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New APA Committee on Human Research Sets Its Agenda

The recently formed APA Committee on Human Research has identified the key issues that will guide its upcoming activities.

By Sangeeta Panicker, PhD

The APA Committee on Human Research (CHR) held its inaugural meeting on March 26-27, 2010, in Washington, DC. The Committee spent much of its meeting mapping out its priorities and identifying issues and broad areas on which it will focus its efforts over the next 3-5 years.

CHR activities will be geared toward facilitating the review of psychological research by institutional review boards (IRBs), providing psychologists with the resources needed to engage in international research and team science, and offering opportunities for training in the responsible conduct of research.

The members of CHR are Thomas Eissenberg (who was selected as chair for 2010), Miriam F. Kelty, Daniel C. Marson, Vivian Ota Wang, Barbara Stanley, and Mieke Verfaellie.

Interpreting federal regulations for psychological research. The Committee plans to develop resources to facilitate appropriate IRB review of psychological research. One potential product is a collection of examples of particularly challenging issues in research with human participants and how they were resolved. Another possibility is a series of commentaries on various research protocols that discuss the ethical principles and regulations that apply to those forms of research. The Committee also aims to advance the role of psychology in the development, evaluation, and implementation of federal regulations and policy related to responsible research.

Education. In keeping with the Committee’s educational mission, the Committee will explore opportunities for educating both IRBs and scientists on how to apply existing federal regulations appropriately to behavioral and psychological research. Offering educational opportunities for IRBs might entail collaborating with entities such as the federal Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) or the professional organization Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research. The Committee will also explore the feasibility of establishing a summer institute on the responsible conduct of research targeting investigators as well as graduate and post-graduate students.

Use of electronic media and technology in psychological research. The Committee discussed the need to identify methodological and ethical issues arising from increased use of electronic media and communication technologies in research, especially when such use may challenge current definitions and guidelines for data security, privacy, and consent. The Committee acknowledged the need for APA to revisit issues surrounding internet-based research, which it last addressed in a 2004 report. The Committee will explore how best to address these issues and may recommend that the APA Board of Scientific Affairs convene an ad hoc group to reexamine the topic, including consideration of emerging questions (e.g., how researchers use social networking platforms) and potential new guidelines.

Ethical issues for psychologists involved in international research. Psychologists are increasingly engaging in international research and research collaborations, which may present novel scientific and ethical challenges. The Committee discussed the need for investigators to consider the significance of research questions within particular socio-cultural contexts, including the relevance of the questions for research participants; the meanings of psychological constructs across socio-cultural contexts and their implications for assessment of research risks; and, more broadly, issues at the intersection of science and human rights. The Committee also stressed the need for psychological researchers to maintain fair and equitable research partnerships, especially when collaborating with researchers in developing nations. To guide its deliberations on these topics, the Committee will seek input from the APA Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP) and the APA Office of International Affairs.

Ethical issues for psychologists involved in interdisciplinary and team research. The trend toward interdisciplinary research and team science raises a number of ethical and regulatory issues for researchers. These issues include: seeking approvals from multiple IRBs that may have varied perspectives; reconciling disciplinary differences in risk assessment, consent procedures, data sharing, publication practices, and dispute resolution; the role and relevance of discipline-specific ethics codes; and how to define the roles and responsibilities of each member of a research team to ensure scientific integrity across the entire research effort. The Committee will delve into these issues and intends to develop resources to assist psychologists who are participating in large collaborative projects.

Informing participants about incidental findings. The Committee will explore the challenging issues surrounding the sharing of incidental findings with research participants. The basic question is whether information about clinical findings that are incidentally obtained during research procedures (e.g., brain imaging) and are potentially relevant to research participants’ health and wellbeing should be shared with them. Among the ethical issues surrounding the sharing of incidental findings are: how to weigh whether receipt of such information is a benefit or a risk to participants, participants’ right to knowledge versus their right not to know something about themselves, how to handle incidental findings that have ambiguous interpretations, the role of prior consent in the sharing of incidental findings, and how to refer participants who are informed of incidental findings for further assessment and treatment.

Another issue that the Committee discussed was the recent finding by the federal Office of Human Research Protections regarding university department policies on penalizing students who fail to keep an appointment to participate in a study. The Committee’s perspective on this ruling was published in a column in the April issue of PSA. The Committee plans to prepare similar columns on topics pertinent to research with human participants for future issues of PSA.


Sangeeta Panicker, PhD, is director of the APA Research Ethics Office and serves as staff liaison to the Committee on Human Research.