Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ethical Considerations

What do you think is the epistemological concerns of the University of Calgary regarding doing research with human subjects?

Dr. Janice Dicken, the chair of the conjoint faculties research ethics board, describes the importance for the University is to ensure researchers are following ethical standards in an interview conducted by Natalie St-Denis, October 28, 2005. There is a risk of losing funding for the whole university from the three major Canadian granting agencies (SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR), if a proper system is not in place to review all research for those who have current University of Calgary affiliation (i.e. student, faculty, staff). The Conjoint Faculties Research Ethics board (CFREB) is charged with reviewing ethics applications in education and is responsible for ensuring the Tri-Council Policy Statement guidelines, created by the three major granting agencies, are met. In regards to doing research with human subjects, the University of Calgary is concerned with meeting high ethical standards to protect the participants in research studies through appropriate ethical clearance and to foster a community of researchers whom take responsibility for compliance to ethical standards.

What are their main concerns in term of informed consent; harm to informants; representation and permission to publish; confidentiality and anonymity; ownership of data?
Prior to collecting any data, the researcher needs to have ethics certification; otherwise the data collected cannot be used. It is also necessary to receive ethics approval from school jurisdictions if the research involves participants in a school system. The main concerns regarding ethics applications as outlined in the “Information to Help Applicants” document from the CFREB include:

Informed Consent – The researcher needs to create a participant consent form for ethics approval which includes the design and methodology of the research in simple language and terms to ensure the consent process is free, informed, voluntary and an ongoing process that allows for participant withdrawal at anytime. If research includes children, then parents/guardians also need to provide consent. It is recommended to use a series of checkboxes (I agree to … and I disagree to…) to delineate the choices for participation. The Tri-Council Policy (2008) recognizes that “qualitative researchers use a range of consent procedures, including oral consent, field notes, and other strategies such as recording (audio or video, or other electronic means) for documenting the consent process. Evidence of consent may also be via completed survey questionnaires (in person, by mail or by email or other electronic means)” (p.113).

Harm to informants – The consent form also needs to include information about the potential risks for participants choosing to participate in the research. The researcher should explicitly state, “There is no known risk associated with your participation in this research” if this is the case. Otherwise, the researcher needs to anticipate the estimation of risk for the potential participants which should be no greater than what would be expected or encountered in everyday life. The CFREB members conduct a face-to-face meeting to discuss any applications that pose more that a minimal risk to participants and the researcher needs to make arrangements for participants to receive assistance to deal with any major negative effects.

Representation and Permission to Publish – The researcher needs to anticipate how the research will be represented in advance and request appropriate permissions from the participants. For example, if using photographs, the participants will need to have a choice of either being photographed for publishing purposes or not being photographed. Pink (2007) notes, “ethnographers have to make choices regarding if and how video footage will be incorporated into the publication of research” (p.56). Pink(2007) also reminds us the moral right of the researcher could be questioned if images are produced covertly (p.55). I believe it is important to receive consent from participants explicitly for purposes of publication when intending to use photographs or video for representation purposes in the public domain.

Confidentiality and Anonymity – Confidentiality is defined as the “obligation of an individual or organization to safeguard information entrusted to it by another” by the Tri-Council (2008, p.44). It is critical the researcher considers issues of confidentiality and anonymity (information is stripped of identifiers) during collection of raw data and in writing up final results. It is the responsibility of the researcher to describe the “extent to which privacy and confidentiality will be protected (p.6). For example, if anonymity is optional, the consent form needs to include provision for the participant to indicate if his/her name can be used or if a pseudonym is preferred.

Ownership of Data – The ethics application needs to include specific details about the security of data, who will have access to the data and plans for storage/disposal and retention of the data. Information about what happens to data if participants decide to withdraw from the study also needs to be included in the application. Pink (2007) also advises researchers, “to clarify rights of use and ownership of video and photographic images before their production” (p.59).

What would be the main decisions/considerations about the use of visual methods that would need to be made prior submitting a research project for ethics review?

Prior to submitting a research project for ethics review it is necessary to consider the appropriateness of how visual methods will be used. For example, visual methods could be used for representations or for processes during the research. Participants may examine and react to visual representations or may even collaborate in the production of visual representations; participants may be openly (overtly) aware of the use of visual methods or unaware in the context of public photography. Pink (2007) suggests, researchers should think through the implications of using visual methods and anticipate that visuals will be invested with different meanings (p.43). The researcher can employ a reflexive approach in making sound decisions about the use of visual methods in research by considering the context, the participants, social and cultural implications, and practical and technical issues.

(2008). Draft 2nd Edition of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics, Ottawa.

Pink, S. (2007). Doing Visual Ethnography (2 ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.