Researchers often overlook the interpersonal side of IRB protocol submissions. In fact, many researchers I encounter are surprised to know real people review their protocols. Some researchers believe that once they click, “submit” their protocol enters into a black hole, never to be seen again!

All kidding aside, sometimes researchers need reminding that while IRB protocols are about adhering to ethical guidelines, they are also about knowing your population of interest, and knowing how to communicate well to that population.

My tip for bringing the human into research with human subjects is to encourage researchers to talk through a protocol with someone else before it is formally submitted.

The approach I’m stressing here is the “talk aloud” (a.k.a. “think aloud”).

Briefly, humans have different ways to interpret what we read: in our silent voice (the quiet thoughts that pace through words as we read) and in our speaking voice (the vocalization of the words as we say words aloud). These two ways to read text, have shown to impact comprehension and understanding in different ways (see Beck and McKeown, 2001 for “text talk” or Richardson, 2000 for “read aloud.”).

When I say, “talk aloud,” I’m adapting this approach specifically for an IRB context and I do not recommend a “talk aloud” for all parts of an IRB protocol. Rather, I think this approach is best suited for public materials (e.g., recruitment script, informed consent form, etc.).

When applied, an IRB talk aloud approach focuses on reading passages aloud, talking about something interesting the researcher said or implied, and discussing what other readers (i.e., participants) might think if they read this same text.

In other words, sometimes text reads well in our silent voice, but when read aloud, it becomes clunky and difficult to follow.

My suggestion is simple, before submitting a final IRB application, read the text in two ways: (1) silently and (2) aloud.

When reading aloud, pay particular attention to the flow between main ideas and ensure that the content makes sense for the reader. Then, “talk aloud” with someone else. These verbal exchanges between a reader and audience can help clarify content or intention.