Assessing Risk in Dissertation Research


When seeking Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for your dissertation research, you will need to provide an assessment of the risk your participants may face. Risk refers to the potential for negative outcomes that participants may experience as a result of being in your study. It is your obligation as a researcher to minimize participants’ risk as much as possible. As a part of their approval decision, the IRB weighs the risks of the study against the potential benefits of the study. So, if the potential benefits of your study do not outweigh the risks, your study may not get approved. Here, we discuss some issues to consider when assessing risk in your study.

First, it is important to note that ALL studies involve risk. Many students mistakenly state in their proposals and IRB applications that their study involves no risk. Even if you are doing something simple and seemingly harmless, such as a survey, there will still be some degree of risk involved in the study. For instance, if your survey covers a sensitive topic, your participants may experience psychological stress or anxiety. If you are collecting any personal information (such as names or e-mail addresses), there is a possibility that participants’ personal information could be exposed. When people think about risk, they may be inclined to only consider risk of physical harm. However, when conducting research, many types of risk need to be considered, including risk to physical, psychological, emotional, economic, and social wellbeing.

So, how do you assess the level of risk in your study? Risk often is assessed in relation to the risk inherent to normal daily life. In other words, is the potential for harm greater than what the participants would encounter if they were not in the study and were just carrying on with their lives as usual? If the answer is no, then your study involves only minimal risk. The United States Department of Health and Human Services specifically considers research as having minimal risk when “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” (see Much dissertation research in the social sciences involves minimal risk. In minimal risk studies, researchers need to take simple, reasonable measures to mitigate risk. This includes fully informing participants about the nature of the research and their rights as participants, as well as putting proper safeguards in place to secure their data and personal information.

If your study involves more than minimal risk, you may need to implement special procedures to mitigate risk. Such procedures will vary depending on the risks specific to the study. For example, if your study involves survey questions that could cause significant psychological distress, you may need to provide psychological counseling resources to your participants. In more extreme cases, you may even need to have personnel present during data collection who are trained to handle incidents of physical harm, discomfort, or psychological distress. While greater-than-minimal-risk studies will receive greater scrutiny from the IRB, such studies can gain approval with proper collaboration between the researcher and the IRB reviewers.

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