Does Your Survey Research Need IRB Approval?

All survey research involving human subjects requires IRB approval. That is, if your survey research is a "systematic investigation including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge ," then IRB approval is necessary.

To assess whether your survey meets the definition of "research involving human subjects," please consider the following:

  1. •  Human subjects is defined as: a "living individual about whom an investigator conducting research obtains data through intervention or interaction with the individual or obtains identifiable private information."
  2. •  Generalizable knowledge is defined as knowledge designed to derive general conclusions from particulars, and is a goal of most research. An essential consideration is whether it was the original intent of the investigator to contribute to generalizable knowledge. Some activities that involve interactions with humans and data gathering may not fit the definition of research with human subjects, since they are designed to accomplish something else, such as in-house quality improvement. For example, a survey of college students about their university's counseling services may be designed strictly to improve service delivery for students, thus not involve research (However, should the surveyors believe that the results may be generalizable, they should request IRB review BEFORE they initiate the survey.)
  3. Publication of results is sometimes used as a measure of whether research is generalizable, but it is important to note that: (1) not every study will produce results worthy of publication; and (2) there are multiple ways in which results can be made available to others without being published in a peer-reviewed journal (e.g., conference presentations or websites).


  1. •  Online surveys should allow "no response" as an option for every question. That is, a survey design where one cannot proceed without answering the question is in violation of the respondent's right to withhold information.
  2. •  Sensitive data must be protected as it moves along communication pathways between computers. If using a commercial site (e.g., Zoomerang) the researcher should review the site's security measures for protecting respondent privacy and data confidentiality.
  3. •  The researcher's agreement with the commercial site should include specific provisions about how, and for how long, it will store the data.

If you need further clarification regarding whether your research/survey requires IRB approval, please contact:

*Content compiled from the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI Program) and the Code of Federal Regulations, 45 CFR 46

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