Use of Students as Subjects

The IRB Process


Universities, and the association of investigators with them, provide investigators with a ready pool of research subjects: students. The problem with student participation in research conducted at the university is the possibility that their agreement to participate will not be freely given. Students may volunteer to participate out of a belief that doing so will place them in good favor with faculty (e.g., that participating will result in receiving better grades, recommendations, employment, or the like), or that failure to participate will negatively affect their relationship with the investigator or faculty generally (i.e., by seeming "uncooperative," not part of the scientific community).

As such, the IRB pays special attention to the potential for coercion or undue influence. Researchers should also consider ways in which the possibility of exploitation can be reduced or eliminated.

Requiring participation in research for extra credit is also controversial, though common in the social and behavioral sciences. The justification offered for requiring student participation is educational benefit. Clearly, however, participation of students is seen by faculty-investigators as necessary to the conduct of their research. Grant budgets often do not allow investigators to pay subjects; giving course credit or extra credit is a means of obtaining sufficient participation rates. Again, the issue for the IRB is whether such arrangements for selecting subjects is fair and noncoercive.

Several mechanisms have been suggested for diminishing or eliminating the coercive aspect of student participation for extra credit that researchers might find useful.

Students are to be given other options for fulfilling the research component that were comparable in terms of time, effort, and educational benefit: "for example, short papers, special projects, book reports, and brief quizzes on additional readings." This does raise the issue about the comparability of such alternatives with participating in research (e.g., that if they participate in studies, all they have to do is show up and spend the time, but if they choose to write a paper, it gets graded, and if they do extra readings, they have to be tested on them).

One way to meet these concerns would be to have students either participate in the research, write a brief research paper, or attend faculty research colloquia. The paper is not graded, and students who attend the colloquia have only to show up. The studies must not involve more than minimal risk and students can withdraw from the study at any time without losing the extra credit.

Another concern raised by the involvement of students as subjects is confidentiality. As with research involving human subjects generally, the researcher should be aware that research involving the collection of data on sensitive subjects such as mental health, sexual activity, or the use of illicit drugs or alcohol presents risks to subjects of which they should be made aware and from which they should be protected, to the greatest extent possible. The close environment of the university amplifies this problem.