Madeleine Pastinelli, ethnologist and a tenured professor in the Department of Sociology at Université Laval, sits on the executive committee of the Syndicat des professeurs et professeures de l'Université Laval (SPUL) as secretary. She recently wrote a report based on the testimonies of several Laval University professors regarding the challenges they face in their interactions with research ethics boards (REBs). She is the spokesperson for SPUL in the ongoing negotiations with Laval University.
What role do Research Ethics Boards (REBs) play in publicly funded universities and why did you become interested in them?
An REB is an independent committee that ensures that the ethical requirements of research projects are met. REBs review the potential risks and benefits of research and ensure that the approach of the researcher, whether a professor, student, post-doctoral researcher, or others, is consistent with a set of general principles. They make sure that those involved in the research, or the populations affected by it aren’t exposed to unnecessary or disproportionate risks in relation to the benefits that can be expected from the research. All Canadian institutions that conduct or support research are required by the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS2) to have one or more REBs that review and
approve research proposals before they are implemented.
A consultation conducted by our union with its members some ten years ago revealed a high level of dissatisfaction with REBs. More recently, there has been a significant increase in complaints to the union from faculty about the overly restrictive nature of REB requirements, which led us to conduct a consultation with our members to shed light on the situation and see in what ways the interventions of REBs were limiting colleagues' academic freedom.
What obstacles do academic staff face when dealing with REBs and how has SPUL responded?
Scholars' testimonies are incredibly detailed and emotional, and almost all respondents asked to remain anonymous, largely for fear of retaliation. The problems encountered by colleagues are many and vary. In some cases, the REBs’ interventions concern aspects that have nothing to do with research ethics, such as the scientific relevance of the project and various methodological elements (e.g., choice of survey method, questionnaires, analysis grids, timelines, etc.); research budgets; the expertise or discipline of the researchers; intellectual property agreements with funding agencies, among others.
In many cases, the problem is that REBs reject research practices that are considered acceptable and relevant by the TCPS2. These problems are particularly important in the case of inductive approaches as, in this type of approach, it isn’t always easy to determine where the research will lead before beginning data collection. The researcher cannot always anticipate the questions they will ask respondents in the survey, and many elements of the data collection may change long the way. The REBs at Laval University (CERUL) refuse to approve research practices that imply that the research objectives and survey questions are not clearly defined at the outset or are likely to change. The REBs also refuse to allow researchers to solicit respondents directly, which is inevitable with some approaches. These problems have led many faculty to stop conducting field research altogether. Many say that they strongly discourage their students from conducting this type of research as it has become impossible.
How do Research Ethics Boards (REBs) use the TCPS2 ethics framework?
The problem is not the TCPS2 ethical framework or the principles or rules it contains, but rather the overly restrictive way it is interpreted and applied. We’ve found that REBs take a very rigid legalistic stance, as if guided by a desire to protect the university (or the ethics committee) from liability rather than seeking to protect the public interest. REBs are overly cautious, imposing more onerous requirements on researchers than the TCPS2 and not hesitating to impose standardized requirements in areas where they should make a caseby-case assessment and tailor their requirements to the level of risk involved in the research.
What consequences do these challenges pose for academics, post-secondary education and for society?
Long waiting times and fussy requirements that stem from a legalistic perspective exhaust researchers and sometimes lead them to abandon certain relevant methods. Some take sick leave and others simply give up collecting original data. More generally, the excessive caution of the REBs hinders the creativity of researchers who are encouraged to stick to more conventional approaches and avoid thinking outside the box. This limits the potential for advancing knowledge, which is needed to solve pressing problems.
Based on your observations, what solutions do you propose?
I think the problem is that we are only concerned about the risks of research without considering the consequences of unnecessarily restricting research practices. There are several ways to improve the functioning of REBs: make the process of recruiting and selecting REB members more collegial and transparent; create an appeal body that is independent of universities at the national or provincial levels and that could set the tone for acceptable interpretations of the TCPS2; transfer responsibility for training REB members to the Advisory Panel on Research Ethics; and, educate REB members about their responsibility to address the risks and consequences of undue or unnecessary limitations on research practices.
A central factor would be to affirm much more strongly the importance of academic freedom in the TCPS2, as well as the often-unpredictable nature of the advancement of knowledge and the benefits that can be derived from research. Finally, the composition of REBs should be revised to include at least one person with expertise in academic freedom and limit the emphasis on legal expertise or persons with legal knowledge on REBs.