Research Knowledge Base
IRB Guidance: Status Relationships
This page addresses issues related to conducting a research project when there is a status relationship - or position of power - between any member of the study team and potential subjects.
A status relationship exists when an investigator uses participants who have a pre-existing relationship with the investigator that may be coercive. Examples could include a professor or instructor who includes her students as participants, a department head who includes his colleagues as participants, a principal who includes her teaching faculty as participants, or an employer who includes his employees as participants. Given the nature of these relationships, participants may feel obligated to participate in the research.
A status relationship between a member of the study team and research subjects raises special ethical concerns, including:
- Coercion: recruitment and consent processes with the potential for undue influence;
- Loss of subject confidentiality;
- Accessibility; and
- Use of a captive audience.
Before receiving IRB approval, the following guidelines, based on campus policy, must be detailed in the protocol application if a status relationship is unavoidable in the research plan:
- The research must present minimal risk to subjects;
- Participation in the research must represent a potential educational opportunity for the participants;
- The recruitment of participants should involve only indirect methods (meaning participants cannot be recruited on a personal basis). The participants should be recruited through the posting of IRB approved flyers/ads, through IRB approved communications sent out to a larger group (such as mass mailings like emails or letters), or by a member of the study team who does not have a status relationship with the participants;
- The consent process should be conducted by a study team member with whom the participant does NOT have a status relationship;
- If the research is conducted within a classroom setting, the instructor should be blinded to the identity of the participants, and data cannot be analyzed until final grades have been posted. In other settings, the IRB will likely require that the person with the status relationship will never be able to identify who chose to participate and who did not.
Keywords: status relationships, power, coercive, captive audience, coercion