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Communications of the ACM


Institutional Review Boards and Your Research

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Credit: Daniel Zalkus

Researchers in computer science departments throughout the U.S. are violating federal law and their own organization's regulations regarding human subjects research—and in most cases they don't even know it.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the August 2010 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

IRBs need computer scientists, a point highlighted by the Viewpoint "Institutional Review Boards and Your Research" by Simson L. Garfinkel and Lorrie Faith Cranor (June 2010). Not just over the nature of certain CS-related research but because social scientists (and others) administer online surveys, observe behavior in discussion forums and virtual worlds, and perform Facebook-related research. In this regard, the column was timely but also somewhat misleading.

First, the authors created a dichotomy of computer scientists and IRBs, saying IRB "chairs from many institutions have told us informally that they are looking to computer scientists to come up with a workable solution to the difficulty of applying the Common Rule to computer science. It is also quite clear that if we do not come up with a solution, they will be forced to do so."

However, any institution conducting a significant amount of human-subjects research involving computing and IT ought to include a computer scientist on its IRB, per U.S. federal regulations (45 CFR 46.107(a)): "Each IRB shall have at least five members, with varying backgrounds to promote complete and adequate review of research activities commonly conducted by the institution. The IRB shall be sufficiently qualified through the experience and expertise of its members..."

Though CS IRB members do not have all the answers in evaluating human-subject research involving computing and IT, they likely know where to look. It would also mitigate another problem explored in the column, that "many computer scientists are unfamiliar with the IRB process" and "may be reluctant to engage with their IRB." Indeed, if an IRB member is just down the hall, computer scientists would likely find it easier to approach their IRB.

Second, the authors assumed the length of the IRB review process represents a problem with the process itself though offered only anecdotal evidence to support this assumption. Two such anecdotes involved research on phishing, an intrinsically deceptive phenomenon. Deception research, long used in social sciences, typically takes longer to review because it runs counter to the ethical principle of "respect for persons" and its regulatory counterpart "voluntary informed consent." Before developing a technical solution to perceived IRB delays, the typical causes of delay must be established. Possibilities include inefficient IRBs and uninformed and/or unresponsive researchers. Moreover, as with any deception research, some proposals may just be more ethically complex, requiring more deliberation.

Michael R. Scheessele
South Bend, IN



Scheessele is correct in saying an increasing number of social scientists use computers in their research and is yet another reason IRBs should strive to include a computer scientist as a member. Sadly, our experience is that most IRBs in the U.S. are understaffed, lack sufficient representation of members with CS knowledge, and lack visibility among CS researchers in their organizations.

Simson L. Garfinkel
Monterey, CA
Lorrie Faith Cranor
Pittsburgh, PA

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