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Past Interpretations of the TCPS

Subject Institutional Permission to Conduct Research
Keywords academic freedom, permission/organizational consent, authorization, exceptions to consent, critical research, organizations, corporations, governments
TCPS Articles 1.5, 1.14, 2.1, 2.2
Date November 2004

PDF Institutional Permission to Conduct Research.pdf

1. This is in response to your question about institutional permission to conduct research under the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS). You ask whether it is consistent with the TCPS for a university to require researchers to seek the “permission” of an outside organization when conducting research that is located on the premises of the outside organization, or that involves patients, employees, or students of that organization. You mentioned an existing policy that requires this, and that has raised questions about academic freedom.

2. Your question has been referred to the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) for guidance on applying the TCPS1. PRE found no uniform, broad principle of organizational consent in the TCPS. Indeed, the TCPS outlines an exception to general consent norms for critical research about organizations. PRE feels that a Research Ethics Board (REB) policy that does not recognize and apply this exception ignores an important principle of the TCPS.

Institutional Responsibilities and Accountability

3. You refer to a university’s responsibilities for the ethical conduct of its research, as described in article 1.14 of the TCPS. While article 1.14 addresses research conducted in foreign countries, its spirit encompasses all research conducted outside the institution. The commentary to the article says that “an institution is responsible for the ethical conduct of research undertaken by its faculty, staff or students regardless of the location where the research is conducted.” The responsibility is implemented in part by REB review of research that may be conducted in various organizations.

Consent/Authorization2 of Research, and its Exceptions

4. Much, but not all, of the research undertaken in organizations across Canada is likely conducted with the explicit or implicit authorization, acquiescence or cooperation of the institution. Collaboration is often essential to the effective conduct of research, to facilitate recruitment of participants, to enable organizations to fulfill their ethical duties, to coordinate logistical and operational aspects of research3, to respect applicable laws, etc. When individual participants are involved, the ethical principle of respect of persons generally requires their voluntary and informed consent. As noted below, the TCPS contains no such general requirement for consent from organizations. Respectful conduct toward organizations sometimes involves seeking institutional collaboration and authorization4. Section 2 of the TCPS outlines the standards, rationales for, and exceptions to informed consent.

5. The following is part of a response we made recently about informed consent related to research in a community sports complex:

The general requirement serves many purposes, such as (1) respecting the dignity of potential research participants; (2) protecting their physical, mental and cultural integrity; (3) furthering informed decision-making about the risks and benefits of research via a continuing dialogue over the research process; and (4) promoting a partnered approach between researchers and participants…

The purposes, functions and underlying values of free and informed consent are not absolute, however. They sometimes compete with other implicated societal needs and values, which is why the TCPS recognizes limited exceptions to the general requirement. PRE would emphasize that such exceptions tend to be well-defined and narrowly construed, so as to effect the basic purposes of the general requirement of informed consent. Alterations to the consent process or waivers of consent are some of the recognized, narrow exceptions. Thus, under article 2.1(c) of the TCPS, an REB may consider approving an altered consent procedure, or may waive the requirement of informed consent…

6. How, under the TCPS, do these authorization/consent issues balance with concerns about researchers' responsibilities in organizational research? The commentary to article 2.1 suggests a response.

Consent is not required from organizations such as corporations or governments for research about their institutions. However, individuals who are approached to participate in a research project about their organization have the right to give free and informed consent. In particular, they should be fully informed about the views of the organization’s authorities, if these are known, and of the possible consequences of participation. In this context, researchers should pay special attention to confidentiality. Private corporations and organizations have the right as institutions to refuse to cooperate with researchers or to deny them access to their private records if they so wish, and may have rules governing the conduct of their employees. However, such organizations need not be approached for consent, and REBs should not require such an approach. Nor should institutions be given the right to veto research projects [emphasis added]5.

7. The TCPS thus outlines a “critical research” exception to the general norm of informed consent in research involving humans. The critical research exception is tailored to the needs of different kinds of research undertaken by social science researchers, whose methods may include seeking knowledge that critiques or challenges the policies and practices of institutions, governments, interest groups or corporations6. This helps explain why the excerpt above emphasizes that such organizations should not have veto power over research projects. If institutional authorization were required, it is unlikely that effective research could be conducted on such matters as institutional sexual abuse or government silencing of dissident scientists. Important knowledge and insights from research would be forgone.

8. We note that while the critical research exception is clear, its application requires due consideration to context7. Since the TCPS does not define “organization,” REBs and researchers need to evaluate the goal, kind and method of research involving particular organizations. Different considerations may apply to corporations or governments than to community centres, schools, hospitals, churches, Aboriginal organizations, etc.

REB Review and Participants

9. In your question, you indicate that your REB policy requires institutional permission, unless researchers can show that obtaining that permission would compromise their research. We assume that an objective of such a policy is to further the TCPS goal of constructive REB–researcher dialogue on the design of the project, including consent issues.

10. As such, this approach would not contradict the TCPS, if the policy were to incorporate the critical research exception of the TCPS, as noted above. That exception leaves reasonable discretion to the researcher for many of the research design details, such as approaching the organization. An REB policy that ignores or does not integrate this exception thus ignores an important principle of the TCPS. Of course, an optimal REB policy should also be sensitive to the duties that flow from applicable laws, reasonable university standards, and the respect and consideration due to certain organizations, such as those involving Aboriginal peoples. Ultimately, the appropriate level of REB review depends on the nature of the research, the risks, protection of prospective participants, benefits, etc. The researcher and the REB should also consider relevant professional norms and practices in the design dialogue.

11. Those conducting organizational research also need to be aware of the potential stigmatization or adverse outcomes related to the informed consent and privacy needs of individual participants. Participating employees in some organizations, for instance, may risk loss of reputation or employment. Organizations may attempt to prevent research by exercising control over individuals willing to participate, but over whom the institution has authority8. If so, “…REBs should not prevent such research, but should ensure that potential subjects are fully informed of the views of the organization’s authorities and the possible consequences of participation, and pay special attention to confidentiality9,” including appropriate use of anonymity for interviews.10

Academic Freedom and Responsibilities

12. Finally, you note concerns about academic freedom regarding REB policy on organizational research. The TCPS recognizes the important social balance between academic freedom and academic responsibilities. With the freedom of inquiry, as well as the privilege of doing so with public monies11, come responsibilities to adhere to high ethical standards. Determining the precise balance between academic freedom and responsibilities requires diligent analysis and attention to underlying principles, values and norms in the particular context. A policy of requiring researchers to explain their research design concerning organizational permission is unlikely to infringe on the academic freedom of the researcher if it is reasonably balanced and recognizes the important exception for critical research methodologies. REBs should be sensitive to the associated administrative burdens, in order to frame an optimal policy.

We hope you find this information useful in your research ethics deliberations.


Secretariat on Research Ethics,
on behalf of
The Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics

  1. PRE provides advice on such interpretation questions to assist the research ethics community in applying the TCPS to the ethical issues it faces. While responses to TCPS interpretation questions may address ethical dimensions of legal issues in research ethics, PRE does not provide legal advice. Nor does it act as an appeal body on REB or institutional decisions.
  2. “Consent” typically refers to the voluntary and informed participation of individuals. In the case of organizations, “institutional authorization” or “permission” may be more appropriate.
  3. There may be compelling reasons to respect the policies of another organization regarding access to participants, materials, facilities or other elements of human research that go beyond matters considered by an REB. For example, some universities have existing agreements with local schools related to access to students for purposes that go beyond, but also include, research (for example, teaching practicums). The REB should not be placed in a position of enforcer of existing agreements. The institution should find alternative approaches to adhering to inter-institutional agreements that do not impinge on the research ethics review process.
  4. Our research has identified no national research ethics policy statements that comprehensively address issues of so-called organizational consent/authorization. In the absence of precise and significant guidance from ethics policy statements, some commentators in the literature have offered suggestions that seem to rely on the presumed ethical duties of the organization and researcher. See, for example, Dawn Burton, ed., Research Training for Social Scientists. SAGE: London, 2000, page 101. “Both the ethical duties of the organization and the ethical duties of the researcher to the organization mean that the researcher should ensure that the organization, and not just the individual member at the point where access is required, gives informed consent to research involving its work or its staff. At the same time, the organization can be said to have an ethical duty in relation to promoting the pursuit of knowledge and ought not unreasonably to refuse access or information.” The approach of a broad, uniform requirement for organizational consent/authorization has not been adopted into the TCPS. Indeed, organizational authorization may be overridden by a researcher’s ethical duties to conduct critical research on organizations such as public market–oriented corporations.
  5. TCPS, commentary to article 2.1, page 2.2.
  6. See TCPS, page 1.7 and commentary to article 1.5, page 1.6.
  7. See TCPS, “Context of an Ethics Framework,” page i.9.
  8. TCPS, commentary to article 2.2, page 2.4.
  9. Ibid.
  10. See TCPS, page 3.2. See also Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, Code of Research Ethics, 1997, article 1.6: “Furthermore, whenever methodologically feasible, participating individuals and institutions should be allowed to respond anonymously or under a pseudonym to protect their privacy. The researcher should be constantly aware that the research may prejudice the position of research participants if measures are not taken to prevent such prejudice.”
  11. TCPS, “Context of an Ethics Framework,” page i.8. See also Canadian Association of University Teachers. Policy Statement on Academic Freedom, May 2003.