by Lise Doucette
Assistant Librarian, University of Western Ontario
Researchers at Canadian universities must follow the research ethics guidelines set out by the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (aka TCPS2), and this of course includes academic librarian and archivists who are conducting research. TCPS2 was developed by the Panel of Research Ethics, a group created by the three federal research agencies (SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR) and composed of Canadian researchers.
TCPS2 guidelines are based on three interdependent and complementary principles: respect for persons, concern for welfare, and justice. Respect for persons involves respecting the autonomy of potential and actual participants, and seeking free, ongoing, and informed consent. Concern for welfare includes minimizing risks to participants, and providing potential participants with enough information about risks so that they can make an informed decision about their participation. Justice means treating people fairly and equitably, and designing the study such that processes like recruiting practices and inclusion criteria do not unfairly include or exclude certain groups (in particular, vulnerable groups).
Many academic librarians and archivists have practitioner, research, and service responsibilities. So how does research ethics relate to each of these roles?
As an individual researcher
It’s likely that at some point in your career you’ll want to do research involving students, faculty, or other librarians/archivists, using methods like interviews, surveys, or observational research. Before beginning your research, you must obtain approval from your research ethics board by submitting an application with details of your research project and methodology based on the board’s guidelines. Universities generally have two research ethics boards (for medical and non-medical research) comprised primarily of researchers at that institution, as well as research ethics officers and administrative staff.
The two most important things I recommend as a researcher: first, learn how to write a good research ethics application. Consult with colleagues who have previously submitted successful applications, and follow the board’s guidelines carefully. Make it exceedingly clear to the board what potential participants will experience in your study. Second, build the research ethics approval process into your timeline. When you’re excited about your research project, you want to get started, and it can be frustrating to be waiting for approval. Plan ahead as much as possible – for example, if you want to interview undergraduate students, submitting your ethics application in March may mean that it’s approved just as students are in the April exam period and then leaving for the summer. Work backwards from your desired study date and build in extra time for the ethics approval process.
As a member of the academic community at your institution
At some universities, librarians and archivists have a seat on the non-medical research ethics board. This is a great service opportunity. By serving on the board at Western for two years, I learned a lot about the amount of thought and care board members put into reviewing the applications from the potential participants’ viewpoints, as well as what types of issues regularly require revision in order to be approved. After reviewing and providing feedback on dozens of applications, I also learned what kind of language (concise and clear!) makes these applications easy for board members to read – remember that board members will be reviewing applications from researchers in many disciplines. It can be a fascinating and rewarding experience that will help you to better design your own research studies to meet ethical requirements.
If your university doesn’t have a seat on the board for librarians or archivists, consider approaching the research ethics office or the Chair of the non-medical research ethics board to discuss the possibility. Some groups (such as librarians/archivists and other academic departments in my own institution) have multiple people assigned to the same seat. With 12 meetings of the board per year, four librarian or archivist members each attend three of the meetings per year and also review delegated (low-risk) applications outside of meetings.
As a practitioner
As practitioners, especially those of us who do work related to assessment or user experience, we often conduct studies in our own libraries to better understand our users and make improvements to our online and physical spaces and services. TCPS2 states that “quality assurance and quality improvement studies … do not constitute research for the purposes of this Policy, and do not fall within the scope of REB review” (TCPS2 Article 2.5). This means that studies undertaken to make improvements to library services or resources, when there is no intention of publishing and sharing the results more widely, do not need to be reviewed by the research ethics board
In such situations, I would encourage colleagues to set the same ethical standards for themselves for internal studies as they do for more formal research projects, and to apply the concepts of respect for persons, concern for welfare, and justice to their recruitment and methodology. Thinking through these concepts as they apply to different aspects of your study will help you design a better study and feel more confident that human participants are being treated ethically.
• Read the policy: Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans
• Your local research ethics board may require that you complete TCPS2 training before becoming a board member or before submitting a research ethics application. It’s freely accessible online, and the exercises are based on realistic research situations: https://tcps2core.ca/
• Read this previous Brainwork post: Ethics are for Everyone
• Read books about research ethics (here’s a list of suggestions)
• Pick up any social sciences research methods textbook – there should be a chapter on research ethics
This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.