestions for how to prepare to work with the IRB. The specific rhetorical strategies we offer can be found here.

Elizabeth's Narrative: Collaborating with Your Audience

I worked on a project that examined networks of communication in emergency medical services (EMS) in which I learned the importance of working with IRB staff. This project grew out of my experience as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) student at a local nursing school and hospital. I knew working with the necessary IRBs would be a challenge because I wanted observe EMTs and paramedics while they responded to 911 calls. To learn how to best submit my IRB documents and have the best chance for approval, I met with an administrator at my institution’s IRB.

I told the IRB administrator about my project, and once I mentioned I wanted to work at a hospital, he left the room to bring the biomedical sciences IRB specialist into our meeting. Once the specialist arrived and sat down at the meeting table, I looked at both administrators and said, “I’m in the English department. I’m not conducting a biomedical science study.” The biomedical specialist replied, “But you’re going to research at a hospital, so you will be working in a biomedical context.”

After discussing my project in more detail and telling them that I currently was an EMT student at this hospital who would be working in the ER and on ambulances, they seemed to relax a bit. They told me what to say in the forms, using language like “job shadow.” While the administrators seemed to relax a bit, they were still concerned about my access to patient documents that were protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The administrators needed to ensure I followed HIPAA regulations. After talking a bit more, the biomedical sciences staff member told me, “Because you’re working at the hospital, you’ll need to get approval from their IRB.”

Having never worked with a hospital’s IRB, I spent an afternoon searching for the hospital’s IRB contact to learn how to navigate the IRB process. I contacted the head physician of that IRB and her assistant. The assistant and I exchanged multiple emails in which she helped me understand that hospital’s IRB approval process, which due to email miscommunication delayed my research timetable by two months.

During these two months, I received IRB approval from the university and continued preparing my IRB documents for the hospital’s IRB board. The hospital’s head physician’s assistant helped me with this complex process. Also, I was in contact with an ER physician at the hospital who became a valuable source of information. While this physician was not on the IRB board, he was familiar with the process, the EMT class and clinicals, and EMS professionals’ work environment. I did not realize it when first meeting him, but he would become a collaborator of sorts when writing my IRB documents.

One week before the hospital board’s review meeting, I learned that the board members strongly suggest researchers attend the meeting when their project is reviewed, something I was not used to with the university IRB review process. I attended the meeting, which lasted ten minutes, and the board, consisting of lawyers, physicians, and nurses, seemed more confused about my project than being concerned about HIPPA regulations or ethics regarding research subject: “You’re just doing interviews, surveys, and observations. How is this research?” one board member asked. I explained that these were common methods in my field, which proved to be a teaching moment of sorts for me to inform biomedical researchers about RC research methods and the value of RC research. Once they understood the purpose of my research methods, we discussed how patient privacy would be protected, and the board approved my study.

From this experience, I learned about the importance of collaborating with my audience members, i.e., IRB and hospital staff. While collaborating, I learned how to address risk in my IRB documents for this particular audience; I explained how I would protect patients’ and participants’ privacy and follow medical rules and regulations. I would not have known to include these concerns on my own, and with the help of my audience, and the ER physician in particular, I was able to address these in the forms prior to submitting my project to review. Additionally, the hospital’s IRB was exposed to different, non-medical research methods and had the opportunity to discuss issues not previously discussed, such as what rules and regulations should be in place when researchers conduct observations and interviews.

The challenges I encountered during the approval process offered me the opportunity to reflect on how my research could be seen as “productive action” (Porter, Sullivan, Blythe, Grabill, and Miles 613). In the end, collaborating with my audience saved precious research time, helped me think through stages of my research I hadn’t thought of prior to working with the both IRBs, and resulted in partnerships with hospital staff that were of significant importance throughout the project’s duration.