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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2016

Book review / The ethics rupture: Exploring alternatives to formal research ethics review

by Robin Whitaker

EthicsRupture-BKWill C. van den Hoonaard & Ann Hamilton (eds). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2016; 480 pp; ISBN: 978-1-44262-608-9.

Earlier this year I was complaining to a colleague that my university would not let me submit a project for ethics review until I completed the Tri-Council Policy Statement2 (TCPS2) Course on Research Ethics. I had shepherded a proposal through the review process only months earlier. Why was I being subjected to remedial instruction on the TCPS2? My colleague advised me not to sweat it. You don’t have to get the answers right to “pass.” Just click through and register your completion certificate. 

These reactions — frustration and compliance — index some of the problems with the current system of social science ethics review identified in The Ethics Rupture. The book collates contributions from the international ethics summit held in Fredericton in 2012, best known for producing the New Brunswick Declaration on Research Ethics. As the editors drily summarize: “Mandating researchers to submit their research plans to ethics committees before gathering any data involving humansis often not a joyful or productive one for either party.”         

With 22 chapters organized around four themes, I can only gesture toward the extensive ground this book covers. Robert Dingwall leads Part I, a cluster of chapters on “Strains in Research Ethics Review Processes.” Among others, these strains include steady expansion of the review system and researchers’ tendency to uncritical compliance — at least in public. Part II highlights problems facing scholars using new methodologies: internet research and auto-ethnography as well as the critical challenge of incorporating Aboriginal values and perspectives.

Still, as others show, even established approaches face barriers. Rena Lederman and Patricia Adler and Peter Adler describe such a mismatch between ethnographic research and existing ethics codes that many ethnographers feel compelled to choose between abandoning core disciplinary methods, misrepresenting what they actually plan to do, or simply not applying for clearance. The latter strategies can be risky, however. Adler and Adler cite cases where universities penalized scholars for mere suspicion of protocol violation when no harm to research participants was even alleged.         

Lacking security and time, graduate students and junior scholars are especially vulnerable, as Lisa-Jo Kestin van den Scott documents. Students often equate ethics with the review process and its rules rather than engaging in substantive discussions about ethical dilemmas. While many ethics codes — TCPS2 included — explicitly recognize that such exclusions perpetuate larger injustices, the overriding need to “get through” the process encourages new scholars to avoid entire groups, topics and methods. Similarly, Marco Marzano warns that the demand for “informed consent” has created a chilly climate for critical ethnographies of social conflict and of elites.         

Van den Scott’s is one of five chapters in Part III “Analysis of Change: When Superficiality Displaces Substance,” a section title that captures Kirsten Bell’s and Igor Gontcharov’s gloomy assessment of the revisions to the original
Tri-Council Policy Statement reflected in the TCPS2. Part IV explores “Solutions.” Alongside suggestions for making the process more inclusive and less adversarial, contributors variously propose: scrapping a one-code-fits-all approach in favour of disciplinary pluralism; tipping the balance of assessment toward the potential benefits of research instead of its possible risks; and even “wholesale exemption” from review for non-therapeutic research in the social sciences and humanities. Finally, Ron Iphofen, while arguing that researchers should be presumed capable of conducting research with integrity,reminds us that professional associations can help social scientists resist pressure from corporate employers and funders to behave unethically.         

Bell observes that the ethics review system is now so thoroughly entrenched that meaningful change will take major struggle.However, she adds, “such change has become thinkable” in a new way, and “we should not let this opportunity pass us by.” Beyond mere diagnosis of the “collective worries” plaguing social scientists in diverse countries, The Ethics Rupture makes a compelling call to action. If heeded, both the social sciences and wider society will be better off.


Robin Whitaker is an associate professor of anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland.