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Educational Sessions Provide Gentle Guidance: “Coffee and Tea with the IRB”

A New Jersey IRB has found a way to build good will and bolster its reputation among researchers through an educational session of “Coffee and Tea with the IRB.”

The Monmouth University IRB of West Long Branch, NJ, has begun holding mid-afternoon, intimate sessions in which investigators can meet with an IRB expert to discuss their concerns and receive tips for improving their IRB review applications. Like an English tea hour, the educational sessions also include fruit, cookies, and other light fare.

“When people have a full stomach or some sugar in their system, they’re happier,” says Deborah N. Smith, MA, assistant to the IRB and IACUC at Monmouth University.

Learning more about federal regulations is not anyone’s idea of fun on a Wednesday afternoon, but a little tea and food helps, she adds. “It’s always friendly to sit down and have a cup of coffee with someone while going over everything they need help with,” Smith says.

Smith came up with the idea after doing a Google search for IRBs and educational sessions and then discussing her findings with a peer and friend. Once she came up with the catchy title, she sent out a campus-wide e-mail inviting researchers to bring their IRB applications for a preliminary review at the tea session.

The IRB has had several of these sessions, each with three or four investigators. Smith’s plans are to make the “Coffee and Tea with the IRB” sessions a weekly occurrence in the fall. The weekly meetings might make it easier for researchers to fit the sessions into their schedules, she notes.

“Hopefully, we can get more people to come out to the sessions early in the semester,” Smith says. “My goal is to alleviate the anxiety they have regarding the IRB process because it can be a positive experience for them.”

The tea and training sessions last for up to 1.5 hours. Besides providing individualized IRB application support, Smith offers attendees education on a variety of regulatory topics, including these:

  • wording and terminology in IRB application forms;
  • a step-by-step guide to the review process from the risk-benefit ratio to informed consent;
  • information about expedited review and how it’s determined by the IRB;
  • when research is exempt from an informed consent document requirement;
  • basic elements of informed consent.

One researcher who joined Smith at a tea was in the idea phase of developing an oral history study. He was new to the university and discussed a negative experience he had with an IRB at his previous institution, she recalls.

Smith listened to his plans for the oral history project and told him that as long as he addressed everything in the IRB application he shouldn’t have any problem with the process.

Since the study proposed to use an audio recording and to identify participants by name since participants in oral history projects typically do want their names included, the study would not be eligible for an exemption from informed consent, Smith says.

One of Smith’s goals in starting the educational sessions was to put a friendly face on the IRB process and hopefully reduce the stigma associated with IRB review.

“We’re friendly; we’re here to help you and not just another loophole to go through,” she says. “That’s my goal every year: to keep that negative stigma away.”