Research is a fundamental purpose of the university. It is understood that academic freedom to conduct research "carries with it the responsibility to undertake research that is based on an honest search for truth," [SSHRC Policies: Ethics Guidelines - Research with Human Subjects - FAQs, from the Tri-Council Policy Statement web page], and on respect for human dignity. Academic integrity assumes high standards of research ethics.
In recent years, research ethics has achieved a higher profile as a result of a greater social emphasis on human rights, and because of well-publicized breaches of research ethics at some prominent institutions.
Although some of the more publicized debates about research ethics centre around genetic research and the pure and applied sciences, those conducting research involving humans in the social sciences and humanities are similarly beholden to principles of research ethics.
In 1994, the three major public research funding bodies in Canada -- the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) -- began a consultation process to develop a common ethics policy statement. In 1998, this process culminated in the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. The three councils adopted this policy as their common standard for ethical conduct, and they required that as a condition of funding, researchers and their institutions apply the ethical principles of this policy. York University, along with all other universities in Canada, has agreed to abide by the Tri-Council ethics principles.
The National Council on Ethics in Human Research (NCEHR) was established in 1995, and since the adoption of the Tri-Council ethics guidelines it has provided evaluation services to institutions that wish to gauge their compliance with the Tri-Council ethics principles. (NCEHR's coordinating committee is composed of the Presidents of the SSHRC, NSERC, MRC, NCEHR, the Deputy Minister of Health Canada, and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.) In September of 1999, a review committee of the NCEHR visited York University, at the university's invitation, to evaluate the procedures designed to ensure compliance with the Tri-Council ethics principles. The committee held a number of public meetings, and faculty members in the Faculty of Arts were actively involved in these meetings. The NCEHR review committee concluded that the process established by York's Human Participants Review Sub-Committee for reviewing funded research and non-funded high risk research was reasonably satisfactory. However, the review committee had concerns about the adequacy of procedures for ensuring compliance with the Tri-Council ethics principles regarding non-funded minimal risk research (which includes student research projects). The various faculties at York, in consultation with York's Human Participants Review Committee and the Senate Committee on Research, have therefore developeed more adequate procedures for ensuring compliance with the basic principles of ethics in research.
Please consult your professor about appropriate ethics procedures before interviewing anyone as part of a student research project, whether you are a graduate or undergraduate student. If you are a graduate student, see: Faculty of Graduate Studies Ethics Guidelines.
The Tri-Council Ethics Statement
Following is a condensed version of the Tri-Council ethics statement, prepared by Ian Greene. The full statement of these principles can be obtained from the Office of Research Administration, the Centre for Practical Ethics, or on the web at: http://www.sshrc.ca/english/programinfo/policies.
1. Respect for Human Dignity: The cardinal principle of modern research ethics is respect for human dignity. This principle aspires to protecting the multiple and interdependent interests of the person -- from bodily to psychological to cultural integrity. This principle forms the basis of the ethical obligations in research that are listed below. It is unacceptable to treat persons solely as means (mere objects or things), because doing so fails to respect their intrinsic human dignity and thus impoverishes all of humanity. Second, the welfare and integrity of the individual remain paramount in human research.
2. Respect for Free and Informed Consent: Individuals are generally presumed to have the capacity and right to make free and informed decisions. Respect for persons thus means respecting the exercise of individual consent. The principle of respect for persons translates into the process and requirements for free and informed consent by the research subject.
3. Respect for Vulnerable Persons: Respect for human dignity entails high ethical obligations towards vulnerable persons -- to those whose diminished competence and/or decision-making capacity make them vulnerable. Children, institutionalized persons or others who are vulnerable are entitled, on grounds of human dignity, caring and fairness, to special protection against abuse, exploitation or discrimination. Ethical obligations to vulnerable individuals in the research enterprise will often translate into special procedures to protect their interests.
4. Respect for Privacy and Confidentiality: Respect for human dignity also implies the principles of respect for privacy and confidentiality. Privacy and confidentiality are considered fundamental to human dignity. Thus, standards of privacy and confidentiality protect the access, control and dissemination of personal information. In doing so, such standards help to protect mental or psychological integrity.
5. Respect for Justice and Inclusiveness: Justice connotes fairness and equity, and concerns the distribution of benefits and burdens of research. On the one hand, distributive justice means that no segment of the population should be unfairly burdened with the harms of research. It thus imposes particular obligations toward individuals who are vulnerable and unable to protect their own interests in order to ensure that they are not exploited for the advancement of knowledge. On the other hand, distributive justice also imposes duties neither to neglect nor discriminate against individuals and groups who may benefit from advances in research.
6. Balancing Harms and Benefits: The analysis, balance and distribution of harms and benefits are critical to the ethics of human research. Modern research ethics, for instance, require a favourable harms-benefit balance -- that is, that the foreseeable harms should not outweigh anticipated benefits.
7. Minimizing Harm: Research subjects must not be subjected to unnecessary risks of harm, and their participation in research must be essential to achieving scientifically and societally important aims that cannot be realized without the participation of human subjects. In addition, it should be kept in mind that the principle of minimizing harm requires that the research involve the smallest number of human subjects and the smallest number of tests on these subjects that will ensure scientifically valid data.
For the full Tri-Council ethics policy, see: tri-council policy statement.