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groupWhat Counts as Research

But is it research? The answer to this question determines whether your activity requires IRB review. Your ordinary understanding of what is human subjects research is a good starting point, but the definition under federal regulations may be both broader and narrower than you think.

"Research" is defined in the federal regulations as "a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge" [45 CFR 46.102(d)]

On the one hand, the criterion of intent to contribute to generalizable knowledge may be broader than your ordinary understanding of research. It means that preparatory work in a research project is included. On the other, it also means that systematic investigations to develop local knowledge would not be considered research, which is perhaps different from how this word, "research," is sometimes used.

And so, the IRB definition of research may include:

  • pilot projects that might be thought of as preparation to do a formal research study
  • exploratory studies
  • independent studies, theses and dissertations
  • systematic studies of demonstration projects (with intent to generalize)
  • systematic studies of programs (with intent to generalize)

But also, generally, research would not include:

  • activities conducted to improve the quality of teaching in a particular classroom or curriculum
  • improvement-oriented or accountability-oriented inquiry in the college (unless denoted as "research" in a publication, which makes it presumptively research).
  • inquiry primarily intended to benefit the very individuals who are the focus of the inquiry.
  • activities confined to the classroom that teach research methods or simulate research activities


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