Supporting Your IRB: It’s Not Just About the Board

by Rebecca S. Ohnemus, MAA, CRA, Research Officer at University of the Incarnate Word

As IRB administrators, we find ourselves on the frontlines. Whether you’re a director, administrative support person, or anywhere in between, an incredible amount of time is consumed facilitating the transfer of information between the IRB and your institution’s research community.

If all a person knew about our work was the brief bit from the regulatory description, “sufficient staff to support the IRB’s review and recordkeeping duties,” they would marvel at the volume contained between those words.

In a recent PRIM&R webinar, IRB Administration: Providing Stellar Support to your IRB, Maria Arnold, CIP, and Megan Kasimatis Singleton, JD, MBE, CIP, focused heavily not only on the direct support mechanisms that IRB administrators provide (e.g., record keeping, standard operating procedures, and regulatory compliance), but also on the intersections between providing IRB support and providing support for the research community more generally.

Drawn from Maria and Megan’s advice, here are a few ideas for strengthening the support you provide to the research community:

    1. Don’t play hide and seek. If members of the research community at your institution can’t find the necessary forms, policies, and deadlines for submission quickly and easily, there can be little expectation they’ll use them as intended. If your community knows where to go to find these resources and to seek assistance, they’ll be more likely to use them. Similarly, it is important to design your web pages or portals to be clearly laid out, accessible, and easily navigated. For larger institutions, Megan suggested creating “help desks” for specific assistance. Granted, there will always be a few ornery folks who (despite your best efforts) will get lost, but when the community has the necessary resources to do a good job, there will be those who take full advantage—and their submissions will reflect your efforts.
    2. Make the help truly helpful. During the course of our careers, we’ve inevitably run into an instance where something created to be helpful just wasn’t: checklists longer than the entire 45 CFR, forms you need a magnifying glass to read, and process maps that you need a map to decode. Sometimes the best-intentioned form or checklist isn’t helpful at all. If you, your board, or your research community depend on a resource that convolutes and clouds the process, your work will be slow, ineffective, and frustrating. Maria and Megan recommend reviewing policies and standard operating procedures on a regular, planned basis to make sure everything is up to date, meets your needs, and supports the IRB process effectively. Getting user feedback on pieces also helps clarify when a tool isn’t working.
    3. Build a team of experts. Whether you’re a one-person support crew or a member of a much larger team of IRB administrators, mentoring your teammates and successors plays an integral role in maintaining high-quality support. Maria and Megan suggest making training a collaborative effort—pairing new employees with seasoned professionals, and approaching training step-by-step so as to ensure mastery of important processes. Both agree that maintaining a dynamic knowledge base through ongoing education (e.g., conferences, quick trainings during staff meetings, reading reports from the Office for Human Research Protections, etc.) is essential. PRIM&R’s Mentoring Program works on a similar model, so if you’re a one-person office, or don’t have a seasoned veteran in-house to call on, consider seeking assistance through the Mentoring Program. 

Ultimately, resources for the research community can help IRB administrators strengthen the support provided to the IRB by helping to ensure that everyone involved in research with human subjects at your institution is on the same page. Are there practices other than the ones listed above that you use at your institution to support the research community? I encourage you to share them in the comments.

Missed this webinar? You can purchase IRB Administration: Providing Stellar Support to your IRB   for on-demand viewing and share it with your research community.