5. RESEARCH METHODS

5.4 Human Research Ethics

“Primary research” is any research that you do yourself in which you collect raw data directly from the “real world” rather than from articles, books, or internet sources that have already collected and analyzed the data. If you are collecting data from human participants, you are engaging in “human research” and you must be aware of and follow strict ethical guidelines of your academic institution. Doing this is part of your responsibility to maintain academic integrity.

In Canada, any post-secondary educational institution that receives funding from one of the three federal granting bodies must ensure that all research involving humans conducted at that institution complies with the Tri-Council Policy Statement. These rules are in place to protect people and communities from potential risk or harm and to ensure ethical conduct while doing research. In some cases, your instructors may have applied for “course-based ethics approval” for students in their classes to conduct certain kinds of carefully limited research (such as surveys or interviews) for a class project or assignment. Ethics approval is generally required for research that collects data from human subjects in the following ways:

  • Interviews: one-on-one or small group question and answer sessions. Interviews will provide detailed information from a small number of people and are useful when you want to get an expert opinion on your topic. For such interviews, you may need to have the participants sign an informed consent form before you begin.
  • Surveys/Questionnaires: a form of questioning that is less flexible than interviews, as the questions are set ahead of time and cannot be changed. These involve much larger groups of people than interviews, but result in less detailed responses. Like interviews, surveys require that you get the participants’ informed consent before you begin.
  • Naturalistic observation in non-public venues: Observations involve taking organized notes about occurrences related to your research. Observations allow you to gain objective information without the potentially biased viewpoint of an interview or survey. In naturalistic observations, the goal is to be an unobtrusive as possible, so that your presence does not influence or disturb the normal activities you want to observe. If you want to observe activities in a specific work place, classroom, or other non-public place, you must first seek permission from the manager of that place and let participants know the nature of the observation. Observations in public places do not normally require approval. However, you may not photograph or video your observations without first getting the participants’ informed voluntary consent and permission.

These are the most common methods used in undergraduate courses. There are many other methods, including engaging with people and their information via social media, organizing focus groups, engaging in beta-testing or prototype trials, etc. But for the purposes of your writing course, these other methods are generally not recommended because they involve additional ethical considerations for you and your instructor.

Guidelines for Students Conducting Human Research

In order to adhere to the ethical requirements involved in conducting human research for your course project, you should abide by the following ethics guidelines when recruiting participants, gaining their informed consent, and managing the data you collect.[1]

Ethics Guidelines for Conducting Course-Based Human Research

Recruiting Participants

When recruiting potential participants, you must give them the following information before you begin:

  • Student researcher(s) name(s):  inform them of your name and contact information
  • Affiliation:  provide a) the name of your institution, b) your course name and number, and c) your instructor’s name and contact information
  • Purpose:  describe the purpose of your research (objectives), and the benefits you hope will come from this research (overall goal).  Your research should not involve any deception (e.g.:  claiming to be gathering one kind of information, such as “do you prefer blue or green widgets?”, but actually gathering another kind, such as “what percentage of the population is blue/green color blind?”).

Informed Consent

You must gain the informed consent of the people you will be surveying, interviewing, or observing in non-public venues. This can be done using a consent form they can sign in person, or an “implied consent” statement on an electronic survey. The consent form should include all the information in the “recruiting” section above; in addition, you should

  • Inform participants that their participation is voluntary and that they may withdraw at any time without consequence, even if they have not completed the survey or interview
  • Disclose any and all risks or discomfort that participation in the study may involve, and how these risks or discomfort will be addressed
  • Ensure that all participants are adults (19 years of age or older) and fully capable of giving consent; do not recruit from vulnerable or at-risk groups, and do not collect demographic data regarding age, gender, or any other information not relevant to the study (e.g.: phone numbers, medications they are taking, whether they have a criminal records, etc.)

Managing the Data

Participants should be told what will happen to the data you gather:

  • In the case of surveys, the data is anonymous if you will not track who submitted which survey.  In anonymous surveys, let participants know that once they submit their survey, it cannot be retrieved and removed from the overall results.
  • Let survey participants know a) that your research results will be reported without their names and identifiers, b) where the data will be stored, c) how it will be “published”, and d) what will happen to the raw data once your project is complete
  • Let interview participants know how their information will be used and if their names will be included or cited.

There may be additional issues that must addressed, such as accessibility and cultural considerations, but those listed above are the most essential. If you are unsure whether a particular line of inquiry or method of data collection requires ethics approval, you should ask your instructor, and your instructor should contact the Research Ethics Office. Most importantly, you should always be completely up front and honest about what and how you are researching.

It may seem like “a lot of fuss” to go through simply to ask people whether they prefer blue widgets or green widgets, but there are important reasons for these guidelines. In the past, people posing as students have conducted “surveys” on campus for unethical reasons, asking students questions that were inappropriate and even harassing. People participating in your research need to be reassured that you are doing this for a legitimate reason, and must be able to contact the relevant faculty member or the campus research ethics office to verify that you have authority to do this research.

For larger scale research projects, such as for a capstone course, an honour’s or master’s thesis, or a dissertation, students must apply for ethics approval with their academic supervisor before doing any research involving human subjects. Failure to obtain ethics approval before conducing research may result in the data not being accepted as part of the project, thesis or program. It may  prevent work from being accepted for publication, and can result in a university audit or academic integrity investigation.

Designing a Survey

When designing a questionnaire to give to the public, you must avoid doing anything that would cause physical or emotional harm to your participants. For example, be careful how you word sensitive or controversial questions in surveys and during interviews.  Be careful to avoid inserting unintended bias or asking leading questions. You want to design questions to get meaningful and accurate responses rather than ambiguous information that is impossible to quantify or analyze. For more detailed information on how to design effective and ethical questionnaires, see Purdue University’s OWL site for information on Creating Good Interview and Survey Questions.

If you plan to conduct a survey as part of your research project, you may be asked to provide your instructor with detailed information regarding your research methodology. Commonly requested details are in the checklist below.

Course-Based Human Research Checklist

Students wishing to do human research to collect data for a class project may be asked to provide their instructor with the following information:

  • A brief description of the project in lay language that can be understood by the participants and clearly identifies that this is a course-based project; this must include the course name and number, the instructor’s name and contact information, and the names of all persons involved in collecting data for the project
  • A full description of all data collection methods, procedures, and instruments, as well as expectations regarding the amount of time required for participation; copies of any questionnaires must be provided for the instructor’s approval
  • A copy of the informed consent form, that will be read and signed by the participants (see the sample Consent Form Template)
  • A sample script you will use to explain to participants that their participation is entirely voluntary and that they can withdraw at any time, without explanation or consequences.  See Sample Participant Recruitment Scripts.
  • The means by which participants’ anonymity will be protected and data will be kept confidential
  • How the raw data, including tapes, notes and other types of data will be disposed of at the end of the project
  • The way in which the results will be presented and/or dissemination.

 


  1. For more in-depth information, see the University of Victoria's "Human Research Ethics" page: https://www.uvic.ca/research/conduct/home/regapproval/humanethics/index.php

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Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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