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!

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