Hamline research gains new rigor

Hamline’s review board for human research underwent an overhaul after it was found out of compliance with federal standards in 2018.

Christian Buonfiglio, Reporter

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Hamline’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), a group of faculty and staff tasked with overseeing human research at Hamline, failed to meet federal guidelines prior to 2018.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services, in order to make sure every university’s human research is ethical and properly documented, has a list of standards that every IRB must meet. Before the 2018-2019 school year, however, the Hamline IRB’s procedures and standards were out of compliance with those guidelines.

“It was recognized internally that the IRB should become more rigorous,” IRB chair Kathy Thomsen said.

When this was recognized, the IRB moved to change the board’s procedures and bring it up to federal standards, mainly by requiring more detailed information about research methods and data analysis from student researchers.

“What we’re really talking about is more paperwork,” IRB member and psychology professor Erik Asp said. “We’re talking about more detail with how studies are done. What are going to be the stimuli? What are the numbers of participants?”

Under the updated processes, prospective student researchers are also required to complete training on research ethics before submitting proposals to the IRB.

The IRB provides oversight on student research involving human participants in order to protect the privacy of research subjects and inform them of each study’s risks. Hamline’s IRB has always required students to describe their research process, processes for protecting confidentiality of any research subjects and provide informed consent forms to participants.

Before the IRB’s processes was reorganized in 2018, their standards for the level of detail was not sufficiently rigorous. Thomsen and Asp said they had no reason to believe that Hamline had ever approved unethical or dangerous research. Regardless, if the IRB had been audited during that time, the consequences for failing to meet federal standards could have been severe.

“I am going to speculate,” Thomsen said, “that the Department of Health and Human Services would have had the power to say Hamline University researchers are not allowed to do research on human subjects.”

Sociology professor Dr. Máel Embser-Herbert believes the new system, though necessary, may have been implemented in a way that puts undue strain on students.

“This is so much better than what we ever used to have,” Embser-Herbert said, but added, “I fear we may have gone from ineffectual and risky to too far in the other direction.”

Embser-Herbert said that some students have been put off by the new process, leading those students to pursue their research as simply in-class projects rather than formal research.

Members of the IRB said that they understood the frustration but feel the cumbersome and sometimes lengthy process is unavoidable. Unlike other institutions, Hamline’s IRB consists of full-time faculty members with other obligations.

“Part of the problem is that we are limited by the time that we have,” Asp said. “If you look at IRBs in other places, they have some staff devoted just to doing IRB, which we don’t have.”

For Kelley Lasiewicz, ‘19, dealing with the changes to the approval process kept her from getting formal research experience before she graduated.

Lasiewicz, an anthropology major, submitted her proposal to the IRB in November 2018 for research on the impact of sounds of war on non-combat veterans. Lasiewicz received a request to amend her proposal. She responded, and the IRB asked for further clarification, which she also provided.

“With each submission, something new came forward,” Lasiewicz said.

The exchanges continued through May 2019, at which point Kelley graduated without receiving a definitive approval and without being able to conduct her research.

Though it is not yet policy, Thomsen said that going forward the IRB will, after two revision requests by email, schedule an appointment with the student and their advisor to talk in-person.

This new process, though potentially frustrating and not yet complete, has already been helpful to student researchers.

Senior Elle Obermeyer, who researched gender dynamics among players in the video game World of Warcraft, said that the IRB review process was a good environment to learn what research in a professional environment is like.

“Dealing with the IRB at Hamline was a nice introduction to dealing with a review board,” Obermeyer said.

Obermeyer also stressed the importance of leaving plenty of time for review.

“What you don’t want to do is scramble at the end and force an IRB to move faster than they are going to move,” Obermeyer said.

Asp said students ought to take advantage of the application process in order to refine their ideas further.

“What it does is force you to take what you have as a fuzzy idea and put it to paper, and really start organizing,” Asp said.

Embser-Herbert said students should take these changes as a reason to figure out what subject they truly want to research.

“Think, well in advance, of where your interests lie,” Embser-Herbert said. “Don’t be discouraged.”