Cover Story

Celia Fisher, PhD, illustrates a major plank of PSY21--conducting responsible research--through her work educating institutional review boards (IRBs) on the risks participants potentially face during psychological research.

Many IRBs are becoming increasingly risk aversive, says Fisher, the Marie Ward Doty Professor of Psychology and director of Fordham University's Center for Ethics Education. Some place barriers against the conduct of psychological research because they believe the threat to participants is too great to warrant study, she notes. Unlike the medical field, psychology doesn't have a standard definition of the "minimal risks"--such as deception--that participants could face during a study. As a result, acquiring IRB approval can be a stressful experience for psychologists, Fisher says. But she adds that the discipline's relationship with IRBs needn't be so acrimonious.

"The problem many psychologists have with institutional review boards is their lack of understanding of the risk involved in psychological research--but I don't think IRBs should be seen as adversaries," says Fisher, a member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary's Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections.

Psychologists can improve relationships with IRBs through mutual education, Fisher says, by learning how IRBs operate--specifically, what risks to participants concern them--while explaining to the boards how psychological research differs from medical research.

For the most part, Fisher says, psychological research entails no physical harm to a participant--unlike some medical testing--and IRBs that are used to reviewing biomedical research struggle to grasp intangible, mental risk. Absent any clear understanding of risk, some IRBs enforce stringent

criteria for participant protections even if the risk is minimal, says Fisher, who was chair of APA's Ethics Code Task Force and who also wrote a book on the code, "Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologists" (Sage Publications, 2003).

Fisher suggests that psychologists educate IRBs about minimal risk in their review applications. She also recommends that psychologists ask pilot groups of prospective participants if they feel a study's design poses risks and if so, how to best minimize these risks. By collecting such responses, psychologists can learn how the public commonly views risk in behavioral health research.

"If we pilot all of our research designs, we certainly can pilot our ethical procedures at the same time to develop an empirical base about what participants perceive as risk," she explains. "Such data can allay IRB concerns about the risk our research presents to participants."

To help psychologists and students with this education task, Fisher has developed instructional materials on research ethics, available at

"We are so used to helping participants, providing them informed consent, trying to educate them about the process of research," Fisher says. "We forget we can play the same role with IRBs."