The Research: The Ethics

In previous posts, I described the beginnings of the current research project. But before any research can be conducted, it has to be vetted through the research ethics approval process.

The major research granting agencies in Canada (CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC) have come up with a (recently updated) policy document outlining ethical treatment of human research participants, called TCPS 2. If you want to do any research funded by one of the "tri-council" agencies, you must follow this policy. TCPS 2 has also trickled down to the university in general; research on campus is overseen by the Research Ethics Office. The REO has established a number of different Research Ethics Boards or Panels that review all research applications (whether funded by tri-council or not), and give their approval. Different boards oversee different kinds of research, like a typical psychology experiment, versus medical and clinical kinds of research.

It's important to me to make sure the willing participants in my research are (at the very least) not harmed, are treated properly, have their rights and human dignity respected, and (where appropriate) have their individual research results remain private and confidential. The process of obtaining ethical approval, though, is not trivial.

It used to be pretty easy to get ethics approval for research. Five years ago, I'd have to fill out a form indicating what I'd be doing (having students fill out a survey), whether there were any known risks to participants (um, maybe getting a paper cut?), and what I'd do if there were (rush them to the hospital). I'd talk to my colleague down the hall who would look over the application, make suggestions, and give his verbal okay. Now, it's a different story.

My Department requires that any Contract Academic Staff have their research sponsored by a professor (tenured or tenure-track staff). Luckily, a colleague of mine was able and willing to sign off on my project. It's really just a formality, which makes me question why it's necessary. Don't they trust me? And, isn't my research going to be overseen by the University?

This brings me back to the REO, which has switched to an online application process, using a system called HERO (Human Ethics Research Online--cute, eh?). Although it's now online, the process is very involved (sorry, I mean thorough) with many, many pages of questions that I have to fill out. Things like, how am I going to maintain security over the data to ensure privacy and confidentiality? (256-bit triple DES.) Will I be retaining an sensitive information, like student ID numbers? (Temporarily, yes.) Do I expect participants to come to any harm? (Er, no. Unless someone drops their computer on their foot.) The good thing was that all these questions forced me to think about ethical issues that I hadn't considered. Like, what if someone withdraws their consent--even after completing my online form? All of this really helped in designing the study itself.

Unfortunately, my ethics application was...misplaced (lost? forgotten? ignored?) for six weeks. Because this was my first experience with HERO, I didn't know how long the process would take. But after a month and a half of waiting, I asked my colleague who told me that approval should come after six days, not six weeks, and that I should "scream" about it. I didn't scream, but I was firm and persistent until my application was found, reviewed, and approved. Altogether, applying for and getting ethical approval for my project took two months. Piece of cake.

Next time: Data collection!

Why aren't you studying?

The Research: The Opportunity

As I wrote in my last post, I do research. But doing research is not easy if you aren't allowed to apply for major research grants. Sometimes, though, you get lucky.

I've got a good relationship with Nelson Education--the Canadian imprint for Cengage Learning, publisher of a number of textbooks I use in my courses, and also my employer (I do consulting for them on their Canadian psychology websites). So late last year, the local rep asked if I'd be interested in helping them evaluate the CengageNOW platform (which includes online etextbooks and interactive study guides). Oh, and they'd provide free access codes for students in my Perception class--but unfortunately, only for about half the class.

OK, I've just been designing this kind of experiment for a couple of years: Does using an etextbook cause students to do better, worse, or exactly the same in a course? I jumped at the chance. Half the class would get a free access code to the etextbook, the other half would use a regular printed textbook. At the end of the course, I could compare the two groups in terms of the dependent variable of final grade. Perfect! But who would get the free etextbook and who would have to pay for a textbook? How would that be decided? And is it fair that some students get something for free, and others don't?

These are important questions to consider. Obviously, the fair thing to do (and also the most obvious, from a statistical point of view) would be to randomly assign students to the etextbook and printed textbook groups. However, some students may not want to use an etextbook--even if it's free. In that case, I would have to exclude them from the study data, but then I could use their access code to give to students who registered late. The issue of free, though, I couldn't overcome. Nelson was not willing to pay for free printed textbooks for the other half of the class (about 107 students). Rats! This means I've got a confound that I couldn't overcome: students who got the etextbook would also be getting it for free, whereas students who bought and used the printed textbook would be paying for it.

If there are any difference in grades between these two groups, it could be because of the resource used (maybe reading an etextbook is more fatiguing so students spend less time reading, compared to a printed textbook--or maybe it's easier to read). Or it could be because of the "free" aspect (students feel less "invested" in the free etextbook, so don't read it as much as they would a printed textbook that they had to pay money for). Argh! Not so perfect. But it was the best I could do under the circumstances; I'd need almost $20,000 to buy textbooks for half the class!

There still were many more hurdles to overcome. Next: research ethics and the maze that is HERO.

Why aren't you studying?

The Research: Primary vs. Secondary

As a scientist, I do research. The first thing the word “research” brings to mind is probably experimental research. But this is only one method under the broader umbrella term of empirical research, which can include other methods like surveys, for example.

Another way of dividing up research into different kinds is into primary and secondary. In primary research, you collect original data; you’re discovering something no one else has ever known (you hope!). In secondary research, you are going through data that has already been collected. Maybe you are looking for something specific, or maybe you want to do a (formal, statistical) meta-analysis. (This doesn’t mean that every time you do a Google search, you’re doing secondary research--but secondary research might employ an Internet search now and then. More likely, I’ll use PsycINFO or MEDLINE.)

I do a lot of secondary research in prepping my courses. For example, when I created my lecture on synesthesia, I did a lot of secondary research--searching for studies, reading and analyzing them, and synthesizing the information in a systematic, coherent way. (At least, I hope it’s coherent! ;-)

I also do some primary research. It’s not something that I’m required to do in my role as Faculty Lecturer (but it can be a lot of fun to do). In fact, the University makes it hard for contract academic staff to do primary research: we are not allowed to apply for research grants. As you can imagine, having no money makes it kinda hard to do research. Unless: a) you’re rich, b) you have a sugar daddy, or c) a publishing company comes to you with a bunch of free stuff and asks if you’re interested in using it to do a study.

Late last year, I had the opportunity for option c). In the next few posts, I’ll describe the steps in the research process, ending up with a summary of my results.

Why aren’t you studying?

The Awards: 5

I've been named to the Department of Psychology's Honour Roll with Distinction for all three courses I taught last term. Thank-you to everyone, and special thanks to those who went to the trouble of giving written comments. I'm not going to post "best-of" student comments this time because (a) I've done that before, (b) there weren't many comments that, er...cry out for a response (most were constructive and helpful, which is great!), and (c) I don't want to reinforce anyone trolling for their comments to be posted in this blog (getcher own blog, eh?).

This time, I want to congratulate my colleagues who were named to the Honour Roll:

  • Brown, N. (PSYCO 405 X5)
  • Dixon, P. (PSYCO 258)
  • Friedman, A. (PSYCO 212)
  • Hurd, P. (PSYCO 400/409)
  • Masuda, T. (PSYCO 241 B1, PSYCO 305)
  • Passey, J. (PSYCO 105 B1, PSYCO 233)
  • Schimel, J. (PSYCO 105 B4)
  • Spalding, T. (PSYCO 105 B3, PSYCO 405 B2)
  • Snyder, M. (PSYCO 403 B2)
  • Westbury, C. (PSYCO 339)
  • Wylie, D. (PSYCO 267 B2)
And those who were named to the Honour Roll with Distinction:
  • Busink, R. (PSYCO 436)
  • Caplan, J. (PSYCO 403 B4)
  • Colbourne, F. (PSYCO 403 B1)
  • Gagne, C. (PSYCO 532)
  • Hurd, P. (PSYCO 414/505)
  • Kuiken, D. (PSYCO 415)
  • Lee, P. (PSYCO 105 S1)
  • Mou, W. (PSYCO 403 B3)
  • Mullins, B. (PSYCO 104 B2)
  • Nicoladis, E. (PSYCO 323)
  • Noels, K. (PSYCO 300)
  • Passey, J. (PSYCO 241 S1, PSYCO 405 B1)
  • Singhal, A. (PSYCO 377)
  • Spetch, M. (PSYCO 485)
  • Todd, K. (PSYCO 475)
  • Varnhagen, C. (SCI 100)
  • Watchorn, R. (PSYCO 323)
  • Wylie, D. (PSYCO 405 B3)
Quite a list, isn't it? I think the criteria are pretty stringent (see below for details); that means the Department has a lot of great teachers. I am humbled to be included among them.

Here are the criteria for the awards:
1. The course section median response was equal to or greater than 4.0; for Honors with Distinction, the course section median response was greater than 4.0 and at least 45% of the students agreed strongly that the instructor was “Excellent;” For classes with fewer than 10 students enrolled, the majority of students responded “Agree” or “Strongly Agree”; for Honors with Distinction, the majority of the majority responded “Strongly Agree”;
2. At least 60% of the class responded to the questionnaire;
3. There were no abnormalities in the grade distributions (e.g., distributions skewed too high or too low);
4. Instruction was conducted in accord with the ethical standards of teaching as outlined by the APA and CPA.

Why aren't you studying?

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