University officials have suspended the research of a psychology professor found in violation of federal guidelines regarding his study of human subjects.
The Psychology Department and the University’s Institutional Review Board ordered Associate Professor of Psychology John Broida to stop all research until the matter is investigated further.
Broida’s research was funded by part of a Pew Charitable Trust grant of $200,000 he received in September of 1999 to study the impact of technology on a student’s ability to learn.
His research on students has primarily consisted of a survey, which University officials condemn as misleading and having little to do with the project that was approved.
Much of the survey Broida distributes concerns students’ family history and the effects of alcoholism. Students are asked such questions as, “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?”
One student has come forward and University officials fear Broida’s work may have put others at psychological risk.
Sophomore criminology/sociology major David Johnson brought the problem to the attention of University officials.
“Obviously to David it was very concerning,” said Susan Vines, chair of the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). “This survey has been given to hundreds of students. The risks are psychological. Some of the questions could resurrect past distress.”
Broida estimates he offered the survey to thousands of students in introductory level psychology courses in exchange for extra credit on quizzes and tests.
“Right now the survey doesn’t meet federal guidelines,” said Todd Cabelka, assistant to the provost and associate legal counsel for USM.
Federal guidelines require proper informed consent and an adequate explanation of possible risks involved in the participation of research. Broida’s research did not fulfill those requirements, according to Vines.
She claims the instructions on the survey were misleading and didn’t properly inform students why they were being studied.
A statement at the beginning of the survey reads, “[The survey] is designed to assess your knowledge of psychology prior to taking this class and to tell us a little bit about you, your background and how you like to learn.”
However, 85 of the 209 questions on the survey deal with personal issues and family alcoholism.
“We are concerned about research that’s been done,” said Vines. “A student who is being studied needs to know exactly what the study is about. That was a big piece that was missing.”
In addition, Broida didn’t have current University approval to use the survey. According to university and federal regulations, those who conduct research on humans must seek approval for their projects every year. Broida was given approval to use the survey questions about familiar dysfunction one time in 1987 and has been using it periodically ever since.
The IRB will meet Wednesday to determine if any disciplinary action will be taken against Broida and if his research will be allowed to continue.
Broida said he doesn’t expect to lose any funding from the Pew Charitable Trust because of the allegations. Members of the Pew foundation couldn’t be reached for comment.
Neither Vines nor Cabelka could say what would happen to the data Broida has already collected. “Those questions will be answered in the meeting [on Wednesday],” said Cabelka.
Johnson would like to see all the data taken from Broida. “He gathered a lot of data,” said Johnson. “I want it shredded. He got it by cheating. He shouldn’t be able to use it.”
When Johnson brought the violations to the attention of the University he was enrolled in an introductory level psychology class with Assistant Psychology Professor Vincent Markowski.
Many professors in the Psychology Department now offer some tests and quizzes on the department Web site instead of in the classroom. When Johnson logged on to take a quiz he noticed a link to Broida’s survey that offered two extra credit points. He said based on the instructions on the top of the survey he thought the survey would ask about his learning style and his knowledge in psychology.
“I had no idea it would be an intense 209 question survey about my personal family history,” said Johnson. “It was totally invasive. I was like, `what does this have to do with the class?'”
Johnson said he was upset by the survey and as a result couldn’t concentrate on the quiz he took afterward.
He first took his concerns to Markowski, but he felt his concerns were minimized. Johnson then went up the chain of command to the Psychology Department Chair William Gayton.
After questioning Broida about his research, Gayton said he told Broida to stop his study until he spoke with the IRB. “I was concerned whether or not what he was doing now is what he was approved of doing years ago,” said Gayton. “Based upon what [Broida] said there were some questions.”
Johnson soon met with Vines and Cabelka about his concerns. Johnson was immediately taken out of Markowski’s class and promised there would be no academic consequences. Johnson was offered an independent study with Gayton as an alternative.
The meeting prompted Vines to suspend all of Broida’s research.
Broida admitted he was wrong in not seeking approval to use the survey about familial dysfunction. “That was stupid on my part,” he said. “The rules have changed since ’87 and I wasn’t aware of it.”
However, Broida said he’s comfortable he didn’t violate any other federal guidelines. He said the instructions on the top of the survey were sufficient in informing students what the survey would entail. Broida said the wording at the top of the survey, “It is designed . to tell us a little about you – your background and how you like to learn,” accurately informs the students the survey will contain personal questions about family alcoholism.
Broida said he purposely didn’t want to reveal too much detailed information about the contents of the survey to students before they took it. “If we say something about the survey it’s less valid because we’re telling them what it’s about,” he said.
Federal law also requires those studying human subjects to provide “a description of any reasonable foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject.” The risks may be physical or psychological.
Broida said he anticipated that some students may be bothered by the survey, especially because of the large percentage of students who are believed to come from alcoholic homes. In his 13 years of research he’s found that almost 40 percent of students come from such backgrounds.
However, there was nothing on the survey to indicate any potential psychological risks or a protocol for students who were upset to get help.
Broida said he informed students in his class that they could contact him if they had any problems with the survey. In an interview he said if any students suffered psychological damage as a result of taking the survey he would pay for psychological treatment.
Vines and the IRB have accepted part of the responsibility for the violations in Broida’s research. The IRB is an organization that exists to oversee all research done on human subjects in the University. Vines said her organization should have discovered the problems sooner. She also said that the IRB should have been more active in distributing updated regulations to department heads.
Cabelka said the updated guidelines for doing research on human subjects will be posted on the provost’s web site within the next 30 days. Provost Joe Wood has also sent a memo to all department heads asking them to review all ongoing research.
Vines said she’s glad Johnson came forward. “Without him we never would have known about this,” she said. “I have no idea how many other students had similar experiences.”
News Editor Steve Peoples can be contacted at: [email protected]