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Sorry if this sounds clueless - I actually am. I'm in a historical, literary field so I've never had to worry about doing any ethics approval things because I've never had to deal with real, living humans in my research, but I'm thinking about writing an article on the perceptions of a particular author on social media.

Am I right in thinking that if I'm just reporting opinions that are already out there in the public forum, I don't need to worry about going through any ethics panels etc.?

Would I have to apply for ethics approval if I wanted to create an online questionnaire actively asking people for their opinions on a particular author? Or would that depend on what I did with the opinions I gathered?

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    If you are in the US, your institution has an IRB. They may have one specific to your field, even. Either way, they'll provide guidance. If not in the US, your country may have an equivalent or it may not. Wherever you are, it will depend on the rules of your government and institution.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 17 at 20:18
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    Keep in mind also that some US based journals are very parochial about this sort of thing and will be really uncooperative about publishing things if there is no IRB equivalent even if one is in a country without an IRB equivalent for this type of study.
    – JoshuaZ
    Apr 17 at 20:22

4 Answers 4

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If You Are In The United States, Contact Your IRB

Everything this answer says is correct, but I want to add some anecdotal exhortation.

My advice would ordinarily be "talk to your advisor," and you absolutely should. But I know of at least one case where the advisor was clueless and greenlit human subject experiments without any IRB involvement at all. There were repercussions. And this was some pretty benign human subject experimentation, with no risk to the subjects that anyone would ever identify. The point is, he (and his advisor) don't get to make that decision.

There may also be hidden factors in play. My institution was on the draconian side, but that was because they were dealing with a major violation from before my candidacy (so much so that identifying it might identify my institution.) The entire university was under a microscope, and until that microscope receded, we were under a No Sparrow May Fall protocol.

You do not want to wander into that sort of minefield (as my acquaintance above did) if you can avoid it with a 15 minute phone call.

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Research that involves an online questionnaire is likely to constitute human subjects research. In the US, this typically requires review and approval by an IRB before you conduct the research. Your university is likely to have an IRB and resources on how to submit a research proposal for review by the IRB. I suggest you start there.

I want to be pedantic/nitpicky about one detail, and I ask for your indulgence on hearing me out on this: Universities typically don't have ethics review boards. They have institutional review boards (IRBs), which typically take responsibility for reviewing human subjects research. That's not exactly the same thing. Ethics is one of the considerations when an IRB reviews proposed research that involves human subjects, but don't call an IRB an ethics review board, and don't mistake them for ethics review boards -- that will give you the wrong intuitions. IRBs don't get involved in every research project that might have any ethical implications -- they are responsible for human subjects research.

Research that does not involve human subjects can still have ethical implications, and in those cases, typically IRBs will not help you. Instead, the researchers have the primary responsibility to consider the ethical considerations, ask for help if needed, and ensure that their research is ethical.

Moreover, even if you are doing human subjects research, and even if the IRB approves your research, I believe you also have an independent responsibility to ensure that your own research is ethical. The point of IRBs is that you shouldn't be the only decider: you need others to review it, to avoid your own personal biases. But I think it's also important to take personal responsibility as well. Therefore, I recommend you only conduct human subjects research if (a) you believe it is ethical, and (b) an IRB approves it.

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This depends on two things: (1) your local authorities (country/state/locale) and (2) your institution.

In the US, institutions are required to have something called a Human Subject Review Board or similar name (sometimes just IRB) which will govern what kind of permits you need, the application process, documentation, etc.

The reason you need to ask your own institution is that the implementation of the rules is all over the place. Nobody wants a repeat of the barbarity of the Tuskegee experiments, so anything that requires injecting a human with something, you bet will require extensive review. But at some institutions the application process is ridiculously complex. In the latter, to even ask questions you need a lengthy permit process, specialized training for everybody participating on the experimenter-side of things, and pages of written consent forms.

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    This is a weird answer because IRB rules are federal. There is some very slight room for interpretation on some of the really subtle points but generating a survey to get people’s opinions is always human subjects if it is for research and not a class project.
    – Dawn
    Apr 18 at 2:57
  • @Dawn It is true that the IRB rules are federal, but local jurisdictions can impose other criteria on top of the federal rules. For example: "Alignment with the goals and objectives of the Richmond Public Schools, with the requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and with the policy for conducting research in the division..." irb.richmond.edu/policies-resources/state-policies.html
    – Cheery
    Apr 18 at 13:42
  • @Dawn And the implementation of those rules varies greatly among institutions. At some institutions, you submit a short proposal that the board quickly reviews, at other institutions everybody involved with the study is required to undergo extensive classroom training.
    – Cheery
    Apr 18 at 13:44
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If you're doing research using data generated from humans, whether that's your own data collection, secondary analysis of somebody else's data collection, or just a collation of information that's already in the public domain, then it is important to consult your local guidance and speak to the ethics advisor at your institution.

Social media is a grey area, whether you need ethics or not is likely to vary depending on where you are and what exactly you are planning to do. If you send your local ethics advisors a plan they will let you know what you need to do, and if nothing is required they will tell you and you'll have that in writing whenever you need it (picky journal reviewers/editors etc).

Ethics review is an area where 'its better to ask for forgiveness than persmission' absolutely does not apply. It's way better to get it sorted early, and get a good relationship with your ethics committees than it is to try to get retrospective approval for something you have already done.

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