Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Research with human subjects -- mine.

Yes, I'm getting ready to study some scientists (and scientists-in-training) at my university. Of course, there will be much Serious Philosophical Analysis, but what I'm planning to analyze are actual practices in science departments. ("Honey, look! There's a philosopher who's paying attention to the real world rather than starting from first principles! Turn on the sprinklers!")

The thing is, getting information on the practices means I'll be asking scientists and scientists-in-training questions, both in interviews and in questionnaires. And that means getting Institutional Review Board approval for my protocol (because respondents to questionnaires and interviews conducted as part of a research project are human subjects). And that means my protocol must ensure that "subjects are fully informed of their rights and of the potential risks and benefits of participation in the research."

Umm, potential risks of sharing information with a philosopher?

  • Participants might become reflective about their everyday professional activities, which can eat up a lot of time that could be spent on other necessary functions, like compiling assessment data or looking for a parking space.
  • Participants might become aware of gaps between the outcomes their professional activities aim at and the outcomes actually achieved. This could lead to feelings of disappointment. Alternatively, this might encourage adjustments of the professional activities to better attain the desired outcomes — another time sink (see above).
  • Student participants might become reflective about their role in the learning process, leading to alienation from their peers.
  • Faculty and student participants may be drawn into discussions with each other about the effectiveness of their various interactions. Discussions take time (see above).
  • Participants might become ensorcelled by the siren song of Philosophy (as the lead investigator of the proposed research did), putting them at risk for additional coursework and professional training, not to mention the stigma of having left a respectable field for ... Philosophy.
  • There is a small risk that participants may sustain paper-cuts from the questionnaire.

What am I forgetting here?

On a related note, there is a danger in giving someone like me a multipage policy for the protection of human research subjects, because it puts ideas in my head. For instance, I now want to find a way to incorporate into this research "taste and food quality evaluation" of "wholesome foods without additives". Possibly brownies.

Would a brownie with your questionnaire count as a potential benefit or a potential risk of participating in the study?

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At 6:59 AM, Blogger seadragon said...

At one point, I had a member of our IRB pointedly ask me NOT to mention papercuts as a potential risk. I don't know WHY she'd think I would do such a thing, but I'm entertained that you mentioned it.

I realize it depends on the school, but I was also told that I had to mention I'd be attempting to recruit undergrad interviewees for a study with free pizza. I asked the question about benefit vs. risk then , too. Do I have to warn them about heart disease?

I'm glad that we have to take care of our participants via human subjects, but it sure is a lot of paperwork.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Lace said...

Trackback to
Ethics and learning

Doctor Free-Ride has a terrific post this week on "research with human subjects -- hers" and what she sees as "potential risks of sharing information with a philosopher". Her slightly cheeky list seems spot on to me!

at InterLace. L:)

At 6:55 AM, Blogger Kyle said...

This is a great post! Not to be too classical, but maybe Socrates would have something to say about this?


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