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While many physicists never face issues associated with human subjects research, those who do education-related research or who take surveys of the physics community may face such issues. Every university that receives federal funding is required to have a review board to oversee research involving human subjects. Research on how students respond to different teaching methodologies would fall under this category.
Federal regulations exempt education research from formal oversight provided the results are intended to improve one’s own instructional delivery and provided the results are not disseminated outside one’s own institution. Other specific conditions may apply.
Generally, a university will require faculty and students to submit for review any research project involving human subjects, regardless of whether the researcher believes the project is exempt. The review board may then decide that the project is exempt, or it may make specific recommendations to ensure the rights of the subjects are appropriately respected.
Typical precautions include having a plan to ensure the privacy of the subjects is maintained and a mechanism for obtaining informed consent from the subjects prior to the start of the project.
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