Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Register
Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2009
Undergraduate Researchers: The Ethics of Humans as Participants
Leanne Olson, PhD, Wisconsin Lutheran College
Betsy Morgan, PhD, University of Wisconsin-La Cross

Psi Chi actively promotes undergraduate involvement in psychological research and recognizes that optimal research entails review for ethical considerations. In order to celebrate best practices and provide appropriate resources for the Psi Chi membership and associated student researchers, we assessed the human participants review practices among undergraduates submitting their research abstracts for potential presentation at the May 2008 Midwestern Psychological Association’s Psi Chi Poster Sessions.

All students who submitted proposals to the undergraduate research component of the Midwestern Psychological Association conference received a request to complete an online questionnaire regarding the use of humans as participants in the submitted study. The final sample included 137 responses representing a response rate of approximately 45%. The sample was an even distribution of public and private schools and the median number of psychology majors at these schools was reported as 150 with a range of 5-2000. The vast majority of the proposals involved human participants and the undergraduate author was involved with the project from its inception.

Overview of the Study’s Results
» IRB Process: 93% of the respondents indicated that their project received some form of review for the protection of human participants. Figure 1 shows the types of review indicated. The vast majority of respondents have received some form of training in the protection of human participants—Figure 2 shows the primary sources of training.
» Informed Consent & Debriefings: 99% percent provided a verbal or written description leading to a verbal or written informed consent and 91% debriefed their respondents.

The study indicates a high level of departmental and student involvement in the review of research projects with regard to the protection of human respondents. The level of review for projects is generally consistent and at a high level. Student training in the ethical treatment of participants, although high, appears to be occurring in less consistent ways. In line with Landrum & Chastain‘s (1999) findings, our data also indicate that undergraduate programs without graduate programs (particularly those at private universities) are the most likely to provide training through classes rather than through more systematic methods.

The high level of ethical review bodes well for psychological science and the future of undergraduate research in psychology. The national increase in student involvement in research potentially poses challenges to the ethical review processes at many institutions, including issues of providing timely and knowledgeable reviews (Bentsen, 2004; Eissenberg et al., 2006; Gunsalus et al., 2007). However, evidence suggests the process of preparing a project for review aids in the growth of students as researchers (Hubbard & Ritchie, 1995; Kallgren & Tauber, 1996) and helps enhance student knowledge of the ethical practice of research including section 8 of the APA Code of Ethics (APA, 2003; Gillespie, 1999). Practical advice for student researchers is available on Psi Chi’s website HERE and in an APS Observer article by Pollick (2007).

Overall, we endorse active programmatic involvement in the review of undergraduate research projects. We believe it to be of academic benefit to the student researchers, and we believe it promotes the ethical treatment of human participants.


American Psychological Association. (2003). Ethical principles of
psychologists and code of conduct.
Retrieved July 23, 2009, from

Bentsen, T. (2004, Fall) AAHRPP innovations: University of Minnesota student IRBs. AAHRPP Advance, 1, 4, 8.

Eissenberg, T., Panicker, S., Berenbaum, S., Epley, N., Fendrich, M.,
Kelso, R., et al. (2006, April). IRBs and psychological science:
Ensuring a collaborative relationship. Social Science Research
. Abstract retrieved July 23, 2009, from

Gillespie, J. F. (1999). The why, what, how, and when of effective
faculty use of institutional review boards. In G. Chastain & R. E.
Landrum (Eds.) Protecting human subjects: Departmental subject
pools and institutional review boards
(pp. 157-177). Washington,
DC: American Psychological Association.

Gunsalus, C., Bruner, K., Burbules, E., Dash, N., DeCosta, L., Finkin,
M., et al. (2007). The Illinois white paper: Improving the system
for protecting human subjects; Counteracting IRB mission creep.
Qualitative Inquiry, 3, 617–649.

Hubbard, R. W., & Ritchie, K. L. (1995). The human subjects review
procedure: An exercise in critical thinking for undergraduate
experimental psychology students. Teaching of Psychology, 22,

Kallgren, C., & Tauber, R. T. (1996). Undergraduate research and
the institutional review board: A mismatch or happy marriage?
Teaching of Psychology, 23, 20-25.

Landrum, R. E., & Chastain, G. (1999). Subject pool policies in
undergraduate-only departments: Results from a nationwide
survey. In G. Chastain & R. E. Landrum (Eds.) Protecting human
subjects: Departmental subject pools and institutional review
(pp. 24-42). Washington, DC: American Psychological

Pollick, A. (2007). IRB’s: Navigating the maze of practical advice
for working with institutional review boards. Observer, 20 (10).
Retrieved July 23, 2009, from http://www.psychologicalscience.

Leanne Olson, PhD, earned her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Education from Marquette University (WI). In 1998, she received her PhD in educational psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a specialization in human development. As a member of Psi Chi, Dr. Olson eagerly helped the students at Wisconsin Lutheran College begin a chapter of Psi Chi and has served as faculty advisor since its charter in 1999. Dr. Olson also directs the college's Research Safety & Subjects Protection Program overseeing a Student Institutional Review Board, an Institutional Review Board for faculty research, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and soon, an Institutional Biosafety Committee. Her research on moral integrity blends her love of human development with her passion for ethics.

Betsy L. Morgan, PhD, is currently a full professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UW-L). She received her bachelor's degree in psychology and women's studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1985 and her doctorate in social ecology (an interdisciplinary applied social science program) from the University of California, Irvine in 1994. Dr. Morgan has served as the faculty advisor for her chapter since 1995. She coordinates the psychology honors program at UW-L that involves approximately 12 students a year designing their own independent research projects, submitting a grant, and submitting abstracts for presentation at the Psi Chi portion of the MPA meeting. Dr. Morgan is a coauthor of the book Majoring in Psych: Career Options for Psychology Undergraduates (3rd edition) and has given many career talks at MPA and APA conferences.

Copyright 2009 (Volume 14, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

Eye on Psi Chi is published quarterly:
Spring (February)
Summer (April)
Fall (September)
Winter (November)






Phone: (423) 756-2044 | Fax: (423) 265-1529 | Certified member of the Association of College Honor Societies
Membership Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal