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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. Feminists have often pointed out how different research activities cause undue hardship to women and indigenous people. For these reasons, then, ethics are important.

This section seeks to provide Simone de Beauvoir Institute students with the information they need regarding ethical approval for the research projects of their students.

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 interviews (asking people questions), participant observation (watching people in public, semi-public or private locations), and even consulting print sources (such as diaries).

Students are supposed to fill in a form, which summarizes their research and their methods. This form is then examined by the SdB Ethics Committee. This process is supposed to happen before data is collected. If all is well, the SdB authorizes the research to take place. The primary objective of the SdB 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.

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 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 taped. 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 support group for anorexia 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...).

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 competant. However, it is still necessary to obtain the consent from the person in question (e.g., a child).

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 ofparticipants. 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 knowswho they are, but they will not be identified in any final report), or if theycan 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 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., counselling) is considered adequate (e.g, hotline, Sexual Assault Support Centre...).

That is a whirlwind tour of some of the main ethical issues that need to be addressed in filling out the forms. Be sure to read the sample forms already filled out, to give you an idea of how to complete your form. You can also refer to the sample consent form. Print these documents out from the Institute's website.

The committee will read your form carefully; it may require additional information. If needed, the committee will tell you what you need to do to obtain ethical approval.

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

Students who wish to do research with humans as part of their regular courses need to fill out the forms below.   Be sure to read the forms carefully, adapt them according to your project, and complete the checklist (page 1) before you submit them formally. 

Students doing research for a tutorial, directed reading, independent study or thesis (e.g., WSDB 394, WSDB 494, or WSDB 496) must fill out a specific form called the Summary Protocol Form (SPF). This form is submiited directly to the Office of Research, Ethics Office. Download the SPF.

For students in this situation, members of the Simone de Beauvoir Ethics Committee are happy to review a draft version of the SPF in order to offer you feedback and help facilitate a timely acceptance of your SPF.  If you would like to avail yourself of this service, once you have prepared a draft version of your SPF in consultation with the professor supervising you, please contact Viviane Namaste or Gada Mahrouse in this regard.

Check out the Office of Research's Ethics page.

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