Categories of Research

Categories of Research

Information on this page was modified with permission (2011) from that provided by the Claremont Graduate University and the Grinnell College faculty handbook Appendix IX and revised March 2013.  Investigators may want to check out the decision charts from the Office of Human Research (OHRP) to help them determine whether their study requires IRB review.

Definition of Research

Research means a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.  Activities that meet this definition may be funded or unfunded, or may be conducted as a component of another program not usually considered research. For example, demonstration and service programs may include evaluation components, which constitute research activities under this definition.

Precedence and practice have established the principle that certain kinds of activities that might be called "human participant research" do not require review for the protection of human participants.  The following kinds of activities do not require such review:

Pilot studies, pre-tests, and other "preliminary" investigations are considered research and must be reviewed unless they fall into one of the excluded categories listed above.

Quality improvement and quality assurance activities conducted solely for the intent of maintaining or improving quality of services provided by an institution, likewise, are not considered research activities. However, if the data collected are generalizable and are to be shared outside of the institution through discussion, presentation, or publication, the activity qualifies as research. Sometimes, data from a quality improvement or quality assurance activity become of interest to the external community after they have been analyzed. In these cases, the research use of the data collected for another purpose must be reviewed.

Classroom activities may or may not be considered research, depending on their nature and presence of special factors.  Nature refers to whether the researcher is testing a hypothesis or conducting an investigation that will contribute to a generalized knowledge base.  Special factors refer to vulnerability of participants, risk, and privacy.  Any project that involves vulnerable populations, above minimal risk, or includes information that identifies the participant in the data set should undergo IRB review. The federal guidelines allow projects that are conducted solely to teach students research techniques or methodologies to be classified as instructional and not research.  These would not need IRB review; however the IRB recommends that teachers instruct students on ethical principles of research and obtain informed consent from project participants. Class projects that involve collecting empirical data to test theories or examine theories in action should receive IRB review with the exception of anonymous surveys of minimal risk (OHRP workshop, Minneapolis, May 2012).

Human participants are considered living people with whom the investigators interact or act on in a way that is not part of the people's normal job.  If, for example, you are interviewing someone to collect information that is their job to know and give out, then they are not participants but rather conduits of information; no IRB submission required. 

Exempt Level Research

Research activities in which the only involvement of human participants will be in an exempt category as defined by in  45 CFR, Part 46.101.B.  Below are the seven categories of exempt research: 

1. Research at Grinnell involving normal educational practices such as instructional strategies, curricula or classroom management techniques

(Professors who experiment with their class format to improve their teaching or use student evaluations, for instance, do not need the approval of an IRB. In addition, the use of language and other proficiency tests as part of First Year advising do not require IRB approval.)

2. Research involving use of educational tests (cognitive, diagnostic, aptitude, achievement), survey procedures or interview procedures, unless: (a) the information obtained directly or indirectly identifies individual participants; and (b) disclosures of participants' responses would place the participants at risk of legal liability or would be damaging to their financial standing, employability or reputation

3. Observations of public behavior as long as information is recorded in such a way that individuals cannot be identified

(Basically this includes observation of behavior in public places. Public places are places that are open to the public and in which there is little reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, activity observed in a public restroom is not public behavior.  On the other hand, pedestrian traffic flow on the corner of Sixth and Park is public behavior.)

4. Research of public documents

5. Oral History

Most oral history research is exempt from IRB oversight because it does not meet the technical definition of “research” under federal regulations.  Oral history deals with particular individuals who have played role in particular historical events and does not seek to establish the types of generalizable principles or laws that characterize the technical definition of “research” for purposes of IRB oversight.

Although some universities and colleges nonetheless require IRB review of oral history projects, Grinnell College follows the lead of the American Historical Association, the Oral History Association and the U. S. Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP) in treating most oral history projects as exempt from IRB oversight.

Oral history contrasts with ethnography, most of which is subject to IRB review. Grinnell College follows the American Anthropological Association in regarding ethnography as meeting the technical definition of “research” requiring IRB oversight.

6. Journalism

Journalists and investigative reporters who are writing stories for news publications such as the Scarlet and Black are typically not engaged in research within the scope of IRB oversight and are exempt from IRB oversight. If, however, research requires IRB approval on other grounds, the fact that the author intends to publish it in a newspaper does not exempt it from IRB approval. For example, a researcher who intends to publish the results of a psychological experiment involving human participants in the Scarlet and Black is not thereby exempt from IRB oversight.

7. Interviews of Experts and Public Figures

Interviews of experts or public figures about the areas of their competence are not considered human subject research and do not require IRB review. This is because the expert or public figure is not the object of the research. For example, asking a Roman Catholic priest about church liturgy is not human subjects’ research; the priest is functioning as an expert consultant, not a subject. On the other hand, research that involves asking priests about the difficulties they encountered in their commitment to celibacy is human subjects’ research, since the priests themselves are the objects of the research.

For more information on each of the seven categories, consult the HHS website.

Expedited Level Research

Research activities involving "no more than minimal risk" and in which the only involvement of human participants will be in one or more of the following categories may be reviewed using an expedited procedure by the Institutional Review Board. Each of the categories is quoted by the Federal regulations at 45 CFR, part 46, and followed by an explanatory paragraph.


Physical sensors that are applied either to the surface of the body or at a distance and do not involve input of significant amounts of energy into the participant or an invasion of the participant's privacy;
Weighing or testing sensory acuity;

Magnetic resonance imaging;

Electrocardiography, electroencephalography, thermography, detection of naturally occurring radioactivity, electroretinography, ultrasound, diagnostic infrared imaging, Doppler blood flow, and echocardiography;

Moderate exercise, muscular strength testing, body composition assessment, and flexibility testing where appropriate given the age, weight, and health of the individual."

Explanation: The examples listed are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. This category may be applied to research involving prospective collection of data for research purposes using non-invasive methods in addition to those listed as examples.

  1. "Collection of data from voice, video, digital or image recordings made for research purposes"
    Explanation: Because recordings made of participants are de facto identifiable, research involving these techniques which would otherwise be exempt are eligible for minimal risk review using the expedited procedure. Such studies will be approved if the researcher outlines appropriate mechanisms to minimize the risks of invasion of privacy and breach of confidentiality.
  2. "Research on individual or group characteristics or behavior (including, but not limited to, research on perception, cognition, motivation, identity, language, communication, cultural beliefs or practices, and social behavior) or research employing survey, interview, oral history, focus group, evaluation, human factors evaluation, or quality assurance methodologies. (NOTE: some research in this category may be exempt from the HHS regulations, 45 CFR, Part 46.101 (b)(2) and (b)(3), for the protection of human participants. This listing refers only to research that is not exempt.)"
    Explanation: Much behavioral research that does not qualify from exemption may be reviewed as minimal risk using the expedited procedure. this category is designed to accommodate research activities that pose no more than minimal risk to participants and that are not eligible for exemption. Please note that this category now includes minor participants.
  3. "Medical research with minimal risk:
     a. Clinical studies of drugs and medical devices only when either of the following conditions is met.
     Research on drugs for which an investigational new drug application (21 CFR, Part 312) is not required. (Note: Research on marketed drugs that significantly increases the risks or decreases the acceptability of the risks associated with the use of the product is not eligible for minimal risk review.)
     Research on medical devices for which:
     i.  an investigational device exemption application (21 CFR, Part 812) is no required; or
     ii. the medical device is cleared/approved for marketing and the medical device is being used in accordance with its cleared/approved labeling.
     b. "Collection of blood samples by finger stick, heel stick, ear stick, or venipuncture as follows:
     i.  From healthy, nonpregnant adults who weigh at least 110 pounds. For these participants, the amounts drawn may not exceed 550 ml in an 8 week period and collection may not occur more frequently than 2 times per week; or
     ii. From other adults and children, considering the age, weight, an health of the participants, the collection procedure, the amount of blood to be collected, and the frequency with which it will be collected. For these participants, the amount drawn may not exceed the lessor of 50 ml or 3 ml per kg in an 8 week period and collection may not occur more frequently than 2 times per week."
     Explanation: This category allows minimal risk review of activities involving invasive blood draws from healthy normal participants and from non-healthy, pregnant, and minor participants within certain limits. Unless the researcher can demonstrate that infants and other minors would undergo a blood draw as a part of a "routine" physical examination, blood draws from healthy minors will not be reviewed as minimal risk using the expedited procedure.
    NOTE:  Grinnell's IRB requires IBC review for blood work, as blood is considered a biohazard.
    c. Prospective collection of biological specimens for research purposes by noninvasive means.
     Example: Hair and nail clippings.
    d. "Collection of data through noninvasive procedures (not involving general anesthesia or sedation) routinely employed in clinical practice, excluding procedures involving x-rays or microwaves. Where medical devices are employed, they must be cleared/approved for marketing. (Studies intended to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of the medical device are not generally eligible for minimal risk review. This includes studies of cleared medical devices for new indications."
  4. "Research involving materials (data, documents, records, or specimens) that have been collected, or will be collected solely for non-research purposes (such as medical treatment or diagnosis). (NOTE: Some research in this category may be exempt from the HHS regulations, 45 CFR, Part 46.101 (b)(4), for the protection of human participants. This listing refers only to research that is not exempt.)"

    Explanation: This category allows the prospective use of data collected for non-research purposes. Data include information from medical records, insurance claim data, educational testing data, and other non-public information in identifiable form. Data set linkages could be considered in this category. The researcher must demonstrate that sufficient measures will be used to protect the confidentiality of the data to minimize the risk to participants of inadvertent disclosure.

  5. "Continuing review of research previously approved by the convened IRB as follows:

    a. where

    i. the research is permanently closed to the enrollment of new participants;

    ii. all participants have completed all research-related interventions; and

    iii. the research remains active only for long-term follow-up of participants; or

    b. where no participants have been enrolled and no additional risks have been identifies; or

    c. where the remaining research activities are limited to data analysis."

    Explanation: Researchers who wish to have their applications for continuing review of projects previously reviewed by the IRB will have to demonstrate that the above conditions have been met.

  6. "Continuing review of research, not conducted under an investigational new drug application or investigational device exemption where categories 2 through 5 do not apply but the IRB has determined and documented at a convened meeting that the research involves no greater than minimal risk and no additional risks have been identified."

    Explanation: This category applies to situations in which the full IRB conducts a continuing review of a study and determines that the following activity poses only minimal risks.

Research Requiring Full Board Review

All research conducted by faculty, staff, or students that is not determined to be exempt and is not eligible for expedited review must be reviewed by the board.  After Dec. 1, 2012, minimal risk research with community participants may receive expedited review.  Full board review is required for any expedited reviewed proposal that was not approved by the board member handling the expedited review.

Generally the following types of research require full board review:

  • Research involving prisoners; this research would require a prisoner representative to serve on the board for review of the proposal.
  • Studies of pregnant women where the focus of the research is on pregnancy and/or the fetus;
  • Research on fetuses in utero;
  • Research on minor children unless the research qualifies as educational research in the sense of items 1 and 2 above, or where the research does not involve direct interaction with the child; and
  • Research using non-public records.
  • Research involving greater than minimal risk.