Student Projects: Research Practicum vs Research Project

There is often confusion as to what student projects are required to be considered by the Institutional Review Board. Generally, a student research involving human subjects falls into one of two categories:

  • research practica, the goal of which is to provide research training; and
  • directed or independent research projects which employ systematic data collection with the intent to contribute to generalizable knowledge.

Research practica do not require Institutional Review Board review, but research projects do.

A “research practicum” is a course of study that involves the supervised practical application of previously studied theories of research method. A number of departments offer courses that require students to undertake projects in which other people are interviewed, observed or otherwise serve as participants. The purpose of these courses is to train students and give them an opportunity to practice various research methods. Such projects do not require review by the Board.

A “research project” is any student-initiated and/or student-conducted research that does not fall under the definition of a research practicum, which uses human subjects, and is undertaken with the intent to contribute to generalizable knowledge. Thus it requires review and approval by the Institutional Review Board. Thesis projects that involve the use of human subjects fall within this category.

Advice to Faculty & Departments Regarding Student Research Projects

Student research practica as defined above do not require Board review, unless the instructor chooses to invite Board review. Students engaged in the process of learning research techniques understandably want to focus on compelling or real-life issues. Thus, student research practica often focus on issues that raise concerns for the well-being of the subjects and for the students themselves. Projects that involve the collection of data about illegal activities (such as drug use or underage drinking), those which could cause emotional distress, and those which would place the students at risk if confidentiality were breached need to be constructed with special care. Although research practica are not under the purview of the Board, its members are available for consultation with students and instructors. However, faculty members who engage in instructional activities are expected to protect all human subject(s) in accordance with their discipline's Codes of Conduct and Ethics (see the Principles & Ethics section for a list of some of those disciplinary codes). It is the responsibility of the faculty member to include research ethics and principles of responsible research when teaching research techniques.

Departments are encouraged to develop an internal review process for research involving human subjects undertaken by their students and faculty. Such internal review should conform to the relevant discipline's Codes of Conduct and Ethics. Although departmental review cannot substitute for Board review when it is required (for “research projects” as defined above), departmental review will facilitate Board review. Departmental review can also be used to teach responsible conduct of research.