Library: Institutional Review Board (IRB) Application Tips


Institutional Review Board (IRBs) (a.k.a., Human Subjects Review Boards, Committees for Protecting Human Subjects, etc.) are institutional committees that oversee research involving human subjects in a given institution. IRBs exist for two important reasons:

  1. To protect the rights and welfare of people who participate in research studies, and
  2. To balance potential risks to participants with potential benefits for society.

Typically, one or two members of an IRB will review each research proposal depending on the characteristics of the proposed research and the IRBs review procedures. While the process of an IRB review may feel time consuming to the researcher, such peer-review processes protect the integrity of the social sciences and the safety of participants as a whole. PsychData was specifically designed to satisfy the standards of social science IRBs regarding online data collection and we are continuously evolving to meet these standards, especially for psychological research.

IRBs and Web Based Research

Because web-based psychological research is relatively recent and IRBs are still in the process of developing policies and procedures to manage these new tools, it is the researcher's job to help inform IRB members about online research. We provide the following information to help you inform your research application as it relates to your IRB about online research. The information provided below has resolved nearly all of the problems reported by our users in regards to IRB approval for web-based research.

  1. Informed Consent - IRBs want to be sure that participants demonstrate informed consent prior to participating in survey research. For web-based surveys, consent can be obtained using several methods. The most common method is to request that the participant perform a specific action in order to participate in a survey. Using the PsychData survey system, we recommend the following method that will ask your participants to click on a button if they consent to participate:
    1. Use our Survey Editor to enter your Informed Consent text. At the end of your Informed Consent text, include a statement similar to this: "If you have read and understand the above statements, please click on the "Continue" button below to indicate your consent to participate in this study."
    2. Insert a Page Break. This will result in an Informed Consent Page that is separate from the rest of your study. Thus, by performing the specific action of clicking on the "Continue" button your participants clearly indicate their informed consent prior to viewing or completing any questions in your study.
    3. Other options:
      1. Ask for a specific piece of information - You can request that participant's enter a valid email address (or other specific information) prior to participating in lieu of their signature. Simply insert a required question immediately after your informed consent text and prior to your page break.
      2. If your IRB requires a signed paper informed consent statement from each participant, then we recommend the following: Immediately after your informed consent statement enter as many questions as are required of you. Enter your instructions to the participant (e.g., please enter your information, print this page using the link below, sign on the line below, and mail to the following address). Next, enter the unique Respondent ID field into your survey followed by text that says, "I, ______, consent to participate in this survey." The participant will enter their information, print out the page, sign it, and mail it to you. Because you can include the Respondent ID in your dataset, you will be able to track who sent in the form and who did not.
      3. A variety of other options can be developed to meet your needs. Contact us at [email protected].
    4. Waiver of Documentation - If you will not be asking for a signed paper, some IRB's may require a waiver of documentation (i.e., signature) of informed consent from your IRB. This is NOT a waiver of consent, but rather a waiver of obtaining a signature on the consent form and exact procedures will vary by IRB.
  2. Survey Completion Risks - Risks during the actual completion of survey questions are only slightly different with PsychData than with traditional methods.
    1. Participants are likely to have more privacy at their computer than in a lecture hall or classroom.
    2. PsychData has addressed concerns regarding the potential for viewing survey data by a third party by placing all surveys in our unique Secure Survey Environment (SSE):
      1. All survey pages are constructed such that a completed survey cannot be viewed by simply pressing the "Back" button (thus greatly reducing the chance that someone could "back up" to see previously entered data).
      2. Our SSE incorporates additional security measures to ensure that a participant's responses are not retrievable from their computer. First, all survey pages are entirely dynamic and database-generated (instead of static web pages that could be stored by the participant's computer). Second, all surveys have redundant server-side code to ensure that they always load directly from our server and not from a prior cached version. Finally, upon completion of the survey, the survey window encourages the participant to close this browser window.
  3. Data Security During Transmission - All surveys hosted with PsychData are encrypted using 256-bit SSL Technology (Secure Socket Layer) that is equivalent to the industry standard for securely transmitting credit card information over the Internet. This technology encrypts BOTH the questions displayed to the participants and their responses. Thus, all responses are instantly encrypted and remain so until they are received at the PsychData database. Interception of data when it is being transmitted between the Internet browser (i.e., Internet Explorer, FireFox, Safari, Chrome) and the PsychData database is HIGHLY unlikely (consider the motivations of a person attempting to intercept research data over the internet vs. papers stored in an office vs. credit card information). However, should interception of encrypted data occur, that data could not be decoded without the unique encryption key that is held only by PsychData.
  4. Safety of Stored Data - Once research data is stored on a PsychData server, it is held in an isolated database that can only be accessed by a researcher with the correct username and password. PsychData employees do NOT examine customer data unless requested to do so by the account owner; additionally, those employees are trained in the ethics of research involving human subjects.
  5. Control of Stored Data - The researcher has full control over their data including the ability to delete all data at the completion of their survey. All data stored at PsychData is backed up on a daily basis, held in a tightly secured facility (read our Security Statement), and typically overwritten after seven days. Therefore, once a user has deleted their data, it will be permanently deleted from our backups in about one week.
  6. Identifying Information - For a variety of reasons, many researchers need to collect identifying information about their participants. IRBs are rightfully concerned that such information should be handled separately from research data. Here's how such information can be handled using PsychData.
    1. PsychData allows you to link two surveys together. Therefore, identifying information about participants and research data can be collected, stored, and accessed separately. If you need to collect identifying information at the same time you are collecting anonymous research data this method is, by far, the safest.
      Read more about Identifying Information
  7. IP Addresses - An IP address is a unique identifying number used to identify computers connected to the Internet. An IP address might be static (i.e., always refer to one institution's server), dynamic (assigned upon connection), or pooled (a group of servers share one or more IP addresses). IP addresses may also change multiple times during the same connection - for example, the IP address of AOL users may change multiple times per minute. An IP address generally will represent either an institution (i.e. a university or large company) or an Internet Service Provider (i.e. AOL or an ISP serving one or more communities).
    1. IP Addresses Are Optional - Each researcher at PsychData may choose to exclude or include the IP address of each participant for any given survey or surveys.
    2. Benefits and Risks - For some researchers, IP addresses can be useful (in conjunction with the date/time stamp) for filtering out duplicate entries, getting a sense of the geographic nature of your participants, and a variety of other reasons. Due to these benefits, PsychData makes it possible to automatically collect IP addresses. On the other hand, IP addresses represent a form of potentially indirect identifying information about a participant. (Rarely, if ever, is an IP address associated with only one individual user.) Therefore, PsychData also makes it possible to exclude IP addresses from your data collection, thus reducing that risk to confidentiality. Keep in mind that an IP address is less of a threat to confidentiality than handwriting, fingerprints, postal-addresses, email addresses, handwritten signatures, or being observed completing a paper survey. While IP addresses are a potential risk to confidentiality, they should be considered in context.
    3. Use at PsychData - All commercial websites (and many that are not) routinely analyze the IP addresses of site visitors (e.g., participants, customers, and web-surfers) - PsychData is no exception. However, PsychData only examines such data in aggregate and will never sell, disclose, or share this information.
  8. Unique Respondent ID Number - Every participant who completes a survey at PsychData is automatically assigned an internal number called the Respondent ID Number. Researchers can use this data to create a confirmation page for participants by displaying the Respondent ID Number within their survey or at its conclusion. Similarly, researchers can also elect to download this data or to exclude it. One important use of this feature is to provide participants with a unique number representing a record of their participation that is disconnected from their identity.


In our experience this information has resolved the large majority of IRBs' concerns regarding online data collection. Most IRBs approve of online research conducted with PsychData because of our commitment to security, confidentiality, and privacy for web-based social science research. We welcome questions, concerns, suggestions, and feedback at [email protected].

Recommended Reading

Click to read the PsychData Security Statement.


"In 30 years, my students and I have conducted well over 150 paper-and-pencil surveys. With PsychData, the process is... less time-consuming, less paper-wasting, more accurate, and very user-friendly."

—Thomas F. Cash, Ph.D.,
   University Professor,
   Department of Psychology,
   Old Dominion University

"PsychData has been an absolutely amazing service! It's easy, cost effective, efficient... and not just for me, but for the faculty and staff of the University."

—Rene Paulson, Ph.D.,
   Texas Woman's University