Design of Virtual Focus Group Checklist

Author: Jennifer L. Harrison, Ph.D., LP  Solutions IRB Reviewer and Board Member

Considerations for Design of Virtual Focus Group

  • Consider:
    • Do the risks outweigh the benefits?
    • Can taking notes suffice instead of recording? And then discard the notes immediately after analysis is complete?
    • If you prefer to record, can you agree to delete the recordings immediately after analysis? Can you ensure that participants’ names will not be used on the recordings and instead ask that they use a pseudonym?
    • Can you obtain a certificate of confidentiality from the NIH (depending upon the type of information that is collected in the study)?
    • Video recording is more identifiable than audio recording, though audio recording is still identifiable by voice. Can you use audio recording in lieu of video and audio recording in instances where the participants’ identity should be protected?

Checklist for Consent Form

  • Ensure that risks for a breach of confidentiality – specifically related to focus groups and the researcher’s inability to guarantee confidentiality of information discussed – is addressed in the risks section and how this will be mitigated to the extent possible.
  • Include a statement that asks for consent to audio and/or video record prior to asking for consent to participate (e.g., “I provide consent to be audio recorded.”).
  • Include a statement that indicates whether or not the participant can still participate if they decline to be recorded (e.g., “I understand that if I decide not to be recorded, I cannot participate in this study.” OR “I understand that if I decide not to be recorded, I can still participate in this study.”).
  • Include a statement that asks for consent to participate.
  • If a waiver of documentation of consent was requested, ensure that either a box to be checked is used or some other way for the researcher to document that consent was obtained is included on the form – instead of a signature line – as names should not be collected in this instance for protecting participant identities – if there could be potential harm to the participant in the event of a breach of confidentiality.

Checklist for Obtaining Informed Consent and Consent to Record for Virtual Focus Group

  • Gather informed consent to participate on an individual basis.
  • Gather consent to audio and/or video record on an individual basis, at the same time as informed consent.
  • Within the focus group script, ensure that verbalizations are added to denote when the recording will begin and end so that participants are aware.
  • Do not ask for consent to participate in the focus group again at the time of the focus group – this has already been obtained at the time of informed consent.
  • Do not ask for consent to audio and/or video record again at the time of the focus group – this has already been obtained at the time of informed consent.

Considerations for Design of Virtual Focus Groups

Author: Jennifer L. Harrison, Ph.D., LP  Solutions IRB Reviewer and Board Member

Given that focus groups can increase the risk for participants, researchers should carefully consider whether this is an appropriate research method for the information that will be obtained from them. One such risk is that the researcher does not have the ability to ensure confidentiality of the information that is discussed within the group. This is primarily because once participants leave the group and the study, they are on their own and they can share any information they so choose with anyone. For this reason, researchers must inform participants of this risk, and attempt to mitigate this to the extent possible by asking participants to respect others’ privacy by keeping information discussed within the group confidential.

Focus Group Consent

Obtaining informed consent to participate in a virtual focus group should occur on an individualized basis so that the individual can take the appropriate time to review the information, ask any questions they may have, and ultimately provide consent after making an informed decision. Consent cannot be obtained in a group setting as this does not provide each individual with the appropriate attention needed to ensure they individually understand the information that has been presented to them, they are less likely to ask questions in a group setting, they are essentially put “on the spot” to provide their answer in front of others, they may be rushed to make a decision, and they are more likely to engage in groupthink – meaning, a desire for agreement or harmony in a group setting results in individuals disregarding their own judgment and critical thinking from pressure to conform. Such a group setting can actually be considered coercive in nature for obtaining consent for these aforementioned reasons. To obtain consent, it is possible to ask participants to click a box in an online form where they agree to a statement, such as, “By clicking this box, I agree that I have read and understand the above information and I agree to participate in the study.”

Recording a Focus Group

Recording a focus group, whether audio and/or video, can present even more risks to participants depending on the data that will be collected. For example, if a researcher is interested in understanding substance use behaviors and patterns in more detail, information obtained will in essence be an identifiable, recorded admission of guilt that could be used against them and potentially have negative consequences for the participant (e.g., loss of employment, criminal charges from law enforcement) – as many substances remain illegal in the US. For these reasons, careful consideration should be afforded to the design process to determine if recording can be avoided in order to better protect participants. If the information collected is sensitive in nature, such as the above example, researchers should consider obtaining a certificate of confidentiality from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). If a recording can be avoided and the researcher can instead take notes, this is preferable given the risks of the potential for a breach of confidentiality of the information. In addition, it is also possible to request a waiver of documentation of consent if there is a possibility of harm to a participant due to a breach of confidentiality – so that participants’ names are not identified on consent forms in order to further protect their identity.

Seeking consent to record a focus group also needs to occur on an individualized basis and during the informed consent process. Participants should be clearly informed in the informed consent process that they will be recorded, via the specific method (i.e., audio and/or video recording), and if the participant chooses to decline to be recorded – whether or not they can still participate in the study. Just prior to notating consent for participation in the study at the bottom of the form, participants should be asked to provide their consent for recording – and this is the only occasion that this information needs to be covered – in other words, permission to record should not be asked again at the commencement of the focus group. Doing so can actually be considered coercive – because if a participant declines to be recorded and is asked again at the start of the focus group – they may be pressured to say yes when they have already declined.

Audio/Video Recording in Virtual Data Collection

Author: Mary Lannon, PhD. Solutions IRB Reviewer

Virtual data collection presents several advantages for researchers. It often provides greater convenience and flexibility for researchers and participants, faster data collection, lower costs, and access to wider populations. However, several considerations must be made when conducting virtual research and data collection that includes audio and/or video recording. Researchers must ensure the protection of participant data, confidentiality, and personally identifiable information.

Prior to giving consent to participate in the study, individuals must be fully informed as to what data will be recorded and how, and for what purpose(s) the data will be used. For example, audio and/or video recordings are often collected for data analysis only. However, researchers sometimes plan to retain recorded data for future use or research-related publications. Information must be provided as to how long the recorded data will be kept by the researchers and who will have access to it. Individuals must be informed as to whether they can participate in the research even if they decline to be recorded. Consent language should include specific statements to which participants can agree, such as:

  • I consent to being interviewed.
  • I consent to my interview being audio recorded. (I know that I can still participate in this study without consenting to being audio recorded.)
  • I consent to my interview being video recorded. (I know that I can still participate in this study without consenting to being video recorded.)

When collecting data using audio and/or video recording, researchers must protect the identities of participants and the confidentiality of the data they provide. For example, participants should not be referred to by name in recordings, or asked to display their names while on video. This is particularly important in focus group settings, where participants can see one another. Audio and/or video software used for recordings must provide sufficient security to protect against unauthorized access. Finally, researchers must ensure proper security and storage of data recordings after data collection is complete, including plans for removing participant identifiers as needed.

Understanding Investigator Conflict of Interest (ICOI)

Authors:  Ann Hardy, DrPH, CIP and Sherry Mills, MD, MPH, Learn eCORE


Investigators who conduct human subjects research generally want to advance scientific knowledge that will improve people’s lives. However, there may be situations in which an investigator’s professional judgment regarding his or her research could be negatively influenced by a secondary interest such as potential financial gain or professional advancement. These secondary interests are referred to as “investigator conflicts of interest” (ICOI). For example, an investigator may let the desire to complete a research project quickly to gain financial benefits or enable rapid publication to influence the conduct of his or her research. Allowing conflicts to dictate professional actions can have negative consequences for the outcomes of research and for research participants. Such actions can also erode public trust in the research enterprise.


Investigator conflicts of interest are generally categorized as:

  1. Non-financial: Influences other than financial reward; for example, not recusing oneself from the review of a proposal from an organization where the investigator serves as an unpaid advisor.
  2. Financial: A prospect of financial gain from the research; for example, owning stock in a company that could directly benefit from the outcome of a research project.


To prevent the negative consequences of conflicts of interest on research, there are federal requirements that must be followed to ensure scientific integrity and the welfare of research participants.


Requirements for Conflict of Interest in Research


In the United States, federal agencies that fund research have established conflict of interest standards that investigators must follow. For example:

  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) require that investigators follow very detailed regulatory requirements for identifying, disclosing, and managing financial conflict of interest (FCOI).
  • The Department of Defense and the Department of Justice have more general requirements for funded investigators to disclose and manage both financial and non-financial conflicts.
  • Investigators involved in Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-regulated clinical studies, regardless of funding source, must make financial disclosures at the time of application to the FDA.


The Declaration of Helsinki that applies to many international studies requires that investigator conflicts of interest be described in research protocols and disclosed in informed consent documents and in publications.


Private foundations, such as the American Cancer Society, also have policies for the identification, management, and disclosure of investigator conflicts for research they support.


It is critical that investigators be aware of and adhere to the requirements of their funding and sponsoring entities for both financial and non-financial conflicts of interest.


Identification and Disclosure of Investigator Conflict of Interest


For Non-Financial Conflict of Interest: Investigators should identify possible activities and relationships that could present a conflict of interest with their research. If required by a funding entity, investigators may also need to disclose these potential conflicts.


For Financial Conflict of Interest: Investigators must identify and disclose significant financial interests to a designated institutional official. This official will determine which financial interests could impact a particular research project.


Managing Conflicts of Interest


Once identified, conflicts of interest must be managed. Many investigators mistakenly believe that the only ways to manage conflicts are by severing relationships or by complete divestiture of financial interests. However, there are other strategies. For example, conflicts can be disclosed to potential research participants during informed consent or can be mitigated procedurally, such as blinding the investigators to the interventions in a clinical trial.


Failure to disclose, develop, or follow conflict of interest management plans may be considered non-compliance and may lead funding agencies to take actions such as delaying or suspending funding.


Conflict of Interest Training Requirements


Because the regulations and requirements regarding investigator conflicts of interest can be quite complex, many funding agencies and institutions require that investigators take periodic training on this topic.


Learn eCORE offers a comprehensive online training course on investigator conflicts of interest (ICOI) that covers both financial and non-financial conflicts and meets federal training requirements. Click here for more information.


About Learn e-CORE:

Learn eCORE offers online self-directed courses for anyone involved in human subject research. The courses provide timely and accurate certificate training on compliance and research ethics on two high-demand topics: human subjects protection and investigator conflict of interest.  Our courses are developed by leading subject matter experts and reflect high instructional design standards to enhance learning with interactive exercises, graphics, and realistic case studies.  Other unique features include optional continuing education credits for many disciplines, a companion Faculty Guide to aid teachers using our human subjects courses in the classroom, course availability in multiple languages, and complementary access to professional soft skills online courses and related tools for human subject researchers. Learn eCORE offers affordable and flexible subscription plans for individuals and groups.   Click here for more about Learn eCORE, the “The Expert, Affordable Alternative for Research Compliance and Ethics Training”.


About the Authors:

Sherry Mills, MD, MPH and Ann Hardy, DrPH, CIP, the co-founders of Learn eCORE, have decades of experience conducting public health research, developing federal research policy, and creating comprehensive training programs such as the former National Institutes of Health (NIH) online course “Protecting Human Research Participants” that trained millions world-wide from 2009-2018.  Additionally, they have over 10 years of service as Institutional Review Board (IRB) members and have consulted with major federal agencies such as the Office on Human Research Protections (OHRP). Drs. Mills and Hardy also are active in teaching others about grant writing and research program development.




Adverse Events Update

Adverse events can be tricky to navigate! We have made additions to our Investigator Handbook that give more detail on adverse events to help. Please see the below information on adverse events that is included in the handbook you receive when you create your study in the Axiom Mentor System.


An Adverse Events is Any unforeseen occurrence with a research participant, including any abnormal sign, symptom, or raised level of risk, temporally associated with the participants’ involvement in the research, whether or not considered related to participation in the research.

A Serious Adverse Event is an adverse event where at least one of the following outcomes is a result of the research activities:


-Life threatening condition or event

-Inpatient hospitalization

-Persistent or significant disability, incapacity, or disruption of the subject’s ability to conduct normal life activities

-Condition that investigators deem to represent significant risk or hazard to the participant


Investigators are required to report any adverse event or serious adverse events that involves human subjects enrolled in the study that are determined to be unexpected and probably, possibly, or definitely related to the test article or research procedures. This should be reported to the IRB promptly, no more than 7 calendar days after the investigators learned of the event. The IRB will then make a determination as to the relation of the adverse event and any impact on human subjects, and if further action is required on the part of the investigator. Investigators are expected to take the findings from adverse events and make appropriate changes to the protocol to ensure safety of participants.


All greater than minimal risk studies will be required to maintain an ‘Adverse Event Table’ and submit it at each annual check-in. A table template will be provided at time of initial approval.

What is Human Subjects Research?

National and international ethics codes form a framework for the protection of rights and welfare of human participants in research. These codes have developed over time in response to research misconduct. Examples include horrific experiments conducted on prisoners by Nazi doctors during World War II and the withholding of proven treatment from poor Black men as part of a study of untreated syphilis in Alabama. The Belmont Report, the Nuremberg Code, and the Declaration of Helsinki led to the development of the human subjects in research codes we have today.

Two criteria must be met for a study to be considered human subjects research. First, the study must be considered research according to §46.102: “Research is a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” Second, it must involve human subjects. According to §46.102, a human subject is “a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research:

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

The following questions can help researchers determine whether their study fits the criteria of human subjects research:


Is the study considered research according to §46.102? If the answer is ‘No’, the study is not considered human subjects research. If the answer is ‘Yes’, the study is most likely human subjects research.


Will the study involve only secondary data or biospecimens collected for purposes other than this study, or belonging to deceased individuals?  If the answer is “yes,” the research may not be considered human subjects research, provided the data/biospecimens come from deceased individuals, the researchers do not have access to participant identifiers, and/or a broad consent or waiver of documentation of consent has been obtained (see §46.116 and §46.117).


Author: Mary Lannon, PhD

Who are Solutions IRB’s Clients?

Solutions IRB works with a number of clients involved in social-behavioral and clinical/biomedical research. We assist a wide variety of researchers such as those who are independent, sponsors, and clinical investigators. Our highly qualified administrative and reviewer team assists researchers in the protocol application process and works with them to ensure their study design is at an ethically sound level that will serve as the basis for credible research.
The study teams Solutions works with range from novice level to highly experienced researchers. Regardless of the research exposure level, we provide the assistance necessary to navigate the application and review process. The Solutions IRB Reviewers have a wide variety of experience to cover all areas of research, including clinical/biomedical, social/behavioral, educational, vulnerable populations (e.g., prisoners, youth, etc.), military, international research, and more.
Solutions IRB has been a private institutional review board for over 10 years and is accredited by AAHRPP. Regardless of their experience level, we look forward to working with researchers as they navigate through the application and review process!

Author: McKenzie Long

What is a Private IRB?

Private IRBs have no affiliation with specific clinical or academic institutions. They typically provide oversight into research studies that are not tied to an academic or clinical research facility, serve as a single reviewing body for studies operating across multiple sites, and/or review international studies. While there are many similarities between institutional IRBs and private IRBs, some differences exist.
All IRBs are subject to federal requirements for membership composition. Per §46.107 and §56.107, an IRB must have at least five members qualified through professional competence (experience and expertise). One advantage of a private IRB is the ability to incorporate members from diverse and expansive backgrounds. Many academic and clinical research IRBs are composed of members with experience related to their full-time role at the associated institution (school or medical facility). Private IRBs have the ability to utilize reviewers and consultants with expertise in specific subject areas or participant populations (e.g., prisoners, children, or pregnant women).
Another advantage of private IRBs is turnaround time. Institutional and clinical research IRBs typically meet monthly. A private IRB can process study applications on a timelier basis and convene a full board meeting as needed. The private IRB still adheres to the same federal guidelines as other IRBs, however their sole focus on research study reviews results in quicker turnaround times than what can be offered by institutional and clinical research IRBs where members have other duties to perform.
The composition of a private IRB allows for the review of any type of study; exempt, expedited, international and full board, regardless of whether the study is clinical, social,behavioral or educationsal in nature. Private IRBs provide options to researchers that have no affiliation with clinical or academic institutions to have studies reviewed and approved to satisfy funding requirements and/or lead to scholarly publishing of findings.

Author: Mary Lannon, PhD

Defining Research for IRB Review

While clinical studies typically require IRB review, it might not be as clear for a social- behavioral study. The following checklist of questions can assist a researcher in deciding whether or not an IRB review might be appropriate.

Is the ultimate goal to publish the study findings? If the answer to this question is ‘Yes’, the researcher should consider obtaining IRB approval prior to beginning the study. Most peer-reviewed journals require that the study complies with ethical research guidelines. Obtaining IRB approval ensures this requirement is met.

Does the funding source require IRB approval? Many grants and sponsor-based sources will require as a condition of funding that the study be approved by an IRB. Researchers should check the funding agreement to determine whether or not this is a requirement.

Does the research involve human subjects? If direct interaction will occur between the researchers and human subjects, it should be assumed IRB review and approval will be required. Federal guidelines dictate specific protocols that must be followed when research involves human subjects. An IRB is the body designated by Federal guidelines to review study protocols to ensure the ethical rights of human subjects are protected.

Does the study involve a program evaluation? The answer to this question is dependent upon various factors. If the program evaluation is being conducted solely for internal quality assurance, an IRB review is not required. However, if the program evaluation is a requirement of the funding source or needed to substantiate to external sources the on-going existence of the program, an IRB review is required.

Does research involving secondary data analysis require IRB approval? Again, the answer is dependent upon various factors. In situations where the secondary data has been completely de-identified prior to receipt by the researchers, IRB approval may not be required. However, the researcher(s) might want to obtain an Exempt or Expedited category approval if the findings will be published. If the researcher(s) will be deidentifying the data after it is received from the original source, the study should be reviewed by an IRB.

Author: Dr. Ron Wallace, PhD

Prisoner Research and Full Board Reviews

The IRB has been asked in the past whether all studies involving prisoners and/or prisoner research require a full board review. As defined in CFR 46 Subpart C, prisoners are considered a vulnerable population. Given the fact that prisoners are considered a vulnerable population, any study that directly involves their participation must automatically be classified as a full board review.
It is important to keep in mind that the risk for coercion and undue influence to participate is extremely with high when prisoners are the participants in a research study. The combination of their classification as a vulnerable population, along with the risk for coercion and undue influence to participate, dictate the need for the level of review provided by full board status to ensure their rights as human subjects in research are protected.
There are however some instances where prisoner research would not require a full board review. For example, if a study is looking only at archival data about prisoners, the study might qualify for an Expedited status. Even in these types of studies, precautions are required to ensure adequate protections for the prisoners.
Types of precautions that would be required is ensuring that all identifying information (e.g., prisoner ID number and name) has been removed from the dataset. Another precaution is ensuring that no interaction occurs between the prisoners and the research team.
Best practices for this type of prisoner research would include obtaining aggregate datasets which decrease the chances of any specific data elements being tied to one specific inmate. Also, the removal of any identifying information prior to passing it to the research team increases the confidentiality of the prisoners. The research team could commit to removing these identifying elements after receipt of the data, however in those situations the IRB needs to ensure appropriate security measures are in place to prevent the accidental release of the original dataset that included identifying information.
Finally, a researcher might explore whether a secondary dataset already exists in the public domain that would satisfy the study requirements. An existing secondary dataset would already have all of the identifying prisoner information removed.

Author: Dr. Ron Wallace, PhD