Questions and Answers Regarding the
Tri-Council Policy Statement
Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans


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Question Will the policy statement restrict my academic freedom?

Question Will the ethics review process make me miss my research application and renewal deadlines?

Question Undergraduate students in our department do research projects as part of their course work. Do these have to be approved by our local REB if they involve research concerning humans?

Question Our university has a policy by which students answer questionnaires about the performance of their professors. Is this research and do the professors have to give their free and informed consent before the questionnaires can be used?

Question I am doing a sociological study of women who have had abortions. I plan to interview these women, some of whom will undoubtedly defend their decision. I will report those views in my publication. A member of the local REB is a leading crusader against abortion and has announced that he will veto any research in the university which in any way deals with abortion. Can he do this?

Question The local REB has vetoed my research proposal. Can I appeal to the federal granting councils?

Question The members of our department of political science do many interviews of political figures and others in the political process. If we agree on a standard set of information to give individuals in order to ensure free and informed consent, can we avoid repeated trips to the REB for approval of the same material?

Question I am planning a study of banking policy in Canada. Do I have to get the free and informed consent of the banks and do I have to submit my research project to my REB?

Question I am writing a history of Germany since 1945. I plan to mention hundreds of individuals (politicians, trade unionists, business leaders, generals, artists etc.). Do I have to have the informed consent of each and every one of these individuals? And do I have to submit my proposed work to my REB?

Question I am planning a study of the next provincial election in my province. I plan to attend public meetings of the parties and take notes or have research assistants attend and provide me with a written backgrounder on the meetings based on their observations. Do I have to get the free and informed consent of the politicians involved? Do I have to secure REB approval? I also plan to make use of statements from politicians that appear on radio or TV. Does the use of these require REB approval?

Question I am planning an unauthorized biography of a living person in public life in Western Canada. Does "free and informed consent" mean that the subject has a veto over my project?

Question I am planning a biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. Do I have to submit my project for REB approval?

Question I am doing a study of the political role in various countries of the Jesuits, who by definition are all male and all Roman Catholic. Does the section of the Policy Statement on inclusion mean that the REB can veto my research because it is not inclusive either of women or non-Catholics or force me to study a female religious order or a Protestant institution for balance?

Question A minority group (e.g. First Nations) on our campus intends to do a detailed survey of its students on the campus for the purpose of finding out whether they have any special problems arising from our educational process. Should this survey be approved by our REB and should the students give their prior informed consent?

Question I am providing a course by means of television. I plan to test the students in the normal way but also to conduct research through them on the effectiveness of televised courses. Do I have to secure REB approval?

Question I am writing a study of hate mongers in Canada. Does harms/benefits analysis mean that the hate mongers can use the Policy Statement to veto my project because it may well be critical of them and of their ideas?

Question I am doing a study of the educational and training background of prisoners in the local prison so as to be able to suggest useful educational strategies for the prison authorities. This project has the agreement of the prison authorities, without which it would be impossible to hold the interviews. I have a detailed form statement which I will present to the prisoners informing them of the nature of the project, the purposes and use of the questionnaire, and asking for their free and informed consent. I will inform them both in writing and orally that they do not have to participate. I have secured the agreement of the authorities that they will in no way put pressure on the prisoners to participate. Nor will the authorities be able to see any individual responses. They will only get overall statistical details. However, the prisoners will know that the authorities support this study and will draw their own conclusions. "Free and informed consent" will inevitably be somewhat compromised by this fact of life in prisons. Does this mean that I cannot proceed with my research project?

Question I wish to study street gangs, and with the approval of my local REB, plan to promise participants that their response to my questionnaire will be rigorously anonymous. Only I would have the key that could put names to the questionnaires. If I am subpoenaed by the local crown prosecutor who is demanding the personal response of each interviewee, should the university or REB defend me?

Question I am planning a study of Iraqi dissidents. Do I have to have the approval of the regime in Baghdad? Do I have to reveal to them anything about my work?


Question Will the Policy Statement restrict my academic freedom?

No. The Policy Statement expressly notes the importance of academic freedom as a guiding principle for REBs. However, it is understood that academic freedom carries with it the responsibility to undertake research that is based on an honest search for truth. Unethical behaviour of the kind dealt with in the Policy Statement would compromise the honesty of that search and should, therefore, not be protected by the doctrine of academic freedom as it is known in Canada. The same would be true of research based on falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism. On the other hand, any attempt by an REB to suppress research because it was controversial or because it offended powerful or vocal interests or because someone thought it disrespectful would also be contrary to the intent of the Policy Statement.

Question Will the ethics review process make me miss my research application and renewal deadlines?

No. The review process does not have to be completed by the application deadline. SSHRC and NSERC policy requires that evidence of REB certification be given prior to the actual release of funds to you (funds can be released to the university, which will only make them available to you once all requirements have been met). This is the time variable you should factor into your own research calendar.

You may be interested to know that the Policy Statement provides various ways to accelerate the ethics review process without sacrificing ethical probity. In large universities, there may be several REBs -- usually at the level of faculties, but not departments -- sharing the workload. The Statement also mandates a proportionate review (see article 1.6) of research proposals so that the most attention is paid to those proposals that are likely to provide the most serious intrusions into the life of individuals. Certain areas of research about humans such as public policy research or research based on publicly available archives are exempt from REB review. REBs may also set up expedited procedures in cases which might include research protocols that involve no more than minimal risk, renewals where there is little change in the research procedures, research involving review of patient records by hospital staff, and the like. The approval of undergraduate research projects is devolved to departments.

Question Undergraduate students in our department do research projects as part of their course work. Do these have to be approved by our local REB if they involve research concerning humans?

No. The Policy Statement allows the devolution of the ethical examination of this type of research to the departmental level. Otherwise REBs would be overwhelmed. However, the university must establish the procedures to determine who will be responsible in the department for implementing and overseeing the departmental approval process and what would constitute appropriate record keeping.

Question Our university has a policy by which students answer questionnaires about the performance of their professors. Is this research and do the professors have to give their free and informed consent before the questionnaires can be used?

That depends on the questionnaire. If the questionnaire is purely a quality assurance mechanism and nothing else, then it falls outside the scope of the Policy Statement. If, however, the university intends to do any research beyond normal quality assurance (as distinct from making personnel decisions) based on such questionnaires, it would have to secure the free and informed consent of the professors involved. This would be especially the case if individuals could be identified either by the published research or because the questionnaires when filed retained identifying markers.

Question I am doing a sociological study of women who have had abortions. I plan to interview these women, some of whom will undoubtedly defend their decision. I will report those views in my publication. A member of the local REB is a leading crusader against abortion and has announced that he will veto any research in the university which in any way deals with abortion. Can he do this?

No. This would be a violation of the "fair hearing" provisions of the Policy Statement. You should document the position of this person and then present to the chair of the REB a request that this member stand down when your project is discussed on the grounds that you will otherwise not get a fair hearing as required in the Policy Statement, to which the university has adhered. If the REB refuses to require that this member stand down, you should proceed with your application to the REB under protest. If the REB turns down your application, you may be able to appeal according to the procedure the university has set up as recommended in the Policy Statement (article 1.11).

Question The local REB has vetoed my research proposal. Can I appeal to the federal granting councils?

No. There is no appeal of individual cases to the federal granting councils. However, the Policy Statement mandates a process for reconsideration by the REB and recommends that universities set up an independent appeals structure. This appeal structure is particularly important for the handling of cases where academic freedom, bias or conflict of interest is involved (article 1.11).

Question The members of our department of political science do many interviews of political figures and others in the political process. If we agree on a standard set of information to give individuals in order to ensure free and informed consent, can we avoid repeated trips to the REB for approval of the same material?

Yes. The REB can give approval to such a standard procedure. However, if there are individuals in the department who do not agree with the standard procedure, they should be free to develop their own procedures and secure REB approval for them.

Question I am planning a study of banking policy in Canada. Do I have to get the free and informed consent of the banks and do I have to submit my research project to my REB?

No on both counts. The Policy Statement applies to individuals not to corporations or governments and exempts public policy research. However, if you intend to interview employees of the banks, you need to secure REB approval to ensure that the employees understand the nature of the project, whether their views may be published, what risks they may face, and that they have given their free and informed consent.

Question I am writing a history of Germany since 1945. I plan to mention hundreds of individuals (politicians, trade unionists, business leaders, generals, artists etc.). Do I have to have the informed consent of each and every one of these individuals? And do I have to submit my proposed work to my REB?

No on both counts, provided that your project is based on public materials. The only exceptions would be (i) if you desire to approach individuals for interviews or (ii) if you ask for access to the interviewee's private papers which are not publicly available to other researchers. Then the local REB must be assured (i) that the interviewees are being approached in a way which reasonably ensures that they understand the project, including whether or not their responses might be published, and have given their free and informed consent to the interview, and (ii) have given their written assent to the use of their private papers including possible publication.

Question I am planning a study of the next provincial election in my province. I plan to attend public meetings of the parties and take notes or have research assistants attend and provide me with a written backgrounder on the meetings based on their observations. Do I have to get the free and informed consent of the politicians involved? Do I have to secure REB approval? I also plan to make use of statements from politicians that appear on radio or TV. Does the use of these require REB approval?

No on all counts. The Policy Statement notes that the use of any material in the public domain does not require REB approval. Furthermore the statement also assumes that those attending public meetings, particularly those who are speaking or organizing, intend the results to be public. Finally, it is the democratic right of all Canadians to attend public political meetings and to comment on them as they see fit. REBs should also assume that all statements made on radio and television in an election campaign are in the public domain for the purposes of the Policy Statement. Research based on such materials does not need REB approval.

Question I am planning an unauthorized biography of a living person in public life in Western Canada. Does "free and informed consent" mean that the subject has a veto over my project?

No. The research subject does not have the right to veto your project. However, if you intend to interview either the subject or third parties, you need to secure REB approval to ensure that the interviewees understand the nature of the project, including whether their views will be published, and that they have given their free and informed consent to the interview. If you are asking for access to private papers not in the public domaine, the owner must give written assent, including for possible publication.

In the province of Quebec, scholars should note that recent amendments to the Quebec Civil Code aim to give protection to persons in public life and their heirs by preventing publication of material injurious to the reputation of such public figures. It is unclear how this will affect political and historical studies in that province since the scope and application of the legislation have not been tested in the courts. News reports also indicate that various groups in the province hope to secure amendments to this portion of the Quebec Civil Code. REBs may wish to inform researchers of the existence of this law, but should not take on the responsibility of trying to interpret or enforce it. The Policy Statement does remind REBs that "the legal context for research involving human subjects is constantly evolving and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For this reason, researchers, institutions and REBs should have recourse to expertise to identify legal issues in the ethics review process" (p. i-8).

Question I am planning a biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. Do I have to submit my project for REB approval?

No. The Policy Statement applies only to living individuals. However, scholars in Quebec should note the response to question 11 above regarding public figures in that province.

Question I am doing a study of the political role in various countries of the Jesuits, who by definition are all male and all Roman Catholic. Does the section of the Policy Statement on inclusion mean that the REB can veto my research because it is not inclusive either of women or non-Catholics or force me to study a female religious order or a Protestant institution for balance?

No. The policy on inclusion is designed to ensure that there is no discrimination in more general health and social science studies where unfortunately in the past it has sometimes been assumed that the responses of women would be the same as men and, therefore, they need not be surveyed. The Statement does not preclude research on individuals or on groups who happen to be defined by a characteristic such as sex or religion (article 5.1).

Question A minority group (e.g. First Nations) on our campus intends to do a detailed survey of its students on the campus for the purpose of finding out whether they have any special problems arising from our educational process. Should this survey be approved by our REB and should the students give their prior informed consent?

Yes. Even if the questionnaires are anonymous and the results kept so that anonymity is ensured, the numbers on many campuses could be so small that individuals could nevertheless be recognized. The individual students should, therefore, be informed about the nature, purposes and possible use of this material and formally asked for their consent in writing. However, if the university were to survey a large group such as all male or all female students for the purpose of developing educational policy (with the requisite guarantees of anonymity), this would not require prior informed consent but should nevertheless be reported to the local REB.

Question I am providing a course by means of television. I plan to test the students in the normal way but also to conduct research through them on the effectiveness of televised courses. Do I have to secure REB approval?

You do not have to secure REB approval for the normal educational testing of your class. However, you would have to secure REB approval for the research using the students as research subjects. The students would have to give their free and informed consent, and it would have to be clear to the REB that the students have not been coerced into giving that assent, for instance by making it a requirement of participation in the course.

Question I am writing a study of hate mongers in Canada. Does harms/benefits analysis mean that the hate mongers can use the Policy Statement to veto my project because it may well be critical of them and of their ideas?

No. The Policy Statement recognizes that studies, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities, may legitimately be negative, particularly of those in public life whether political, economic or artistic. However, you still have to obtain from the parties involved free and informed consent to interviews or the use of private papers that are not otherwise available to scholars in archives.

Question I am doing a study of the educational and training background of prisoners in the local prison so as to be able to suggest useful educational strategies for the prison authorities. This project has the agreement of the prison authorities, without which it would be impossible to hold the interviews. I have a detailed form statement which I will present to the prisoners informing them of the nature of the project, the purposes and use of the questionnaire, and asking for their free and informed consent. I will inform them both in writing and orally that they do not have to participate. I have secured the agreement of the authorities that they will in no way put pressure on the prisoners to participate. Nor will the authorities be able to see any individual responses. They will only get overall statistical details. However, the prisoners will know that the authorities support this study and will draw their own conclusions. "Free and informed consent" will inevitably be somewhat compromised by this fact of life in prisons. Does this mean that I cannot proceed with my research project?

No. However, in your application to your REB, you should give all the details of the steps you have taken to protect the interests of the prisoners. The REB should understand that special circumstances such as this require special consideration.

Question I wish to study street gangs, and with the approval of my local REB, plan to promise participants that their response to my questionnaire will be rigorously anonymous. Only I would have the key that could put names to the questionnaires. If I am subpoenaed by the local crown prosecutor who is demanding the personal response of each interviewee, should the university or REB defend me?

Something to consider from the outset of your research is whether it is possible for you to construct a questionnaire in which neither you nor anybody else can retrieve the answers of particular individuals.

Failing this, a first step in conducting your study would be to inquire about the policy of your own institution regarding legal assistance and the payment of fees for such assistance, in case individual response records are subpoenaed. If your REB has approved your proposal, the university should normally defend you, although the question of costs may have to be negotiated if there is no clear university policy. Failure to do so could seriously undermine the credibility of the REB. Since you may win or lose your case, even if your university does provide legal counsel to argue that the subpoena is inappropriate, you should ensure that the gang members know in advance that the records may be subpoenaed and ultimately handed over to a third party.

The REB itself would not normally defend you since, once it has given its approval to the project, authority regarding subsequent matters such as subpoenas passes to the university administration. However, members of the REB could appear as witnesses (see Section 3, p. 3.2).

Question I am planning a study of Iraqi dissidents. Do I have to have the approval of the regime in Baghdad? Do I have to reveal to them anything about my work?

No on both counts. You have a primary responsibility to the human subjects of your research and you should do nothing that would put their lives in jeopardy. Normally you would have to secure REB approval in your own university for any interview procedures and regarding access to private papers, and you would have to have the approval of the REB for the same procedures in the foreign country where you propose to do research, but only where there are equivalent REB structures with the same ethical and procedural safeguards as in Canada. Clearly this is not the case with dictatorial regimes. Your local REB will want to know what steps you have taken to protect the interests of the dissidents whom you are studying.

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