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It is common for faculty and graduate students to conduct human subjects research on undergraduate students. Typically precautions are made to ensure that faculty do not use the teacher/student relationship to harm students. For example, the faculty member may be required to finalise their grades before they find out which students consented to participate in the research. This prevents the faculty member from incentivising students to participate by changing their grades.

Let's suppose that the researcher is an undergraduate student instead of a faculty member. Are there risks associated with the student-student relationship? Let's suppose it is a small university where students often know each other.

  • In all six studies I partook as an undergrad there have always been some limitations on who can attend. These sometimes would be in the form of "students taking this class from this professor are not elligible". It may be the case that the student researcher is a student / assistant to that course. However, I believe good portion of those student researchers were graduate. – Boaty Mcboatface Oct 17 '19 at 10:08
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You can find a list of IRB Exemptions online. If the research falls under one of the exceptions then IRB consent won't be needed.

But otherwise, who does the research would be immaterial.

However, I think that special care should be taken here since undergraduate students might not be deeply aware of the ethical principles behind assuring the safety and privacy of human subjects. A naive approach could result in great harm.

So, at a minimum, even if the research falls into one of the exceptions, I would advice that a knowledgeable faculty member oversee any such research, both to educate the student researcher and to assure safety and privacy of subjects.

The other concerns you express are also valid, of course.

But, for the topline question, yes, there are always ethical concerns when humans are the subject of research. The concerns always need to be addressed, even in simple cases where it is clear no harm will result. How formally they need to be addressed is a function of the potential for harm as long as the formal rules are followed.

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    The first paragraph is completely wrong. It's called an Exemption, and you do need IRB consent to have an exemption. The rest of the answer is irrelevant to my question, which was about risks specific to situations where the student is a researcher. "undergraduate students might not be deeply aware of the ethical principles behind assuring the safety and privacy of human subjects" but this is also true for faculty researchers. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 17 '19 at 2:14
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    @nick012000 "are there ethical risks" is not the question. The question is "Are there risks associated with the student-student relationship?" when a student is conducting human subjects research. I do not see how it could be more clearly stated - suggestions are welcome. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 17 '19 at 5:58
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    Hmmm. The first sentence on the "Exemption" page is: " The Common Rule allows exemption from the need for IRB review." – Buffy Oct 17 '19 at 10:26
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    "exemption from review" does not imply IRB consent is not needed. The IRB decides the exemption, not the researcher. That was the most important thing I learned in human subjects ethics training. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 17 '19 at 10:38
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    @Buffy I think "most important" can be appropriate here, because a lot of the other stuff is fairly common sense. The fact that IRB approval is often (or in my experience, always) needed for "exempt" studies is less obvious, and I've corrected many people here at Academia.SE who thought otherwise - that makes it pretty important, because violations can be serious. – Bryan Krause Oct 17 '19 at 16:24

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