Canadians push research ethics in undergraduate classes

New guidelines for undergraduates to properly treat their study subjects fuels debate over net gain for science

三月 11, 2022
Woman researcher in biotechnology laboratory pipetting genetic material
Source: iStock

A Canadian research association has published guidelines for the ethical conduct of undergraduate research, reviving a simmering debate over whether such rules do more to discourage scientific exploration than to improve it.

The framework – which was developed by the Quebec-based Association for College Research, working with federal funding – aims to give instructors step-by-step pathways for teaching students who interview human subjects.

Its authors are advisers at four of Quebec’s junior colleges, known as Cégeps, and their work is intended as an undergraduate-relevant summary of the government’s complex rules on key ethical issues in research, such as obtaining informed consent from test subjects and ensuring the confidentiality of their responses.

Its advocates include Karen Robson, an associate professor of sociology at McMaster University who has long argued that government guidelines on research ethics – especially with the most recent revision in 2018 by the federal Panel on Research Ethics – have grown in complexity to the point of becoming counterproductive.

That problem is clear in the realm of undergraduate classrooms, Dr Robson said, complaining that she had felt forced in recent years to abandon her own in-class research projects “because of the excessive amount of forms and red tape needed to actually make it possible”.

“Even low-risk research – ‘ask your classmate their favourite colour’ – is considered something to go to a full board review,” with 15-page application forms, she said. “I firmly believe in applied learning,” Dr Robson said, but government rules are “making that impossible if you have anything else to do in your life”.

The Cégeps authors appear to recognise that, she said, as their guidelines amount to a toolkit for making decisions about classroom ethics within each campus. The implicit message was that the federal government’s complicated ethics structure “doesn’t need to get involved in these minor research projects that are supervised by college instructors”, Dr Robson said.

The Cégeps guidelines also enjoy support – albeit of a different kind – from Carolyn Ells, an associate professor of medicine at McGill University who led the 2018 revision while serving as chair of the federal Panel on Research Ethics.

The panel is a creation of Canada’s three federal research funding agencies, and its 2018 overhaul did confront the question of whether its ethics rules should also be applied to classroom practices. The panel initially agreed with the idea of leaving such assessments to leaders within each university, Dr Ells said, but it eventually shifted course in response to widespread demand.

“Our panel got a loud message from our public consultation,” including from many experts in higher education, she said.

From that perspective, Dr Ells said, the Cégeps-authored guidelines were a welcome reinforcement of the need for classroom instructors to abide by the federal framework. “I think it’s very cool because there’s been very little attention given to undergraduate course-based activity,” she said.

“It’s not a replacement for” the federal rules, Dr Ells continued, “but it’s a way to synthesise the information down to these kinds of key points.”

That help is especially important at the level of the Cégeps and other junior-level institutions that do not have in-house faculty who have experience of working with federal ethics rules, she said.

The Cégeps-authored guidelines themselves leave room for interpretation in either direction. The authors clearly state the need to subject all course-based research activities to a review, to affirm compliance with the 2018 federal rules. Yet they also note that campus-based ethics specialists should take “a proportionate approach to ethics review and may delegate the review of projects involving minimal risk”.



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Reader's comments (1)

Students doing final year projects in computer science here are required to seek ethical approval for any studies they wish to do involving other people: knowledge elicitation, focus groups, user studies, questionnaires, etc. They are asked to prepare a participant information sheet and consent form, and provide the questions to be asked. This is good discipline - and gives an opportunity to help them develop meaningful questions that will provide useful data into the bargain.