A psychology professor accused of violating federal guidelines may be allowed to resume his research on students as soon as early April, according to a University official.
Members of the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) met last week with Associate Professor of Psychology John Broida to investigate his controversial research techniques.
Following the meeting, IRB Chair Susan Vines said no further disciplinary action is likely. She also said she doesn’t expect a more detailed investigation into Broida’s research.
“I’m not putting Broida on trial,” she said. “We have to go on his integrity and assume what he tells us is the truth.”
Provost Joe Wood maintains the University is taking the matter very seriously. Wood has the final decision regarding the future of Broida’s research and any further disciplinary action, though he said he is largely basing his decision on the recommendation of the IRB.
In September 1999 Broida received a Pew Charitable Trust grant in the amount of $200,000 to study the effect of technology on students’ ability to learn. As part of his study, he offered surveys to all students in introductory psychology classes. Though Broida said his research was aimed at studying technology in the classroom, 85 of the 209 questions on the survey dealt with personal family history and alcoholism.
Broida’s research was initially suspended by the Psychology Department and the IRB in early February following a complaint by sophomore criminology/sociology major David Johnson.
Broida estimated he issued the surveys to thousands of students. However, university officials claim he failed to get proper approval to do testing on human subjects, which is required by federal guidelines and University policy. University officials and students alike have also claimed the instructions on the survey were misleading and students weren’t told why they were being studied. Federal law requires proper informed consent in all testing on human subjects. Johnson also raised concerns concerning confidentiality.
Following last week’s meeting, Vines said Broida would not be permitted to resume his research until he submits a new proposal to the IRB, including any of the surveys used. Any further disciplinary action has been referred to Wood.
“What’s clear is that something inappropriate was going on, therefore we stopped his research,” said Wood. “But now I’m looking for a recommendation from the IRB before I act. They’re the ones who have the authority to interpret the guidelines.”
Vines said there will likely be no further consequences for Broida’s violations and he will probably apply for University approval for his research at the next IRB meeting, the first week of April.
According to Vines, in last week’s meeting with the IRB Broida claimed he thought his research was exempt from federal guidelines.
She said the primary reason for not suggesting any further disciplinary action is that Broida didn’t understand what was expected of him.
“He thought his research was exempt from federal regulations,” said Vines. “He was going on false assumptions, but they weren’t false to him. It’s more important that he understands now.”
Johnson, however, doesn’t believe ignorance is a valid excuse for violating federal guidelines.
“In the real world, ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law. If a speeder says he didn’t know the speed limit was 30 mph, he’s still guilty of speeding and he’ll get a ticket.”
Johnson said a professor should be held to a higher standard.
“He’s supposedly a learned professional, he’s a researcher, an educator. He should know the rules,” he said. “Ultimately it’s his responsibility to know whether or not he’s doing it right.”
Wood agreed that a researcher is responsible for knowing the law.
“I think faculty should know the guidelines, especially in human subject research,” said Wood. “Every researcher, faculty member or otherwise, is accountable for what he does.”
Johnson would like to see Broida’s data destroyed. “He got it by cheating,” said Johnson. “He shouldn’t be able to use it.”
However, Vines said after the IRB approves Broida’s research, the data can be used.
“Because of our understanding that he didn’t intentionally deceive students . eventually if he wants to use the data for publication he can.”
The final decision, however, belongs to Wood. He said his decision could come as early as this week.
Broida said he began using the survey questions about familial dysfunction in September 2000 at the suggestion of a student.
“A student came to me in September and said she was interested, so I starting using the questions on the surveys [about family alcoholism],” he said.
Some of the questions included, “Did you ever protect another family member from a parent who was drinking?” and “Did you ever feel responsible for and guilty about a parent’s drinking?”
He said the new questions were related to the project he was working on because “there is data to suggest that children of alcoholics don’t do well with technology.”
Many introductory psychology classes offer online quizzes and tests and Broida wanted to see if children of alcoholics might have a harder time on them.
Johnson said when he logged on to the psychology Web site to take a quiz he noticed a link to the survey which offered students two extra credit points. He said he was disturbed by the survey and had a hard time concentrating on the quiz afterwards.
Broida maintained, however, he didn’t intend for students to take the survey before the quiz. He said it was simply a coincidence that many students did so.
However, on the top of Broida’s survey it states, “Please take this survey before you take quiz 1.”
Broida maintains, however, the instructions meant a student should take the survey at some time before the quiz, not directly before.
Johnson also questioned the confidentiality of the surveys because Broida would likely compare the results of the quizzes with the surveys to test his hypothesis that students from dysfunctional homes have a hard time with technology.
Broida said he didn’t compare the quiz scores with the surveys. To do so would be a violation of federal law, which requires confidentiality in testing human subjects.
“I had never thought someone would think I’d compare the survey to the quiz scores,” said Broida. “It never occurred to me.”
Broida said he didn’t need to compare the quiz scores because a portion of the survey tested students on their general knowledge of psychology. He administered the same survey at the end of the semester to determine whether students’ knowledge had changed.
News Editor Steve Peoples can be contacted at: [email protected].