IRB Approval

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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. The research team must seek IRB approval to ensure that they are protecting the rights and welfare of human subjects. The Federal Policy for Protection of Human Subjects (or 'Common Rule') outlines the basic ethical principles for IRB review.

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Institutional review boards (IRBs) review and monitor research studies to protect the rights of human subjects. The IRB can also request the research team for information on additional measures to protect the interests of vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, prisoners, children, or economically or educationally disadvantaged people. In general, the research team must seek an IRB approval for all studies that interact with human subjects, and collect (or use) personally identifiable information about individuals.

The research team must prepare the applications for IRB approval in advance, since it can be a time-consuming process. Further, the research team must set aside enough time for obtaining all necessary approvals in the timeline for the entire study. The entire process of obtaining approvals also involves applying for the following approvals:

  • Government agencies. The research team will often need to obtain permissions from relevant government agencies and ministries in the area of the study.
  • Budgetary approval. The research team must also seek approval for the study budget from the organization funding the study.


When the research team submits an application for approval of a study that involves human subjects, they must include the following information:

  • section labeled "Protection of Human Subjects" which describes the proposed involvement of human subjects, including an assessment of risk, the steps taken to protect the subjects from risk, potential benefits from the study to the subjects and others and the importance of the knowledge to be gained from these studes.

A plan must be provided describing the inclusion of women, children and minorities in the research project or adequate justification for why a particular category might be excluded (e.g., a study might propose to exclude children, given adequate justification). A Table indicating anticipated enrollment figures for the above categories (women, children and minorities) must be included.


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.

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.


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

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