An institutional review board (IRB) is an organization that reviews and approves (or disapproves) any research study involving human subjects. A human subject is any individual about whom the research team collects data through an intervention, or interaction with the individual. Institutional review boards (or IRBs) can recommend changes in all aspects of an impact evaluation, including protocols, content, and data security. IRBs therefore ensure that the research team is taking appropriate steps to protect the rights and welfare of human subjects. Researchers should seek IRB approval at the beginning of a study, prior to implementing any change to the study, and every year of the study, even if no study protocol has changed. This page outlines IRB requirements and where, when, and how to seek IRB approval.
- An IRB approval is required for any study involving human subjects.
- Researchers must acquire IRB approval at initial protocol review and continuing review; if any changes are made in the study, researchers must also acquire IRB approval at amendment review.
- Prepare IRB applications with anticipation, as compiling materials can consume substantial time and energy.
IRB review is a process through which an IRB reviews, approves, disapproves, or requires changes in research involving human subjects. IRB approval is required for all studies that:
- Interact with human subjects for the purposes of research
- Collect data on individuals including personally identifying information
- Use data collected from individuals that includes personally identifying information
An IRB will request researchers about additional measures taken for studies that include vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, prisoners, children, or economically or educationally disadvantaged people.
Where to seek IRB approval
As the World Bank does not have an IRB, World Bank projects typically seek IRB approval from partner academic or research organizations (i.e. principal investigators’ universities, Innovations for Poverty Action, etc.). It is not uncommon to need more than one IRB approval, especially when researchers work in different institutions. Additional IRB approvals may be required based on the local regulations.
How to seek IRB approval
IRB applications can be quite demanding, especially those from institutions based in the countries where research is taking place. IRBs require submission of study design, study instruments, interview guides, data collection protocols, recruitment materials, and informed consent documents, among others. Note that retrieving this information and submitting it in the required format can consume substantial time and energy.
When to seek IRB approval
Researchers must seek IRB approval at various stages:
- Initial protocol review: this review occurs at the beginning of the study, before any research activity involving human participants begins. Ideally, research teams should seek IRB approval after piloting and finalizing all survey instruments. The pre-IRB pilot should not collect nor store personally identifying information. In order to not be considered research, the pre-IRB pilot should not contribute to generalizable knowledge, but rather simply assess the feasibility of the study protocols.
- Amendment review: this review occurs prior to implementing any change in the study. The research team must submit an amendment application whenever it alters any study design, informed consent procedure, or investigation team within an IRB-approved research protocol. IRBs will typically review amendments involving minor changes that pose no more than minimal risk to subjects on an expedited basis. Other changes may need to be reviewed by the full Committee at the next available IRB meeting. As a principle, the IRB must prospectively review all proposed changes to approved research, except when the research team must make necessary changes to eliminate apparent immediate hazards to subjects.
- Continuing review: as risks to participants may evolve through time, the research team must submit a continuing review every year, even if no study protocol has changed. In the submitted material, the research team reports on the progress of the approved research in the format prescribed by the IRB.
When submitting a project for review, allow enough time to ensure the non-interruption of studies. Consider that IRBs can make decisions in 3-5 days (commercial IRBs), 1 month (typical for university IRBs) or up to 4 months (IRBs based in the countries where research is taking place). Finally, the IRB must be informed of any cases of unanticipated problems involving risks to participants or others, usually within 24 hours to 2 weeks, depending on the severity of the adverse events.
Very few circumstances exempt a research team from needing IRB approval for a study that interacts with human subjects. In practice, for IRB approval only apply to continuing review, as an initial review must be submitted to obtain exemption.
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This article is part of the topic Research Ethics
- DIME Analytics’ Research Ethics & Data Security
- Berk Ozler's Research with adolescents: issues surrounding consent on the World Bank Development Impact blog
- Martin Ravallion's Taking Ethical Validity Seriously on the World Bank Development Impact blog and Berk Ozler's response