Office of Research & Creative Scholarship

Student Project Guidelines


Learning how to conduct ethical research is an important part of a student’s educational experience. This policy exists to help course instructors determine if IRB approval is required or not.


Research activities that are designed as part of a course requirement and involve human participants do not require IRB review if all of the following conditions are true.  Course instructors should ask themselves all of the following questions about a course assignment.  If the answer to any of the questions is “No,” then IRB oversight is needed.

  • Is the activity a class assignment designed for learning purposes only (i.e., it is not designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge)?
  • Will the results of the research be viewed only by the course instructor for teaching purposes and only discussed within the context of the course for learning purposes?
  • Will the presentation of the results of the research occur only in the classroom and not be published in paper or electronic format (e.g., cannot be made available on the internet, cannot be published in a journal, cannot be discussed with a news reporter, etc.)?
  • Is there no more than minimal risk involved for the research participants? (Minimal risk is defined as “the probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort anticipated in the research are not greater in and of themselves than those ordinarily encountered in daily life or during the performance of routine physical or psychological examinations or tests”)
  • Will the project avoid including vulnerable populations who have not previously provided written permission to Emerson for data collection for educational and/or professional training purposes (e.g., children under age 18, prisoners, persons who are cognitively impaired, pregnant women, etc.)?
  • Will the data collected be recorded in such a manner that the subjects are not identifiable?
  • When appropriate, will an informed consent process be in place?

A typical example of a student project at Emerson not requiring IRB review is an assignment in a research methods course where students use an anonymous online survey to question fellow Emerson students 18 and older on their opinions about the dining hall. In this example, the student investigators report their findings in a presentation to their classmates and to the instructor, but the data are not shared outside of the classroom. The topic is not sensitive in nature, and vulnerable populations are not included.

Responsibility of the Course Instructor

If a project involving human subjects does not require IRB review, the course instructor still is responsible for communicating to students the ethics of human subjects research, for ensuring the protection of human subjects (including ensuring a process is in place for obtaining voluntary informed consent from research subjects when appropriate), and for monitoring the students’ progress.

Student Projects Using Human Subjects Requiring IRB Review

Independent study projects, honors projects, group and individual capstone projects, and theses must be independently submitted for IRB review. These categories apply to both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Any human subject research activity that will ultimately contribute to publication or public presentation must go through the IRB review process prior to enrolling subjects and collecting data. IRB review cannot occur after a study has begun.

When student projects require IRB review, faculty members have the responsibility to instruct students on the ethical conduct of research and on the preparation of the IRB application. In particular, faculty must ensure that students:

  • understand the elements of informed consent;
  • develop appropriate consent documents;
  • plan appropriate strategies for recruiting subjects;
  • identify and minimize potential risks to subjects;
  • assess the risk-benefit ratio for the project;
  • complete CITI online training for the use of human subjects prior to IRB submission;
  • establish and maintain strict guidelines for protecting confidentiality; and
  • allow sufficient time for IRB review and completion of the project.

In making a determination of whether or not a student research project requires IRB review, instructors are encouraged to err on the side of caution and to contact the Chair of the IRB office for assistance. For example, contact the IRB Chair if you aren’t sure whether or not a procedure involves minimal risk. Questions should be directed to