What We Do

We provide the procedures and oversight of human subjects research conducted at Mt. SAC. Please read below for an elaboration of aspects of human subjects research.


Research projects involving human subjects require review and approval by an Institutional Review Board. An IRB is an ethics committee composed of scientists and non-scientists who serve as advocates for human subjects involved in research. The IRB is charged with the responsibility of reviewing and overseeing human subjects research conducted under the auspices of the District. The first question an investigator should consider with respect to IRB review is whether the research project fits the definition of human subjects research. In light of the mission to protect human subjects, and the potential regulatory consequences of not obtaining IRB review and approval, the investigator should choose to err on the side of caution and consult the IRB or the IRB Designee when he/she is uncertain whether the study is human subjects research or not.


Federal Regulations define research as “a systematic investigation, including development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge[1](45CFR46.102(d)). As described in the Belmont Report[2] ...the term ‘research’ designates an activity designed to test a hypotheses [and] permit conclusions to be drawn...Research is usually described in a formal protocol that sets forth an objective and a set of procedures to reach that objective.”

“Research generally does not include operational activities such as defined practice activities in public health, medicine, psychology, and social work e.g. routine outbreak investigations and disease monitoring) and studies for internal management purposes such as program evaluation, quality assurance, quality improvement, fiscal or program audits, marketing studies or contracted-for services. It generally does not include journalism or political polls. However, some of these activities may include or constitute research in circumstances where there is a clear intent to contribute to generalizable knowledge."


A human subject is defined by Federal Regulations as “a living individual about whom an investigator conducting research obtains (1) data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or (2) identifiable private information.” (45 CFR46.102(f)(1), (2))

Living individual– The specimen(s) / data / information must be collected from live subjects. Cadavers, autopsy specimens or specimens / information from subjects now deceased are not human subjects.

“About whom” - a human subject research project requires the data received from the living individual to be about the person.

Intervention includes physical procedures, manipulations of the subject, or manipulations of the subject’s environment for research purposes. Interaction includes communication between the investigator and the subject. This includes face-to-face, mail, and phone interaction as well as other modes of communication.

Identifiable private information[3] “includes information about behavior that occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation is taking place, (such as a public restroom)” and information which has been provided for specific purposes by an individual and which the individual can reasonably expect will not be made public (for example, a health care record).

Studies based on data that are individually identifiable but are also publicly available may not constitute human subjects research. However, the term “publicly available” is intended to refer to record sets that are truly readily available to the broad public, such as census data, or federal health, labor or educational statistics. An investigator should not assume information qualifies as “publicly available” merely because it has been posted on an electronic website and can be accessed without authorization. Special consideration should be paid to secondary data analyses studies. 


Certain studies may have the characteristics of human subjects research but may not meet the regulatory definition. Studies which meet the definition require IRB review. There are three categories to be considered:

  • Studies that do not qualify as human subjects research
  • Studies that are human subjects research
  • Studies that may be considered human subjects research

If a study does not qualify as human subjects research, the IRB can issue written communication stating that the project does not require IRB review or approval. NOTE: Grants, faculty advisors, or publications may require a determination letter from the IRB / designee.


There are many types of studies, as noted below, that do not need IRB review. For faculty at Mt. SAC, it is important to review this listing to fully understand if your classroom research activities fit within one of these areas. When in doubt, please ask

1. Data collection for internal departmental, school, or other District administrative purposes. Examples: teaching evaluations, customer service surveys.

2. Service surveys issued or completed by District personnel for the intent and purposes of improving services and programs of the District or for developing new services or programs for students, employees, or alumni, as long as the privacy of the subjects is protected, the confidentiality of individual responses are maintained, and survey participation is voluntary. This would include surveys by professional societies or the District. Note: If at a future date, an opportunity arose to contribute previously collected identifiable or coded survey data to a new study producing generalizable knowledge, IRB review may be required before the data could be released to the new project.    

3. Information-gathering interviews where questions focus on things, products, or policies rather than people or their thought regarding themselves. Example: canvassing librarians about inter-library loan policies or rising journal costs.

4. Course-related activities designed specifically for educational or teaching purposes, where data is collected from and about human subjects as part of a class exercise or assignment, but are not intended for use outside of the classroom. Example: instruction on research methods and techniques. Note: The IRB is only required to review studies that meet the Federal definitions of research on human subject or engaged in research questions [4].

5. Biography or oral history research involving a living individual that is not generalizable beyond that individual.

6. Independent contract for procedures carried out for an external agency. Examples: personnel studies, cost-benefit analysis, customer satisfaction studies, biological sample processing (for a fee and not authorship or other credit), public park usage, IT usage, and software development.

7. Research involving cadavers, autopsy material or biological specimens from now deceased individuals. Note: Some research in this category, such as genetic studies providing private or medical information about live relatives, may need IRB review. Please contact the IRB for further information.

8. Innovative therapies except when they involve “research” as defined by the above criteria. (An innovative clinical practice is an intervention designed solely to enhance the well being of an individual patient or client. The purpose of an innovative clinical practice is to provide diagnosis, preventative treatment, or therapy to particular individuals.) Note: When innovative therapies differ significantly from routine practice it should be viewed and treated as such with appropriate safeguards in place to protect the rights and welfare of the patients.

9. Quality improvement projects are generally not considered research unless there is a clear intent to contribute to generalizable knowledge and use the data derived from the project to improve or alter the quality of care of the efficiency of an institutional practice. Any individual who is unsure whether or not a proposed quality improvement project should be classified as research should contact the IRB for guidance. If the data is re-examined or re-analyzed and new information surfaces that would contribute to generalizable knowledge, an application must be submitted to the IRB. 

10. Case histories which are published and/or presented at national or regional meetings are not considered research if the case is limited to a description of the clinical features and/or outcome of a single patient and do not contribute to generalizable knowledge.

11. Publicly available data do not require IRB review. Examples: census data, labor statistics. Note: Investigators should contact the IRB it they are uncertain as to whether the data qualifies as “publicly available.”

12. Coded private information or biological specimens that were not collected for the currently proposed projects do not need IRB review as long as the investigator cannot link the coded data / specimens back to individual subjects. If the data / specimen provider has access to the identity of the subjects (e.g. subjects’ names, addresses, etc.), the investigator must enter into an agreement with the data / specimen provider that states under no circumstances will the identity of the subjects be released to the investigator. Note: Investigators are not allowed to make this determination. These projects require verification for the IRB or the IRB liaison / designee. (

13. Some examples of Non-Engagement in Research include: when an institution’s employees or agents act as consultants on research but at no time obtain, receive, or possess identifiable private information, perform commercial services for the investigators, or inform prospective subjects about the availability of research. Note: the examples above are not an all inclusive listing. (


  1. Studies that utilize test subjects for new devices, products, drugs, or materials.
  1. Studies that collect data through intervention or interaction with individuals. Examples of this type of research include drug trials, internet surveys about alcohol consumption, studies that involve deception, research involving risky behaviors or attitudes, and open-ended interviews with minors that contribute to generalizable knowledge.
  1. Studies using private information that can be readily identified with individuals, even if the information was not collected specifically for the study in question.
  1. Studies that use bodily materials such as cells, blood, urine, tissues, organs, hair, or nail clippings, even if one did not collect these materials for the study. However, such research may be considered exempt or not human subjects research if the materials/data are coded and the investigator does not have access to the coding systems. Guidance on research involving coded private information or biological specimens is available on the web at: (
  1. Studies that produce generalizable knowledge about categories or classes of subjects from individually identifiable information.
  1. Studies that use human beings to evaluate environmental alterations, for example, weatherization options or habitat modifications to their living or working space or test chamber.

 STUDIES THAT MAY BE CONSIDERED HUMAN SUBJECTS RESEARCH Any investigator who is unsure of whether his/her proposal constitutes “human subjects research” should submit an email to An IRB member will determine if the study is human subjects research. Federal regulations do not allow investigators to make this determination themselves.

Is Your Project Human Subjects Research? A Guide For Investigators

[1] “Generalizable knowledge” is information where the intended use of the research findings can be applied to populations or situations beyond that studied (i.e., presented or published).

[2] The Belmont Report is a statement of ethical principles (including beneficence, justice, and autonomy) for human subjects research by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

[3] Researchers must take caution since disclosure of private information may place the subjects at risk of criminal or civil liability and/or damage their financial standing, employability, or reputation.


Special thanks to College of the Canyons' Institutional Research department and Cal Poly Pomona's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs for their assistance with our work. They provided excellent guidance and resources - some of which are used in the creation of these documents and web pages.