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Rachel Blixt's experience serving on a University of Minnesota Institutional Review Board (IRB) in 2004 was much like that of the nearly 14,000 other IRB members across the country. Once a month, she and the panel's other 13 members decided whether research proposals were satisfactory, unsatisfactory or required modifications.

However, unlike most other IRB members, Blixt is an undergraduate psychology and liberal arts for the human services double major--one of four undergraduate and graduate students who serve with 10 faculty members on the university's student IRB, the lone IRB devoted to student research in the country.

Created in 2003, Minnesota's student IRB gives students routine expertise in research ethics as well as allows the university's other five IRBs to focus on reviewing faculty research, according to J. Michael Oakes, PhD, an epidemiologist who chairs the student IRB.

"No longer is [our] IRB just interested in risks and benefits of research," he says. "We're also training future researchers on how to conduct ethical research."

As a result of the IRB's educational component, psychologist Jeffrey Ratliff-Crain, PhD, co-chair of the student IRB, says the atmosphere has changed on the University of Minnesota, Morris campus.

"The [student IRB] has opened the door for bilateral communications between the committee and those whose work might have to be approved," he says. "They understand what the process is all about."

Blixt agrees.

"Having served on the IRB, I've found it's a lot easier to go through the IRB myself," she says. "I know what to look out for."

The University of Minnesota's student IRB is one of many ways that programs--and individual mentors-- across the country are reinforcing the importance of research ethics. In some cases, they've changed the way that ethics are incorporated into the curriculum.


TEACHING ETHICS EARLY ON

Minnesota's student IRB is successful because the program integrates research ethics into both the undergraduate and graduate curricula, says psychologist Jeff Cohen, PhD, former director of the Division of Education and Development for the federal Office of Human Research Protections and an independent human research protections consultant.

"By teaching the questions of ethical research early in students' academic careers they know what questions to think about," he says.

Another way institutions are introducing ethics concepts to students early on is through Web- or DVD-based programs, such as the widely used "Course in the Protection of Human Research Subjects," developed by the Collaborative IRB Training Initiative (CITI).

The program--which universities can customize to meet the needs of their programs--walks students through the history of ethics in psychology as well as potential pitfalls--such as failing to properly debrief participants or neglecting to alert participants about every potential side effect--that they may encounter.

Despite the ease of use and adaptability of the programs, many instructors insist that the programs are best used in addition to other ethics training, such as a formal research ethics course.

"I don't think that the CITI course alone is effective," says Tom Eissenberg, PhD, a Virginia Commonwealth University psychology professor and IRB member whose students take the CITI course.

As a result, since 2000, in addition to the CITI course, Eissenberg's students also take an in-person course through the university. Last year, some began attending an IRB meeting to observe the key issues that the board focuses on and the way they review proposals.

A number of Eissenberg's students cite the IRB meeting as the most insightful element of their ethics training.

"Before I watched the IRB I didn't realize that they have so many proposals to review or how thorough their reviews are," says Annie Kleykamp, a third-year biopsychology graduate student. "It made me really appreciate my letter of approval."


MODELING ETHICAL BEHAVIOR

Although courses dedicated to research ethics are useful, the best approach is for faculty to integrate the teaching of research ethics with science courses, says ethicist Kenneth D. Pimple, PhD, director of Teaching Research Ethics Programs at the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University Bloomington.

Online tutorials with tests have their place, but can't carry the whole burden of training, he adds.

"Online courses allow students to show that they've 'done the work,' but exams do not show that they've actually learned how to think about ethics," he says.

Any amount of formalized training falls by the wayside without mentors modeling ethical conduct, such as discussing authorship criteria and the rationale for it with students and colleagues at the beginning of a research project or taking the time to write informed consent forms that are suitable for the participants, says psychologist Celia Fisher, PhD, a Fordham University psychology professor and director of the university's Center for Ethics Education.

"If you don't apply what you've learned, it becomes just another set of information that you forget," she says.

Fisher says that the key element of research ethics training is mentors modelingethical conduct and maintaining a continuous dialogue with their students.

"Ethics are not facts," Fisher says. "They are a way of approaching a decision. Mentors should have a constant dialogue with their students as to why they are doing what they are doing."

She urges students who are not in a continuous ethics-focused dialogue with their mentors to ask for additional training.

"It's important to ask 'What alternatives have been rejected?' or 'What should I be doing during debriefings?'" she says. "Without asking those types of questions, how can you learn?"


 

For information about responsible conduct of research issues, relevant regulations, professional codes and educational modules, visit the APA Science Directorate Web site at www.apa.org/science. APA's Ethics Code is online at www.apa.org/ethics.