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Open Access Short Report

From anonymity to “open doors”: IRB responses to tensions with researchers

Robert Klitzman

Author Affiliations

Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, 1051 Riverside Drive #15, New York, NY, USA

BMC Research Notes 2012, 5:347  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-5-347

Published: 3 July 2012

Abstract

Background

Tensions between IRBs and researchers in the US and elsewhere have increased, and may affect whether, how, and to what degree researchers comply with ethical guidelines. Yet whether, how, when, and why IRBs respond to these conflicts have received little systematic attention.

Findings

I contacted 60 US IRBs (every fourth one in the list of the top 240 institutions by NIH funding), and interviewed leaders from 34 (response rate = 55%) and an additional 12 members and administrators. IRBs often try to respond to tensions with researchers and improve relationships in several ways, but range widely in how, when, and to what degree (e.g., in formal and informal structure, content, and tone of interactions). IRBs varied from open and accessible to more distant and anonymous, and in the amount and type of “PR work” and outreach they do. Many boards seek to improve the quantity, quality, and helpfulness of communication with PIs, but differ in how. IRBs range in meetings from open to closed, and may have clinics and newsletters. Memos can vary in helpfulness and tone (e.g., using “charm”). IRBs range considerably, too, in the degrees to which they seek to educate PIs, showing them the underlying ethical principles. But these efforts take time and resources, and IRBs thus vary in degrees of responses to PI complaints.

Conclusions

This study, the first to explore the mechanisms through which IRBs respond to tensions and interactions with PIs, suggests that these committees seek to respond to conflicts with PIs in varying ways – both formal and informal, involving both the form and content of communications. This study has important implications for future practice, research, and policy, suggesting needs for increased attention to not only what IRBs communicate to PIs, but how (i.e., the tone and the nature of interactions). IRBs can potentially improve relationships with PIs in several ways: using more “open doors” rather than anonymity, engaging in outreach (e.g., through clinics), enhancing the tone as well as content of interactions, educating PIs about the underlying ethics, and helping PIs as much and proactively as possible. Increased awareness of these issues can help IRBs and researchers in the US and elsewhere.

Keywords:
IRBs; Research ethics; Responsible conduct of research; Ethics education; Professionalism; Medical education; Organizational ethics; Compliance; Communication