Rhetorical Strategies for Working with Institutional Review Boards

Elizabeth L. Angeli and Z. Koppelmann

Computers and Composition Online



Zachery’s Narrative: Accurately Representing Research to the IRB

It is hard to overstate the importance of honest, ethical, and accurate representations of research. This becomes a difficult task when research projects are intermixed with varied professor goals, researcher goals, and departmental goals. However, this task is more easily accomplished when the researcher is prepared to account for these goals before beginning the IRB review process.

In my current project, I am working with another department within the university. The project is multi-faceted with some portions clearly fitting into the IRB’s categories, and other portions not fitting into any category. I am assessing the writing produced in two undergraduate classes in that department, using that data to produce supplemental instructional materials, and using that data to craft a new professional writing class dedicated to the students’ needs. One complication is that undergraduate advisors in the other department will use the assessment of the undergraduate writing to make recommendations for their students. This is further complicated because the tools used for assessing the writing are being constructed and refined in medias res as initial results are being analyzed. Taking this a step further, the associate head of the department wants to correlate the writing assessment data with student nationality or high school location to look for patterns. I have contacted my IRB about how they would like me to proceed, but I have gotten mixed results and conflicting answers.

Each time I have attempted to explain the extent of my project and its goals, the IRB representatives focus on different aspects. One dismissed the need for IRB because everything was being done to improve assignments and therefore could be viewed as expected pedagogical development. Another focused in on the number of students and that the department faculty members were thinking of using the data to make recommendations on which courses students should take, which would require either a full IRB review or at the very least written permission from every student (600 in total). A more recent communication suggested that I craft my research proposal in such a way that it avoids any of the larger questions or concerns, and then conduct my research as I need, even if it doesn’t completely line up with my proposal. This is clearly not an option, and I am sure it was suggested more out of confusion and expediency—a shot from the hip, if you will—than an honest recommendation. It leaves me in an awkward place, but a place from which I can review my project and refine my articulation of my methods and goal.

The goal of the IRB is to protect participants from unethical research practices; but it the responsibility of the researcher to accurately and honestly articulate practices so that the IRB can make a properly informed decision. I know, my PI knows, and the folks in the other department all know that I am not doing anything that has a greater risk than a normal day walking onto campus and going to class. That is not the concern. The concern is how do I accurately articulate the complexities of the project so that the IRB and I can work together to have “productive action” (Porter, Sullivan, Blythe, Grabill, and Miles 613), and begin building an ethics of excellence.