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Past Interpretations of the TCPS

Subject Use of Student Subject/Participant Pools in Research
Keywords Recruitment, captive populations, coercion, dual-role of researcher/teacher, informed consent, research requiring review, students, subject pools, undue inducements, voluntariness, penalties
TCPS Articles Ethics Framework, 1.1, 1.6, 1.13, 2.2, 2.4.
Date July 2006

PDF Use_of_Student_Subject-Participant_Pools_in_Research_July_2006.pdf

1. This response to questions about the recruitment from, or use of, student “subject or participant pools”1 as part of university coursework is consistent with the principles of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS).

2. One question concerns whether the awarding of bonus points to students from these pools who agree to participate in research is consistent with free and informed consent. The second question is whether awarding bonus points to students recruited to participate in research from such pools may be viewed as a form of coercion for participating students and as a penalty for non-participating students. The final question is whether penalizing students for failing to fulfill all conditions of participation in a study they had agreed to take part in is inconsistent with the TCPS and should be brought to the attention of the research ethics board (REB), or if this is an administrative rather than an ethics issue. Your questions have been referred to the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) for advice.2

3. The questions raise issues of research requiring ethics review, participation from captive or dependent populations, the dual role of teacher/researcher, free and informed consent, and undue influence under the TCPS. As elaborated below, if the involvement of students is for “research” and not a teaching/training assignment, then the project should undergo research ethics review in accordance with the proportionate approach to ethics assessment. Teachers should be mindful of the power imbalance that exists when they ask or require their students to enrol as participants in research as part of the curriculum. To respect informed consent, teachers/researchers should provide an alternative activity, which involves comparable time and effort for comparable reward, for those who do not wish to participate in the research. Penalizing students by removing credits already earned for failing to participate in an agreed-upon research project is inconsistent with the principles of the TCPS.

Research Requiring Ethics Review or Teaching/Training Exercise?

4. Introductory courses at the university level sometimes include a component of research in the curriculum. Psychology is one example. An issue that this practice raises is whether the involvement of students in research projects is primarily for instilling the students with the experience, understanding, skills and expertise for professional practice, as a teaching/training exercise, or whether the activity’s primary purpose is actual “research involving humans.”3 The TCPS defines “research” as involving “a systematic investigation to establish facts, principles or generalizable knowledge.” The intent, purpose, and function of the activity, as well as the use of the collected data, are some of the factors for determining whether an activity is “research.”4 If the activities involve “research” involving humans, then Articles 1.1 and 1.13 of the TCPS generally stipulate that it undergo prospective and continuing REB review, in accordance with “a proportionate approach to ethics assessment.”5 Teaching/training exercises do not normally require research ethics review.6

5. If the activity constitutes “research involving humans” under the TCPS, then it requires REB review and the following issues may also merit attention.

Students as a Captive/Dependent Population: Voluntariness

6. Article 2.2 of the TCPS expresses the principle that informed consent to participate in research should be voluntary. Violation of this principle infringes on autonomy, tends to disable people from acting self-protectively through the balancing of risks and benefits, increases the potential for exploitation, and raises associated justice issues.

7. The TCPS encourages ethics review of issues such as consent from a participant-centred perspective,7 which should inform the analysis of student participation in the research component of university courses. Some such courses, especially introductory ones, are a requirement for a degree. From the participant-centred perspective, students obliged to participate, as participants, in the research component of such courses may be regarded as a dependent or captive population. A captive/dependent population tends to be characterized by its lack of freedom, its dependency on authority, and significantly lessened decision-making power—all of which diminish autonomy and increase the potential for “coercive participation” in research.8 The vulnerability of prisoners, military personnel, institutionalized persons, and other classic captive populations have, historically, resulted in a range of affronts to human dignity, abuses, injury and exploitation in the name of research.9 The TCPS addresses such concerns.

Voluntariness is especially relevant in research involving restricted or dependent subjects …. The influence of power relationships on voluntary choice should be judged according to the particular context of prospective subjects. For example, the voluntariness of … students may be restricted because their institutional context implies undue pressure ….10

8. For such reasons, the TCPS states in the commentary to Article 2.4(d) that “teachers should not recruit prospective subjects from their classes, or students under their supervision, without REB approval.”

“Dual Role” of the Teacher/Researcher

9. Students and teachers, similar to participants and researchers, often develop relationships grounded at least partly on trust. Students, for instance, properly assume that their teacher would propose activities that are in the students’ best pedagogical interests. REB review of a teacher’s recruitment of students as participants to research projects is also intended to ensure that such trust relationships remain free of confusion or exploitation when professors assume the dual role of teacher and research-recruiter of students. Commentary to TCPS Article 2.4(e) indicates this:

To preserve and not abuse the trust on which many professional relations reside, researchers should separate their role as researcher from their roles as therapists, caregivers, teachers, advisors, consultants, supervisors, students or employers and the like.… Researchers should disassociate their role as researcher from other roles, in the recruitment process and throughout the project. [bold emphasis added]

10. The Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists of the Canadian Psychological Association has also recognized this concern.11

Voluntary, Informed Consent and Undue Influence

11. As noted, Article 2.2 of the TCPS states, “Free and informed consent must be voluntarily given, without manipulation, undue influence or coercion.” The principle of free and informed consent may be challenged by other dimensions of the use of student subject or participant pools.

12. In some institutions, students participate as subjects in research studies to receive bonus credits over and above their normal grade in the course. In other institutions, student participation in research is part of the curriculum, and the participation is reflected in the grade earned in the course. In both cases, awarding credits to students for participating in research studies raises ethical issues in the absence of an alternative, non-research activity that gives students the opportunity to earn an equivalent amount of points. Without the alternative activity, awarding credits solely for participating in research raises issues of “undue influence.” According to the TCPS,

Undue influence may take the form of inducement, deprivation, or the exercise of control, or authority over prospective subjects.… The offer of benefits in some contexts may amount to undue inducement, and thus negate the voluntary aspect of the consent of subjects who may perceive such offers as a way to gain favour or improve their situation.12

13. To ensure that the participation in research is voluntary, and to minimize the risk of undue inducement, students should be given an alternative activity that would allow them to earn credits comparable to what they would earn were they to participate in the research project. One example would be to do a written assignment instead of participating in the research. To maximize freedom of choice, the effort and time expended for the research and the non-research alternative, as well as the potential rewards, should be comparable. This approach is consistent with the code of ethics of the Canadian Psychological Association.13 The more the alternative activity is viewed as comparatively or unjustifiably onerous, the more it is likely to exert undue or potentially coercive influence regarding participation in the research.


14. You also refer to a practice in some university coursework under which students who have agreed to participate in a research study but fail to do so are penalized by losing other credits already earned in the course. TCPS Article 2.4(d) provides that researchers give “an assurance that prospective subjects are free not to participate, have the right to withdraw at any time without prejudice to pre-existing entitlements .…” From a participant-centred perspective, a practice of penalizing students who decide not to participate in research by withdrawing credits previously earned is intended to, and does, work as a strongly negative influence. It runs directly contrary to a participant’s right to withdraw from research without prejudice. Such a penalty thus functions as an “undue,” and possibly coercive, influence on voluntary participation in research, and is inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the TCPS.

We hope that this information proves helpful to your TCPS research ethics deliberations.


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

  1. “Subject or participant pools” refers to a group of individuals who constitute potential subjects to be recruited for research. For instance, psychology students in a university class may constitute a subject or participant pool.
  2. 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.
  3. TCPS, Commentary to Article 1.1, page 1.1
  4. See Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (Interpretation) Definition of Quality Assurance Studies, Performance Reviews and Research (2003)
  5. TCPS, Article 1.6, page 1.7
  6. See commentary to TCPS Article 1.1(d): “…studies related directly to assessing the performance of … students, … according to the terms and conditions of … training, should also not be subject to REB review. However, performance reviews or studies that contain an element of research in addition to assessment may need ethics review.”
  7. TCPS, Context of an Ethics Framework, D: A Subject-Centred Perspective, page i.7.
  8. See Moreno, Jonathan. “Convenient and Captive Populations” in Jeffrey Kahn, et al., eds., Beyond Consent: Seeking Justice in Research. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998: 111–130. (“The potentially coercive nature of being a student may arise from a course requirement that they serve as a study subject.” p. 123)
  9. Ibid.
  10. TCPS, commentary to Article 2.2, page 2.4.
  11. Canadian Psychological Association. Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists, 3rd ed. 2000. III.33 “Avoid dual or multiple relationships (e.g., with clients, research participants, employees, supervisees, students, or trainees) and other situations that might present a conflict of interest or that might reduce their ability to be objective and unbiased in their determinations of what might be in the best interests of others.”
  12. TCPS, commentary to Article 2.2, page 2.4
  13. Canadian Psychological Association. Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists, 3rd ed. 2000. I.36: “Be particularly cautious in establishing the freedom of consent of any person who is in a dependent relationship to the psychologist (e.g., student, employee). This may include, but is not limited to, offering that person an alternative activity to fulfill their educational or employment goals, or offering a range of research studies or experience opportunities from which the person can select, none of which is so onerous as to be coercive.”