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Ethics in research

Ethics are general guidelines that researchers follow in order to ensure that people are not harmed by a research project. Socially-minded scholars have often pointed out how different research activities cause undue hardship to women and indigenous people. For these reasons, then, ethics are important.

The SCPA & FPST ethics committee is composed of the following faculty members:

Communication with the committee should be done via email to .

These documents seek to provide SCPA & FPST students with the information they need regarding ethical approval for the research projects.

Reading the information below will help you become familiar with some of the language and concepts of ethics, if this is new to you. It will also help you in filling out the forms. Students should always keep in mind that research "subjects" are in fact human beings and as such they need to be treated with respect. The latter is what the ethics committee attempts to ensure.

Informed consent

Students who do interviews need to show that their subjects agree to be interviewed. This is usually obtained with a written form, but can also be obtained orally, especially when the interview is recorded. The subject must be free to terminate the interview at any time. Moreover, a decision not to participate in research should in no way affect the subject.

Students who do participant observation in a semi-public or private space need to obtain the consent of people there. For instance, if a student is attending a general assembly of an organization and using this as a means to gather data, she needs to make it clear to other group members that she is also there as a researcher. Generally, it is not necessary to obtain written consent when participant observation happens in a public space (mall, bar, political rallies, academic conferences...).

Consent is more complicated in the event of research with children, or with people who have intellectual disabilities. In these instances, it is necessary to obtain consent from the legal guardian if the person is not considered (in North American legal culture) to be legally competent. However, it is still necessary to obtain the consent from the person in question (e.g., a child).

Freedom to discontinue

Subjects should always be free to end their participation in research at any time with no penalty to them.


Generally, social researchers need to ensure the confidentiality of participants. This is not required, however: some research participants want to be named. Researchers need to decide if they are going to name people, if they will offer confidentiality (the researcher knows who they are, but they will not be identified in any final report), or if they can offer complete anonymity (the researcher will not be able to identify them).

Confidentiality can also be more complicated. In research on close-knit communities, sometimes it is impossible to guarantee anonymity, or even confidentiality: some members of a community are going to know from whom a quotation comes, because they know their life history, their speech patterns, etc. In this event, participants have to be informed of this situation so that they can make an informed decision as to whether or not they want to participate.


Some studies involve "deception" - that is, they do not clearly outline the purpose and intent of the research study because to do so would bias the answers and/or behaviour of the research subjects. In this case, the researcher needs to debrief the subjects after the research protocol is completed. Students need to explain how their research will deceive people, and how they intend to offer a de-briefing. This type of study is especially common in psychology, although it is also used in other disciplines.


Research on "sensitive" topics needs to ensure that the subjects will not be worse off after being involved in the research than before. Interviews on topics such as residential school experiences, sexual assault or incest, for example, can be traumatic for both the person being interviewed and the interviewer. Researchers need to specify how they will deal with these questions. Generally, referral to relevant free and available resources (e.g., counseling) is considered adequate (e.g, hotline, Sexual Assault Support Centre...).

Basically, any time a student engages in research with human subjects, they are to receive ethics approval at the Departmental level. Research with humans can be quite broad: it can include, for example, interviews (asking people questions), participant observation (watching people in public, semi-public or private locations) or consulting materials of a sensitive nature such as medical records.

If all students taking a class are required to do the same research project (same methodology), the professor can submit materials for group approval. However, if students are developing their own methodologies, they must submit individual projects for approval. They will need to do so prior to beginning data collection. We recommend a 30 day minimum between ethics submission and due date.

The primary objective of the SCPA/FPST Ethics Committee is to review the proposals presented by students and to make sure that they respect the particular legal and ethical norms of scientific research in the university.

The following are the items that need to be submitted to the SCPA/FPST research ethics committee before data collection can begin:

Please submit these materials to the SCPA/FPST ethics committee – hard copies can be left at the reception (S-CI-101) – electronic versions can be emailed to 

If all is well, the committee will authorize the research to take place. If we need additional information, we will let you know. If needed, the committee will tell you what you need to do to obtain ethical approval.

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