Ethical Issues

Ethical issues surround action research.

When preparing students for action research, it is important that they understand the research culture and the standards of practice
for conducting social science research. Here are some tutorials to start the discussion.
(Feel free to add more) :
1) National Cancer Institute - IRB Tutorial
--------- Here is the direct link to the sign-up page
2) University of Minnesota Informed Consent Tutorial:
--------- Select the social sciences model -- here is the direct link
3) Short Video on IRB board process and their role in evaluation research

Templates for Consent Letters


DEBATE OVER IRB and Action Research

When action research is part of a university program, how does the Institutional Review Board (IRB) handle action research proposals?

Universities vary in the way they approach ethical issues in action research. Oversight of action research is reviewed outside of the formal IRB review process through the formal channels of IRB or through special committees of the IRB.

We invite you to share what happens in your university. This is a new poll and after you respond you can see the responses of others. Please take a minute to share your information.

The poll that used to be here would not take more than 40 responses so it locked at that point with these results:

8.7% *Ethical issues for action research are handle outside of the formal university IRB process.*

8.7% *There is a special process for IRB review of action research*

78.3% *Action researchers submit once for IRB approval in the same way as for other forms of research*

4.3% *Action Researchers need to submit designs for each cycle of action research*

1) Arguments for why IRB is not necessary for action research:

Some universities have accepted action research as falling outside of the need for a formal IRB review. Here are some of arguments for this position.

This came from AERA this year (2011)
AERA along with the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) and the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), is leading an effort across research associations and organizations to examine the many aspects of changes intended to improve practices for human research protection and promote research.
Proposed rule making changes for the U.S. Federal Regulations for the Protection of Human Research Participants:

In late July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in coordination with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) changes to federal regulations governing human research protections (45CFR46, Subpart A). The ANPRM seeks to protect research participants while advancing essential research. The potential changes are far reaching ranging from seeking to remove low-risk research with adult populations from consideration by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to introducing a new category of excused research that would not require IRB review but where otherwise exempt research would be registered and where research that only involves informational risk would not be reviewed by IRBs but could be alternatively governed by mandatory standards of data security.

On September 1, 2011, AERA hosted a full-day meeting of 21 representatives from relevant organizations, and work is underway to continue our analysis and the preparation of a joint response.Via this e-mail, I encourage you to examine the ANPRM and related information ( and send any comments you may have directly to me at The AERA Ethics Committee will also discuss the proposed changes. Those of you wishing to comment to DHHS may do so online, as noted in the ANPRM. The deadline for comments is October 26, 2011 at 5:00pm, Eastern Daylight Time.

Quoted from a recent ethics blogfrom the Action Research Journal (Sage) written by Mary Brydon-Miller which reviews a book by Zachary M. Schrag:
Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965--2009

As Schrag points out, the IRB system was designed to address issues facing medical and behavioral sciences and based on four assumptions:

1. Researchers know more about their subjects’ condition than do the subjects themselves.
2. Researchers begin their work by spelling out detailed protocols explaining what hypotheses they will test and what procedures they will employ to these hypotheses.
3. Researchers perform experiments designed to alter subjects’ physical state or behavior, rather than simply gathering information through conversation, correspondence, and observation.
4. Researchers have an ethical duty not to harm their subjects.

But while these assumptions may apply to medical and some forms of psychological research, they don’t do a good job of recognizing and addressing the ethical issues facing researchers in other social science fields, and certainly don’t begin to respond to the ethical implications of action research where we acknowledge that our community partners know more about their experience than we do, where we co-generate meaningful research questions that may change as the process moves forward, and where we create knowledge together through a variety of methods. We do agree about not causing harm, but don't impose this on our partners with the same patronizing attitude that seems to pervade much other human subjects research.

Here are some additional arguments:

  1. The subject of action research is the researcher and, as such, the person is in full control and is aware of any risks and gives full consent.
  2. The actions taken are part of the person's job and the workplace has in its own norms, rules and regulations that determine what is and is not a part of the work. The action researcher needs to get approval for all actions from their immediate supervisors.
  3. Action researchers do examine data to determine the outcome of their action research. Ethical issues have to be followed for this process. Supervisors of action research need to make these assessments and to refer anything that approaches a risk (outside of what would normally be done as part of their job) to IRB for further discussion.
  4. Action research when done in the context of a course work is exempt from IRB review. However the importance of sharing the results of action research does then involve IRB but this could be amended.
  5. The workplace has it own ways of dealing with researcher processes by employees and when these are followed, there may be no need for further review.
Here is a summary of some of the tensions that make the match between IRB designed process for experimental research and the needs of action researchers conflict:

(Please add and elaborate or share your stories.)

2) Arguments for why IRB review of action research is required:

In some universities, action researchers apply for research through the IRB process. If this is the case with your university, how do you handle the constantly evolving nature of action research? And how long does it take to get this approval? Is there a special team of reviewers that understand the needs of action researchers?

Lehman College/City University of New York. Action research projects must be reviewed by our campus IRB. When the research takes place in schools, it usually also requires approval of the New York City Department of Education's equivalent of the IRB as well as the school's principal.

Lehman's IRB convenes several times a year, so proposals must meet deadlines. Approval can take 2-3 months from proposal to approval, so planning ahead is essential. Full IRB approval is only required for research that entails interventions, however. Many action research projects study regular practice, so expedited or even exempt status is more the norm.

Before submitting a proposal for IRB approval researchers must pass a test through CITI programs. This consists of a tutorial on the history of human subjects research followed by a quiz. This eligibility must be renewed every two years in order to be permitted to continue conducting research. Approved researchers are on file with the CUNY Research Foundation. Each CUNY campus has its own IRB.

(Please add the name of your institution and how they review action research proposals.)

3) Alternate approaches used by IRB to review action research:

In some cases, an IRB might create a fast pass, low-risk committee to review action research. Students would be able to submit and have a review completed in a small number of days. This process could be repeated for each cycle of research.

I have attached a thoughtful article, "," by Michael Owen of Brock University who has to make the decision about what is considered ethical research for his university. Note that he assumes that what makes this difference is that you the student is doing something that they will only do once. The problem comes from characterizing action research as a way to do your work over time. In this case, one is always collecting evidence. The discussion in "Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise" make this argument. I think that it sets up a way to work that, while sensitive to the rights of others with respect to research, does not require a formal process. - mriel

Lehman College's IRB does allow for expedited or exempt reviews. These are permitted when no research entails extraordinary interventions and the researcher is studying regular practice and its impact on students and/or teachers. Since K-12 students are minors they are considered a vulnerable population, so researchers may apply for expedited but not exempt status. Expedited and exempt research projects must still submit a proposal to the IRB. The IRB committee (a standing committee comprised of faculty) will then determine whether the project is eligible for this status.

(Please add the name of your institution and how they review action research proposals and your own name if you wish.)