Can I conduct research where colleagues will be the participants? Or where my students will be the participants?

The TCPS2(2018) Article 3 [3.1] requires that participants must give voluntary consent to take part in research and further specifies that

Undue influence and manipulation may arise when prospective participants are recruited by individuals in a position of authority. The influence of power relationships (e.g., employers and employees, teachers and students, commanding officers and members of the military or correctional officers and prisoners) on the voluntariness of consent should be judged from the perspective of prospective participants, since the individuals being recruited may feel constrained to follow the wishes of those who have some form of control over them. This control may be physical, psychological, financial or professional, for example, and may involve offering some form of inducement or threatening some form of deprivation. In such situations, the control exerted in a power relationship may place undue pressure on the prospective participants. At the extreme, there can be no voluntariness if consent is secured by the order of authorities.

The REB and the University of Guelph is reviewing an increasing number of protocols that entail research involving colleagues or competitors, particularly in the context of private corporations. There are three primary issues at stake with respect to this type of researcher under the provisions of the TCPS. These are questions of

  • Voluntariness
  • Privacy and confidentiality
  • Conflict of interest

The concerns have to do with:

  • whether or not potential participants will feel free to refuse to participate in the research of a colleague
  • whether it is appropriate for a researcher to have access to certain information about his/her colleagues or competitors
  • whether current or future relationships within the institutional framework could represent a conflict of interest based on information acquired in the course of research.

A researcher who is employed outside the university must declare on the REB Application:

  • their affiliation with the University of Guelph and the other organization
  • their relationship with their prospective participants.

Questions which should be addressed include:

  • Is there a power imbalance between the participant and the researcher (either actual or perceived)?
  • Is the participant a business competitor?
  • Is there a direct, formal report between the participant and the researcher?
  • Is it REASONABLE to expect that there could be a future relationship—either a power imbalance or a direct report—between the participant and the researcher?

To address this situation, the REB may suggest one or more solutions such as:

  • That the relationship/status of the researcher be declared in the consent document
  • That the research be done anonymously
  • That recruitment be carried out by a disinterested third party
  • That the research be carried out by a disinterested third party who can anonymize the results prior to releasing them to the researcher.

Some suggestions on anonymous research:

  • A web based survey administered through a secure website
  • That participants be warned about using a networked computer
  • A paper and pencil survey delivered in an unmarked envelope

If a participant does not feel comfortable providing consent, they may feel they cannot be ‘truthful’ in their responses, thus data collected may not be as valuable as it might be if the participant felt comfortable to freely express themselves. Regardless of the nature of the relationship between the researcher and the participant it is ESSENTIAL that potential participants be notified of the social risk in divulging information to colleagues or competitors, and they must be informed as to how the researcher intends to mitigate those risks.

Support info
Area: 
Human Ethics
Category: 
Recruitment and Consent