IRB Spotlight: Benefits
Since understanding the question gets you half way to the answer on your IRB application, today’s post about one of the questions that is on all human subjects applications. Your IRB application will ask you to explain the direct benefits of your research project for (1) the individual subjects, and (2) society or the research community as a while. Even if your application doesn’t divide it into two questions, they are still looking for two answers.
(1) What are the anticipated benefits for individual subjects?
The purpose of this question is to find out if individual subjects will receive some benefit from participation in your study, but in order to answer the question, you need to know what the IRB means by benefit.
Benefits to individual subjects are thought of in terms of therapeutic or educational interventions, or results from hearing tests, lab tests, and other cognitive measurements. IRBs do not generally consider the opportunity ‘to express an opinion,’ ‘reflect on a given topic,’ or ‘talk to a researcher’ to be benefits for individual subjects. So even though the subjects may enjoy the chance to talk about a given topic, the IRB will likely not consider it a benefit. If the potential risks to your subjects are low, or if you take strong measures to protect confidentiality, then it is perfectly acceptable to say that subjects will not benefit from participation.
Payment to study participants is NOT considered a benefit of research participation. Payment is considered to be compensation for time and inconvenience.
(2) What are the anticipated benefits for society?
This is a section that causes most researchers little trouble, given that they have defended their research proposal, written grant applications, and spent endless hours figuring out just where the research project might fill a gap in our existing knowledge about a given area.
For researchers who are working with small, vulnerable, or easily identifiable communities (e.g., Native American communities, rural—or island bound—communities, etc.) your research may not directly benefit individual subjects, but may have the potential to directly benefit their larger community. If this is the case for your research, please make this clear because it is something that your IRB should know. But be aware that in these circumstances there are often community level risks that you should address in the application.
Regarding (1), a particular benefit that is used by researchers doing biographical studies is to state that the results (specifically the recorded and transcribed texts) will be an opportunity for the participants to disseminate and preserve valuable historic and cultural knowledge that they would otherwise be unable to preserve. This is especially important when the participants are illiterate and hence could not put their knowledge into writing. The same applies to linguists who will collect narratives, and can be one useful bullet point on an application.
One benefit can be recognition of the language, especially a stigmatized language, by the larger community. it isn’t directly an individual benefit, but it can lead to ethnic pride.