Quite simply, not all research needs approval by an institutional research ethics board. For Example, UBC’s Policy LR2 outlines the various requirements of conducting research at UBC (if you are not at UBC, your institution’s ethics review board likely has similar guidelines). In the case of social research, however, UBC’s human research policy LR9 provides the stipulations relevant to whether your work will need approval. These guidelines are consistent across post-secondary institutions in Canada. Table 3.1 summarizes this.
|Table 3.1 - Does Your Research Need Ethical Review?|
|Does Not Need Review||Needs Behavioral Ethics Review|
|Research that relies exclusively on publicly available information, either:
Or research that uses naturalistic observation, which means that it:
|Any research that involves human participants is defined as, “individuals whose data, or responses to interventions, stimuli, or questions by a researcher are gathered or utilized for the purposes of a research project” (1.1).
This includes interviews:
|Source: University Council (2015).https://universitycounsel-2015.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2021/10/Human-Research-Policy_LR9.pdfUBC’s human research policy LR9|
Research that needs ethics approval is defined as any research that involves “human participants” (7.6): which are defined as “individuals whose data, or responses to interventions, stimuli or questions by a researcher are gathered or utilized for the purposes of a Research project” (University Council, 2015). This implies any research in which an individual is directly sought after, intervened with, and marked according to their response. It includes interviews, surveys, and many types of action research. According to UBC’s code of ethics, this definition does not include:
7.10.3 – Research that relies exclusively on publicly available information when such information: (i) is made accessible to the public through legislation and regulation, and is therefore appropriately protected by law, or (ii) is disseminated in the public domain (e.g. through print or electronic publications), may contain identifiable information, and for which there is no reasonable expectation of privacy (University Council, 2015, p.6);
Nor research that:
7.10.4 – Research involving the observation of individuals or groups in public places so long as: (i) the research does not involve any intervention staged by the researcher or any direct interaction between the researchers and the individuals or groups; (ii) the individuals or groups being observed have no reasonable expectation of privacy; and (iii) the dissemination of research results from such observation does not allow identification of specific individuals; and 7.10.5 Research that relies exclusively on Secondary Use of Anonymous information or Anonymous materials, so long as the process of data linkage or recording or dissemination of the Research results does not generate information about an identifiable individual (University Council, 2015, p.6).
This means that ethnographic observation that does not interfere with the subject, nor intrude on a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” does not need approval. Likewise, the secondary use of anonymous information, say through a literature review of analysis of bathroom stall scribbles, does not require approval. Use of public information, as on Facebook, Instagram, or through media articles, also does not require approval. Nonetheless, you should always consult with your supervisor and your REB before you engage in any kind of research.
Box 3.1 – Is Review Needed for Secondary Data?
Many students incorrectly assume that the use of secondary data excuse them from ethics review. Below are some guidance from the Tri-Council Policy Statement 2018:
Secondary use refers to the use in research of information originally collected for a purpose other than the current research purpose. Common examples are social science or health survey data sets that are collected for specific research or statistical purposes but then re-used to answer other research questions. Information initially collected for program evaluation may be useful for subsequent research (TPS, 2018, p. 64)
Privacy concerns and questions about the need to seek consent arise when information provided for secondary use in research can be linked to individuals, and when the possibility exists that individuals can be identified in published reports, or through data linkage (Article 5.7). Privacy legislation recognizes these concerns and permits secondary use of identifiable information under certain circumstances (TPS, 2018, p. 64-5)
Article 5.5A Researchers who have not obtained consent from participants for secondary use of identifiable information shall only use such information for these purposes if they have satisfied the REB that:
- identifiable information is essential to the research;
- the use of identifiable information without the participants’ consent is unlikely to adversely affect the welfare of individuals to whom the information relates;
- the researchers will take appropriate measures to protect the privacy of individuals and to safeguard the identifiable information;
- the researchers will comply with any known preferences previously expressed by individuals about any use of their information;
- it is impossible or impracticable (see Glossary) to seek consent from individuals to whom the information relates;
- the researchers have obtained any other necessary permission for secondary use of information for research purposes.
If a researcher satisfies all the conditions in Article 5.5A(a) to (f), the REB may approve the research without requiring consent from the individuals to whom the information relates (TPS, 2018, p. 64-5)
Article 5.5B – Researchers shall seek REB review, but are not required to seek participant consent, for research that relies exclusively on the secondary use of non identifiable information.
The onus will be on the researcher to establish to the satisfaction of the REB that, in the context of the proposed research, the information to be used can be considered non-identifiable for all practical purposes (TPS, 2018, p. 66)
For further guidance on the use of secondary data, please see Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans –TPS 2 (2018)
TPS. (2018). Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans –TPS 2 2018 https://ethics.gc.ca/eng/policy-politique_tcps2-eptc2_2018.html
University Council (2015). UBC’s human research policy LR9 . https://universitycounsel-2015.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2021/10/Human-Research-Policy_LR9.pdf