When considering whether an activity meets the definition of human subjects research per DHHS regulations, one must consider two federal definitions: research and human subject.

Research is a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.

A “systematic investigation” is an activity that involves a prospective plan that incorporates data collection, either quantitative or qualitative, and data analysis to answer a question.

Examples of systematic investigations include:

  • surveys and questionnaires
  • interviews and focus groups
  • analyses of existing data or biological specimens
  • epidemiological studies
  • evaluations of social or educational programs
  • cognitive and perceptual experiments
  • medical chart review studies

Investigations designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge are those designed to draw general conclusions, inform policy, or generalize findings beyond a single individual or an internal program (e.g., publications or presentations). However, research results do not have to be published or presented to qualify the experiment or data gathering as research. The intent to contribute to “generalizable (scholarly) knowledge” makes an experiment or data collection research, regardless of publication. Research that never is published is still research. Participants in research studies deserve protection whether or not the research is published.

DHHS regulations specify that the following activities are NOT research:

  • Scholarly and journalistic activities (e.g., oral history, journalism, biography, literary criticism, legal research, and historical scholarship) including the collection and use of information, that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected.
  • Public health surveillance activities conducted by a public health authority, limited to those necessary to allow a public health authority to identify, monitor, assess, or investigate potential public health signals, onsets of disease outbreaks, or conditions of public health importance including:
    • the collection and testing of information or biospecimens, conducted, supported, requested, ordered, required, or authorized by a public health authority;
    • trends, signals, risk factors, patterns in diseases, or increases in injuries from using consumer products; and
    • activities associated with providing timely situational awareness and priority setting during the course of an event or crisis that threatens public health (including natural or man-made disasters).
  • Collection and analysis of information, biospecimens, or records by or for a criminal justice agency for activities authorized by law or court order solely for criminal justice or criminal investigative purposes.
  • Authorized operational activities (as determined by the relevant federal agency) in support of intelligence, homeland security, defense, or other national security missions.

human subject is as a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research (1) obtains information or biospecimens through intervention or interaction with the individual and uses, studies, or analyzes the information or biospecimens; or (2) obtains, uses, studies, analyzes, or generates identifiable private information or identifiable biospecimens.

  • Intervention includes both physical procedures by which data are gathered (e.g., venipuncture) and manipulations of the subject or the subject’s environment that are performed for research purposes.
  • Interaction includes communication or interpersonal contact between investigator and subject.
  • Private information includes information about behavior that occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place, 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 medical record). Private information must be individually identifiable (i.e., the identity of the subject is or may readily be ascertained by the investigator or associated with the information) in order for obtaining the information to constitute research involving human subjects.

Clinical Trial is defined by DHHS as a research study in which one or more human subjects are prospectively assigned to one or more interventions (which may include placebo or other control) to evaluate the effects of the interventions on biomedical or behavioral health-related outcomes.

Note: Thesis or dissertation projects involving human subjects conducted to meet the requirement of a graduate degree are usually considered generalizable, and require IRB review and approval.