Ethical Research Involving Humans

Published on: 1 Aug 2009

Comments on the Draft of Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Research Involving Humans

Ms. Susan Zimmerman, Executive Director

Interagency Secretariat on Research Ethics
350 Albert Street, Ottawa
K1A 1H5

Dear Ms. Zimmerman,

I am writing to comment on the draft of Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Research Involving Humans, 2nd Edition (December 2008). I do so as President of the Canadian Historical Association. Founded in 1922, the CHA is a bilingual organization with 1,200 members scattered across Canada, the United States and the rest of the world, dedicated to scholarship in all fields of history. It serves professional historians but membership is open to anyone with an interest in history. The CHA represents the interests of historians and the heritage community to government, archives, granting and other agencies; organizes conferences; publishes the best of Canadian historical scholarship; and awards a range of prizes to historians who have produced exceptional work.

As the leading scholarly organization of historians in Canada, the Canadian Historical Association assumes an advocacy role regarding issues of concern to its members and other practitioners interested in advancing the discipline of history in Canada. To this end, the CHA fosters the study of history by encouraging the accessibility and delivery of funding programs and research services to historians; provides guidance to historians on best practices in scholarship and teaching; supports the human rights of historians; and encourages the diversity of both the practitioners and the subject matter of historical studies in Canada.

In general, the CHA is supportive of the changes that have been made in the second edition and consider it a very good policy paper. In particular, we appreciate how the TCPS-2:

That said, we do have some two broad concerns about the Policy Statement.

Conflict of best practices: Some of the provisions regarding privacy and confidentiality contained in Chapter 5 of the TCPS-2 conflict with the rules of best practice for oral history and with the nature of historical inquiry more generally.

Specifically, for oral historians anonymity is the exception to the rules of best practice. As Nancy Janovicek argued in a 2006 article in the Journal of Academic Ethics, “[t]he TCPS does not reflect historians’ ethics and professional concerns. Instead, it presents new dilemmas and criteria that have little to do with moral issues that historians face in the field. The policy’s assertion that privacy and confidentiality is an essential precondition for human dignity conflicts with social historians’ goal to highlight the contributions that ordinary people make in social and political life. Its emphasis on reducing harm has compelled some REBs to demand that researchers refrain from asking questions about sensitive issues. This seriously restricts historical inquiry into private life. Moreover, the preference for ethical practices outlined in the TCPS undermines the methods practiced by oral historians.” Janovicek shows that the TCPS rules are counterproductive in the case of individuals and communities who find anonymity offensive to their religion and culture, as in the case of some Mennonites and First Nations. Overall, she argues the policies have created a “chilling climate.”6

The new version of TCPS does not address any of these concerns in any major way. The assumption in the TCPS-2 is that anonymous data is the most preferable, followed by data that is anonymized at the earliest opportunity.7 In addition, there is also an assumption that the research value of the data collected lies solely in its aggregation, from which broad patterns can be discerned.

These two assumptions are deeply problematic for oral historians, whose main goal is to document and archive the lives of individuals, rather than groups. Focussing on individuals allows historians to explore fissures within groups and to map the changing boundaries of “community,” treating it as something that is actively made and deployed in a particular social, political, and economic context, rather than a pre-existing given.8 Moreover, identifying individuals is the only way historians can give power a face: insisting on anonymity means that we will not be able to hold individuals accountable for their actions, nor will we be able to acknowledge the variety of effects the exercise of power by certain people over others has had.

In other words, what the TCPS-2 calls “critical inquiry” is at the heart of much historical research. Yet this kind of inquiry is not a focal point of the document. Research involving critical inquiry seems to be exempted from the oversight of REBs in some places (lines 288ff; lines 960ff; and lines 3532ff). But because there is no extensive discussion of it, or of oral history or historical research generally (see comments below), it is unclear how REBs are to treat such research.

Historians recognize that there will be situations where individuals wish to or must, because of their circumstances, remain anonymous. The rules of best practice for oral history call on researchers to make the option for anonymity known to participants, as part of the discussion around the nature and conditions of their consent.9 Nevertheless, anonymity is the exception to the general rule of disclosure in oral history; ideally, individuals will be identifiable by name.

Casting qualitative research as exceptional puts individuals undertaking such research – like historians – in the position of asking for exemptions from REBs. REBs, like all administrative tribunals, are likely to look on requests for an exemption from the guidelines with suspicion, making the bar higher for those undertaking qualitative research higher – simply because of the kind of research they are doing, not its quality. Not only will historians have to demonstrate the soundness of their particular research designs, but they will also have to establish that the norms of their professional practice are legitimate. In our view, this places an undue burden on our profession and on all those engaged in qualitative research.

Finally, the category of “qualitative research” is itself problematic, as it contains a broad range of research methodologies and questions. While the inclusion of a separate chapter devoted to it acknowledges that qualitative research is different, the scope of research it attempts to survey makes it difficult for the authors to provide much in the way of direction. As a result, the chapter does little to clarify how qualitative research should be treated by REBs. In the end, the TCPS-2 simply says that qualitative research is messy; that it cannot be tightly regulated; and that it will be left to the REBs to adjudicate. But in the absence of clear guidelines in the TCPS-2 pertaining to qualitative research – indeed, in the absence of a full and deep understanding of the nature of such research – REBs will be forced to fall back on the guidelines designed for clinical and quantitative research that make up the majority of TCPS-2.

It seems that the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics wishes to keep qualitative research and critical inquiry of the kind pursued by historians under its purview, while acknowledging that it should be exempted from many of the provisions contained in the TCPS-2. Beyond those exemptions it does not offer much in the way of guidelines other than a basic message to “be good.”

If historical research is to be subject to a review board, then it is necessary to have some clear, precise rules specifically designed for oral history research. If the Panel cannot formulate such rules or guidelines, then perhaps it should not impose institutional review on such research, as is the case in the United States.


The Canadian Historical Association respectfully suggests that at a minimum, the Advisory Panel make the following specific revisions:

More broadly and fundamentally, we urge the Advisory Panel to consider the position of the Oral History Association (US) which since 2003 has argued that oral history should be excluded from institutional review boards.11 It is a position that the US Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP) agrees with.

In closing, let me reiterate that despite our concerns, the Canadian Historical Association considers TCPS-2 a good document; and certainly an improvement on the first edition. We acknowledge the challenges the Interagency Panel faces in formulating a single policy to cover ever-broadening range of research contexts, methodologies, and questions. We welcome the opportunity to consult further with Panel to make the TCPS-2 a document that is responsive to the nature of historical practice and the need to have guidelines for ethical conduct in research involving humans.


Mary Lynn Stewart

President, Canadian Historical Association / Société historique du Canada

1 Lines 185-6.

2 Chapter 9 generally.

3 Regarding consent: “The ethical recruitment of participants in human research goes beyond an evaluation of autonomy, which often seems to focus primarily on whether an adult person has signed a consent form” (lines 114-116); “In assessing consent, much emphasis has been placed on the signing of a consent form. Consent, however, may be evidenced in many equally legitimate ways. The primary focus of ethical concern should be on the quality of the consent, and not on how it is documented” (lines 672-4 and also Article 3.12); and “written consent is not the norm in qualitative research” (line 1272).

4 Lines 4175ff.

5 Lines 1635ff.

6 Nancy Janovicek, “Oral History and Ethical Practice: Towards Effective Policies and Procedures,” Journal of Academic Ethics 4 (2006): 157 74, 157, 160 1, 163,

7 Lines 1544ff.

8 The historians of aboriginal peoples we consulted have concerns about the concept of “community” in the TCPS-2 (Chapter 9, in particular; but also Chapters 3 and 8). Although “community” is defined flexibly in the document, there are instances where there may not be enough flexibility or clarity. For instance, someone doing research on Aboriginal youth gangs might find that the community and leadership that the youth most identified with was the gang and its leaders. How would the researcher get the sort of community approval Chapter 9 requires? Would the researcher be expected to do work that benefits the gang, as many clauses in the TCPS-2 suggest when it comes to community overview and capacity building?

9 The Principles and Standards of the Oral History Association puts it this way: “Interviewers should guard against possible exploitation of interviewees and be sensitive to the ways in which their interviews might be used. Interviewers must respect the rights of interviewees to refuse to discuss certain subjects, to restrict access to the interview, or, under Guidelines extreme circumstances, even to choose anonymity. Interviewers should clearly explain these options to all interviewees.”


11 It appears that oral history has been exempted in the US because of a technicality: the Department of Health and Human Services defines research as “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” Since oral history is not considered research of that type then it is exempt from the regulations. But research is defined differently in Canada; although it must be pointed out that TCPS-2 does not contain a clear definition of research other than the "search for knowledge" (line 5).

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