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IRB Mythbusters – Social Media Recruitment

The VCU Human Research Protection Program presents IRB Mythbusters — a periodic newsletter clarifying common misconceptions about conducting human research and the IRB! 

In this issue, “myths” surrounding social media recruitment are addressed. Access previous editions of IRB Mythbusters by visiting the “mythbusters” tag on our blog.

MYTH #1:

If I have an approved physical flyer for recruitment, I can use a digital version on a social media platform too.

FACT: The IRB must approve both the recruitment materials AND the recruitment method. Even if you have an approved piece of recruitment material, you cannot use that recruitment material for a currently unapproved recruitment method. That is, if your study is not approved to use social media recruitment, then you must submit an amendment to include this type of recruitment method, even if you plan to use the same, currently-approved images/materials. 

TIP: Plan ahead for all types of recruitment methods and materials you would like to use for a study, and try to get all methods and materials approved during initial review. If your recruitment needs change, be prepared to submit an amendment if you need to initiate new methods or materials for recruitment. The VCU IRB offers guidance on the use of social media for recruitment. Review this guidance document to learn more about what materials and information should be included in an IRB application proposing to use social media recruitment methods. 

Common information requested by the IRB includes, but is not limited to:

  • The platforms/spaces/groups you will utilize.
  • Specific details relevant to the platform (for example, will you use paid/targeted ads, posting on specific group pages/threads [if so, which], etc.) 
  • The timing and frequency of recruitment activities. 
  • How the study team will represent themselves (as individuals or as a team). 
  • The appropriateness of the platform for recruiting your potential subject population. 
  • How you might engage with users on the platform and any plans to manage or moderate content/social media interaction on recruitment posts/materials. If needed, what controls will be used to prevent potential privacy violations (such as unanticipated sharing)?
  • The content of the posts/advertisements to be used on social media, including images and text.

MYTH #2: 

I can make tweaks to my approved recruitment materials in order to optimize them for different social media platforms, without amending my approved study

FACT: With a few exceptions, all changes to recruitment materials must go through the IRB in an amendment process and receive IRB approval before the changes can be implemented. When it comes to social media recruitment materials, you should consider issues like layout optimization when developing advertising materials. 

Exceptions to this requirement are largely for exempt studies, which have flexibility for the types of changes that must be submitted in amendments. However, even for exempt studies, if new materials are created, new recruitment methods/venues added, or changes are made to compensation, amendments will be required. You can learn more about changes to exempt studies that require amendments by reading the “Conditions of Approval” section in your approval letter from the IRB, or in section 2.1 of IRB WPP X-1. When in doubt, contact the IRB coordinator assigned to your study.

You can find your assigned IRB Coordinator in RAMS IRB:

This is a screen shot of the RAMS-IRB system. It shows the home page for a study. In the upper right corner, the IRB Coordinator is listed. This field is highlighted with a red outline to draw attention to it.

Once you know who your IRB Coordinator is, you can find their contact information on our website. If you contact the office or any member of the office by telephone and are unable to reach someone directly, please leave a message. All calls will be returned in a timely manner.

TIP: Do some research ahead of time and figure out how to optimize materials for each social media platform you intend to use for recruitment. For example, vertical (portrait layout) flyers are standard when printing and posting paper flyers in physical locations, but horizontal (landscape layout) images may be needed to accommodate digital marketing platforms like social media. 

To address this in your IRB application, you may wish to submit potential social media content in batches, with a variety of images/texts that may be used in a “mix and match” manner on a variety of platforms. The VCU IRB will generally accept this approach, but asks that all batch materials be submitted in a single document, rather than in separate documents, in order to streamline the review. You can learn much more about how to approach social media recruitment in your IRB application by reading the VCU IRB’s guidance on the use of social media for recruitment.

MYTH #3:

If the IRB approves my social media recruitment methods/materials, there are no other considerations I need to make for this type of recruitment.

FACT: The IRB’s role is to review recruitment materials and methods to evaluate for (1) equitability of subject selection, and (2) potential coercion/undue influence. Therefore, the IRB’s scope with regards to evaluating recruitment materials is limited. There may be other considerations such as accessibility/ADA compliance and copyright issues that are beyond the scope of the IRB, but still must be considered by the researcher. 

TIP: Be aware of the additional requirements that may apply to the development of your social media recruitment plan. These requirements may include, but are not limited to, accessibility/ADA compliance, copyright issues, and the policies and terms of use of the social media platforms themselves. It is the responsibility of the researcher to take these considerations into account when developing a social media recruitment strategy. The VCU IRB’s guidance on the use of social media for recruitment outlines possible additional considerations, and directs investigators towards resources to address these concerns. 

Note: The guidance document referenced in this issue can be found under the “Participant recruitment and screening” accordion on the VCU HRPP Policies and Guidance Webpage.

Stay in touch and continue to receive the IRB Mythbusters Newsletter by signing up for our listserv (see bottom of page) and/or subscribing to our blog!

This is an image of the IRB Mythbusters Newsletter. It includes two Valentine-themed images, and a third image, which shows a smiling woman sitting next to a tri-color dog. Both woman and dog are turned slightly towards the right edge of the picture frame. The caption to that picture says “Meet the IRB! Nyssa Towsley, MS, CIP is the Education & Outreach Manager for the VCU IRB. She was an IRB Analyst from 2017-2019, and since 2019 she has been serving in this new role.” The rest of the newsletter contains the same myths and facts as the blog post