Defining Research with Human Subjects

A study is considered research with human subjects and needs IRB review if it meets the definitions of both research AND human subjects, as defined in the federal regulations for protecting research subjects.

Research. A systematic inquiry designed to answer a research question or contribute to a field of knowledge, including pilot studies and research development.

Human subject: A living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research:

  1. Obtains information or biospecimens through intervention or interaction with the individual, and uses, studies, or analyzes the information or biospecimens; or
  2. Obtains, uses, studies, analyzes, or generates identifiable private information or identifiable biospecimens.

The following sections will explain some of the words in the previous definitions.

The regulatory language:

A systematic inquiry designed to answer a research question or contribute to a field of knowledge, including pilot studies and research development.

The explanation:


Understanding what constitutes a systematic inquiry varies among disciplines and depends on the procedures and steps used to answer research questions and how the search for knowledge is organize and structured.

Pilot Studies and Research Development

Pilot studies are designed to conduct preliminary analyses before committing to a full-blown study or experiment.

Research development includes activities such as convening a focus group consisting of members of the proposed research population to help develop a culturally appropriate questionnaire.

Human subjects are living individuals about whom researchers obtain information or biospecimens (such as saliva) through interaction, intervention, or observation of private behavior, to also include the use, study, and analysis of said information or biospecimens.

Obtaining, using, analyzing, and generating identifiable private information or identifiable biospecimens that are provided to a researcher is also considered to be human subjects.

The explanation:

To meet the definition of human subjects, you must ask “about whom” questions.

Questions about your respondents' attitudes, opinions, preferences, behavior, experiences, or characteristics, are all considered “about whom” questions.

Questions about an organization, a policy, or a process are “about what” questions.

Interventions are manipulations of the subject or the subject's environment, for example is a behavioral change study using text messages about healthy foods.

Interactions include communication or interpersonal contact between investigator and participant.

A study may include both interventions and interactions.

Interactions and interventions do not require in-person contact, but may be conducted on-line.

Private information includes information or biospecimens: 1) about behavior that occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place; 2) that has been provided for specific purposes by an individual; and 3) that the individual can reasonably expect will not be made public (for example, a medical record).

Private information must be individually identifiable (i.e., the identity of the subject is or may readily be ascertained by the investigator or associated with the information) in order for the information to constitute research involving human subjects.

The regulations are clear that it is the subjects’ expectations that determine what behaviors, biospecimens, and identifiable information must be considered private. Subjects’ understanding of what privacy means are not universal, but are very specific and based on multiple interrelated factors, such as the research setting, cultural norms, the age of the subjects, and life experiences. For example, in the United States, health records are considered private and protected by law, but in some countries, health information is not considered private but are of communal concern. 

The identity of the subject is associated with the data gathered from the subject(s) existing data about the subjects. Even if the data (including biospecimens) do not include direct identifiers, such as names or email addresses, the data are considered identifiable if names of individuals can easily be deduced from the data.

If there are keys linking individuals to their data, the data are considered identifiable.

The following examples will likely require further consultation with an IRB staff member.

Analysis of existing information with no identifiers

If researchers have no interaction with human subjects, but will be conducting a secondary analysis of existing data without individual identifiers, the analysis of those data may not be research with human subjects. 

Expert consultation

Key words in the definition of a human subject are "a living individual about whom" a researcher obtains, uses, studies, analyzes, or generates information. People can provide you information that is not about them but is important for the research. For example, a researcher may contact non-governmental organizations to ask about sources of funding.

Program evaluations and quality improvement studies

Program evaluations are generally intended to query whether a particular program or curriculum meets its goals. They often involve pre- and post-surveys or evaluations.

Some program evaluations include a research component. If data are collected about the characteristics of the participants to analyze the relationship between demographic variable and success of the program, the study may become research with human subjects. Research question: Are there different learning outcomes associated with different levels of participant confidence?

Classroom research

Classes designed to teach research methods such as fieldwork, statistical analysis, or interview techniques, may assign students to conduct interviews, distribute questionnaires, or engage in participant observation. If the purpose of these activities is solely pedagogical and are not designed to contribute to a body of knowledge, the activities do not meet the definition of research with human subjects. 

Art in Cambodia

An art history student wants to study art created by Cambodians in response to the massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge. The art she will study includes paintings, sculpture, video, and the performing arts.

Much of the research will be archival, using library and online resources. In addition, she will visit Cambodia. While there, she will speak with several museum curators for assistance locating and viewing art collections related to the massacres.

Is this research with human subjects?

No. Although the student will speak with curators, they are not the subjects of her research and she is not interested in learning anything about them. They will, in effect, serve as local guides.

What would make the study research with human subjects?

The student interviews people as they interact with art to understand the role of the arts in evoking and/or coming to terms with traumatic past events. She interviews people who view the art, such as visitors to museums, and discusses what the art means to them. She may collect information about their experiences during the genocide and compare those experiences with their reactions to the art. 

Bank-Supported Micro-Finance in Chile

A researcher is interested in the practice of microfinance in the Chilean Mapuche community. She meets with bankers and asks about the criteria for granting loans, the demographics of the people who receive loans, the types of businesses to which the bank prefers to grant loans, how many loans they give, the payback rates, and other data about the bank’s loan practices.

Is this research with human subjects?

No. Although the researcher is interviewing bankers, the bankers are only providing information about their banking practices and are not providing any information about themselves. The questions are about “what” rather than “about whom.” The bankers are not human subjects. This type of interview is sometimes referred to as expert consultation.

What would make the study research with human subjects?

The researcher explores the impact of small loans, both intended and unintended, on the recipients of the loans. The researcher interviews the recipients of the loans and gathers information from them about their lives before and after they received funding, how the loans affected their relationships with family members and other community members, the impact of the loans on their aspirations, and so on. He asks “about whom” questions designed to understand the impact of micro-loans.

Developing Teaching Materials

A researcher goes to a country in which the infrastructure has been severely damaged to help rebuild schools. The student interviews community members about what curricular materials they need, develops some materials, and teaches a math class.

Is this research with human subjects?

No. Although interviews are conducted, the intent of interviewing is to assist in resource development rather than answer a research question designed to contribute to a field of knowledge.

If the researcher does pre- and post-testing to assess student learning in his class, is this research with human subjects?

No. The intent is to find out if the materials are effective. This is sometimes referred to as program assessment.

What would make this research with human subjects?

The researcher studies the impact of nutrition and personal variables on learning. He assesses the nutritional composition of the local diet, assesses students’ general health, and compares those data with test scores. He also measures motivation, family composition, and other characteristics of the students using written questionnaires.

Water Conservation

A researcher wants to find out if the campus water conservation program is effective. She will gather some information about water volume usage from the University engineering department. She will also survey residential students about their water usage habits over the last six months, their perceptions of the campus drought education program, and their reactions to the incentives offered by the program (water-saving competitions, free water-saving devices, etc.) She will report her findings to the program’s steering committee and administrators.

Is this research with human subjects?

No. Although the researcher will systematically survey other students and will be collecting information about them, her intention is to assess the effectiveness of the conservation program.

What would make the study research with human subjects?

The researcher designs an online survey to collect information that may help understand factors that influence the residential students’ responses to the conservation program. She asks questions about green attitudes and behaviors, positions on social and political issues, as well as motivation and narcissism.