Special Report

Students and research protection: Student volunteers don’t give up their right to human subject protections

Colleges may have to change how they recruit students

Recruiting students for research at universities and colleges is no longer as simple as having professors offer extra credit in exchange for participation. It has become an area that has created controversy within institutions and IRBs.

For years, universities and, specifically, their psychology departments have used students as research subjects under the premise that participating in research is an educational experience with potential benefits for involvement in the process, says Steven Taylor, PhD, education professor and IRB chair at Syracuse (NY) University.

"If you are trained to do research and conduct experiments, then it’s useful to have personal experience on the other end of that," he says. "It makes you more sensitive to the rights of subjects."

So the programs that have been doing research with students for years became set in their ways, and now it’s up to IRBs to educate departments, professors, and investigators about why changes are needed in how students are recruited and used for research, Taylor adds.

"I think all IRBs these days are going through this process of clarifying policies, being as explicit as possible to investigators about federal requirements and regulations," he says.

The philosophical evolution in how institutions and IRBs view the use of college students as human subjects is a positive change, says Mike Breton, PhD, associate vice president for research and sponsored programs at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

"Faculty are in demand of large numbers of students for relatively innocuous and low-risk studies, but they do still need to be protected from exploitation," Breton says. "The sensitivity is that maybe the study doesn’t pose risk, but just simply coercing the student into the study is not the right thing to do."

Rutgers has a policy that requires faculty to offer alternative ways for students to meet any course requirements that involve participation in research and, within the first week of classes, to give students a written description of the various ways they can meet these requirements.

Syracuse University’s policy specifies how students may be offered extra credit to participate in research provided six conditions are met, including the requirement that the investigator submits the recruitment flyer or sign-up sheet to the IRB and that a nonresearch alternative of comparable time is offered for the same amount of credit.

"Students are very susceptible to the pressure to earn good grades, and they are not going to complain about these kinds of things, which is why IRBs need to be aggressive about these issues," Taylor notes.

For example, at Western Kentucky University (WKU) in Bowling Green, a professor and principal investigator found that having sign-up sheets for class credit was a good incentive for recruiting students as research subjects, but when the research was set to begin, only 50% of the students would show up, says Phillip Myers, PhD, executive director of WKU and director of the Office of Sponsored Programs.

So one professor began to penalize the no-shows through their class grades, and suddenly 90% of the students would show up to participate. However, when the university’s IRB learned of this practice and reviewed it at a meeting, the IRB decided that researchers could not penalize students for failing to show up because this was too coercive a practice, he says.

"You cannot penalize human subjects for signing up for an experiment and not showing up," Myers says.

Any research that offers credit incentives for students participating in research also has to have an alternative method for obtaining the same credit, such as writing a short paper, and this has to be clearly stated in the course syllabus, he says.

WKU is one of a growing number of universities that has had to revisit the issue of student participation in research to determine whether existing policies need to be updated and revised.

The IRB at Syracuse University has also looked at the issue of penalizing students who sign up and then don’t show up, and has reached the same conclusion.

"You have the right to withdraw from research without penalty," Taylor says.

To fulfill the spirit of the right to withdraw without penalty, students have to be provided at least partial, if not full credit, if they decide not to participate, Taylor says.

"Some academic departments, I think, are using students inappropriately," Taylor says. "And the difficulty with the IRB is that you can’t monitor everything that everybody is doing."

The Syracuse IRB’s general policy is that students can be used as research subjects as long as they’re offered an alternative, nonresearch activity of comparable time and effort, Taylor says.

"The way our programs do it here is they don’t make participation in research a course requirement," Taylor adds. "And when they offer extra credit, students have a clear opportunity to do nonresearch activities."

The IRB at Miami University in Oxford, OH, carefully reviews research that recruits students as subjects for any signs of coercion or potential coercion, says Carol B. Willeke, PhD, associate director in the Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship.

"We don’t allow people to give extra credit as incentives to research participation," Willeke says.

The university has a psychology pool in which students can participate in order to fulfill certain research credits, but this is not the same as extra credit within a particular class, Willeke notes.

"If a student is in a class with a professor doing research that semester, then someone in place the professor will ask students to volunteer to participate in research," Willeke explains. "The professor will not know who has agreed and who has not agreed until after the grades are assigned for the semester."