The challenge of harmonising research ethics standards

At universities in Canada, as in many other countries, professors must have their research plan approved by the research ethics board or REB at their institution before they can launch their study. This process ensures that participants are not exposed to physical or psychological harm.

Interviews, surveys, focus groups or medical interventions, all methods that involve human participants, must receive REB approval, and for good reason. We have distanced ourselves from the days of recruiting vulnerable members of society and testing new discoveries on them.

While the importance of conducting ethical research is unquestioned, some social scientists in the Canadian context have questioned the extensive power of REBs and whether their role as gatekeepers needs some limits. Whether ethics reviews are overly cumbersome remains a debate, but what is clear is that a large, decentralised country like Canada needs national-level collaboration to harmonise ethics reviews across institutions.

The gatekeepers

Although their office is rarely found on a campus map, a university’s research ethics board puts its stamp on every new study that comes out of the institution. In an era where research production is closely linked to ranking, this is no small matter.

Historically, the emergence of ethical research is often linked to high-profile bio-medical studies from the 1950s and 1960s which are noted for their long-term damage to subjects, despite the broader public good.

In the Canadian context, REBs continue to play a valuable role in checking the safety and rigour of academic research.

CAREB conference

In April 2018, the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards (CAREB) met in Montreal for their annual conference. Among the attendees was a large number of ethics officers who work in research ethics boards, tasked with conducting extensive reviews of forthcoming research.

Throughout the conference, a research team from the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education advocated for national-level coordination of reviews, inviting ethics officers for input on how to improve the current system.

To conduct their study, the research team approached 69 universities across Canada, requesting ethical permission to conduct a survey of faculty: The Academic Profession in the Knowledge Society.

Although the research team had already received ethical permission from their home REB at the University of Toronto, they were not automatically granted access to survey faculty. Of the universities they approached, 28% of the universities insisted that they complete another full review at the new institution. Others offered expedited reviews for externally approved research. Few institutions accepted the Toronto certificate in lieu of their own.

Most problematic was the length of time the research team spent applying for ethics permission before they could begin their data collection: a total of 11 months. Ethics applications at the later universities were completed just in time to begin the ‘study renewal’ paperwork at the first universities.

National systems

The diversity between institutions in Canada is perhaps not surprising since Canada has one of the most decentralised higher education systems in the world. Indeed a ‘system’ of higher education is hard to speak of in the Canadian context. Rather, each of the 10 provinces has its own ministry of education, with no federal ministry, and universities operate on autonomous charters.

Yet at the federal level, attempts have been made to set standards for research by the tri-council funding agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. However, the Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS) largely leaves institutions to enact its standards on their own.

Thus, universities are not automatically required to accept the approval from another TCPS-compliant university. In these cases, more harmonisation is needed to ensure that researchers are able to spend their time researching, rather than repeatedly applying for ethical permission.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, Canada. Emmanuelle Fick is a PhD student in the department of curriculum, learning and teaching at OISE, University of Toronto. She is a key member of the academic profession research team led by Dr Glen Jones and is regularly involved with Ontario's college system.