What is an Institutional Review Board?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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An institutional review board (IRB) is a panel of individuals who oversee research with human subjects. IRBs can be seen at educational institutions that conduct research with human subjects, along with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and other organizations that use humans in their research. The purpose of an institutional review board is to evaluate all proposed studies with humans to confirm that they adhere to ethical guidelines, to monitor ongoing research, and to periodically audit researchers, ensuring that all of the research conducted at the institution is legal and ethical.

Studies with human subjects can range from interviews with people that might be conducted by a sociology graduate student to testing new medical devices on people with particular conditions. In all cases, before people are allowed to work with humans, they must submit a proposal to the institutional review board. The proposal outlines the nature of the work, explains why it is necessary to use human subjects, and demonstrates that the researcher has considered the risks to the subjects and has taken steps to mitigate them.


The members of the panel review the information and ask questions about the research if they feel that things need to be clarified. The researcher also submits the informed consent forms that will be used by the subjects for review. The institutional review board has the power to deny the study altogether or to request changes to the study methodology in order to address concerns. Members of the committee can also ask for revisions to the informed consent forms if these forms do not appear complete or may confuse subjects.

Once a study has been approved by the institutional review board, the researcher can move forward with recruiting subjects and performing the study. At any stage, members of the committee can ask to review research materials. These reviews will be used to confirm that the researcher is conducting the study as described in the application process and to identify any risks or concerns. If the study appears to be endangering subjects, the IRB can suspend or cancel it until the issue can be resolved.

Institutional review boards also review finished studies, audit records, and meet with study participants and designers on a regular basis. The members of the committee track all ongoing studies, as well as completed studies, and their outcomes. When studies go wrong, board members work together to find out what happened and why in order to develop plans for preventing similar problems in the future.


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