A Closer Look

Because developmental psychologists' research involves infants, children and teenagers, institutional review boards (IRBs) often subject their work to strong scrutiny to protect young research participants. While developmental researchers recognize the importance of protecting children and teen-agers, many think the scrutiny is sometimes too intense. Some argue, for example, that it prompts IRBs to unnecessarily delay research studies and tack on excessive or confusing requirements about informed consent and other issues.

So, in an effort to establish clearer guidelines--and fewer needless hurdles--a task force of APA's Div. 7 (Developmental) has written a report to heighten awareness of its members' research challenges and inform IRB "best practice" efforts and research guidelines.

"The overarching thing we would love for people to understand is that the overwhelming majority of our research is completely innocuous," says Nora Newcombe, PhD, a developmental psychologist at Temple University who chairs the Div. 7 Task Force on IRB Issues, which wrote the report. "But IRBs seem to be increasingly coming up with new requirements...that get in the way in ways that don't add to ethics but do detract from research."

For example, the report describes a trend among IRBs to require verbal assent from children whose parents have already provided written informed consent for their child to be a research participant. The trend has sparked confusion among investigators about what the requirement amounts to, how the consent would be documented and at what age it is required.

"The idea is that it offers more respect for kids, and that is a really good idea," says Newcombe. "But if the consent is not written, researchers are unclear about what it means, and it's a bit of a red herring." She adds, "And I don't think there is a developmental researcher in the world who has ever dragged a child kicking and screaming out of the classroom because their parents gave written permission."

The document also highlights the need for IRBs to provide clear instructions for researchers on how--and from whom--they should get written parental informed consent for participants who are emancipated minors, as well as from participants who have neglectful or hard-to-reach parents.

Another cloudy consent issue the report addresses is whether researchers need to inform potential participants that, as researchers, they are required to report any instances of child abuse they observe during a study. Presently, the considerations vary from state to state and situation to situation, says Newcombe. The report recommends that consent forms need not notify participants if the researcher is not a mandated reporter in that state, or if the likelihood of observing an instance of abuse is very small.

Many developmental psychologists also encounter IRB problems with longitudinal research, according to the report. "You may start a longitudinal study and then 10 years later the ethical requirements have changed," says Newcombe. She points to an example in which an IRB wanted a researcher to get updated informed consent for participants from a 50-year-old data set--many of whom had passed away. "Sometimes you get yourself into a pickle that IRBs don't seem to appreciate," she explains.

The report results from two years of work by task force members Newcombe, Elizabeth Cauffman, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, and Sheri Berenbaum, PhD, of Penn State University, and additional comments from Div. 7 members. Now the task force will forward the documents to groups addressing research guidelines and IRB practices, such as the APA Science Directorate's Task Force on Research Regulation. Newcombe hopes their work will eventually spark a trend among IRBs to revise their policies.

The task force report also proposes that IRBs develop a standardized list of low-risk procedures in research with children--such as infant looking-time procedures or vision and hearing tests--that don't necessarily need to be scrutinized during the research approval process. As it is now, IRBs tend to deny expedited approval for research that involves children, regardless of risk--often causing unnecessary delays, explains Newcombe.

"If there was a list, then IRBs wouldn't feel like they had to look over that procedure in such minute detail every time," says Newcombe. "I think it would save everybody a lot of time and effort."

Further Reading

The report is available at www.apa.org/divisions/div7.

Div. 7 at a glance

Div. 7 (Developmental) was formed in 1945 to promote research in developmental psychology and high standards in the application of scientific knowledge to education, child care and policy. The division has 1,328 members. Members of the division receive the twice-yearly newsletter Developmental Psychologist and can network with other developmental psychologists through a member listserv. Membership is free for undergraduate and graduate student affiliates, and free for psychologists for the first year. To become a member, contact Susanne Denham, PhD, Div. 7 membership chair, at sdenham@gmu.edu.