The Rhetoric of Research Ethics

As I begin teaching another new service-learning course (Coms 463: Advanced Professional and Technical Communication) at the University of Calgary, Canada, in which my students will conduct interviews, I must once again apply for course-based research ethics approval from my faculty’s ethics subcommittee.

ResearchEthics clip Frame1

Click the image to see all 3 frames. Created via Cartoon Playground.

Within this application I am required to describe such factors as

  • the context in which the students will be researching
  • how I educate them about research ethics,
  • whom they are recruiting and how they avoid coercion
  • methods of research (survey, interview, etc.)
  • and the means of obtaining proof of informed consent, secure data retention, and ethical data dissemination as agreed between researchers and participants.

This post describes the rhetorical audiences, purposes, skills, and impacts of the research ethics application process. 

The rhetorical challenge

Anne Surma, author of Public and professional writing: Ethics, Imagination and Rhetoric (2005, Palgrave Macmillan), our COMS 463 textbook, states

professional writing can make a vital contribution, through the process of meaningful exchanges between writers and readers, to the development of a fairer and more equitable society. (p.1)

This is a good rhetorical aspiration.  The writing and reading of ethics applications can make us more sensitive to the ways in which ethics applications potentially strengthen social ties among research participants, students, teachers, and committees — or it can put them at risk.

One risk is that the writing of research ethics applications becomes merely a bureaucratic barrier with very little to do with relationships, or even causes harm to relationships.

I have sometimes felt myself, and heard other teachers complain, that this process is a bureaucratic barrier. Why all this paperwork?

I have felt and heard that the process establishes an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion among teachers and researchers.  Why can’t we just trust each other to do a good job?  And isn’t the scrutiny going too far in some cases?  I mean, what is the harm in students asking questions about what people thought of a TV show they watched last week?

Surma explains on the following page,

if we write for a wide or largely anonymous readership [or I would add, an organizationally distant and bureaucratic readership] [. . .], our textual and technological contact with our readers can all to easily be treated as an abstract technical function rather than imagined as an interpersonal exchange. [. . . .]

Are we serious about engaging with the needs and interests of our readers — colleagues, clients and our larger communities — even if that means modifying our texts to achieve a more balanced, productive exchange from all interlocutors’ points of view? (p.2)

This is why a 360-degree rhetorical analysis is worthwhile, revealing the broader elements of social context as well as the text’s content, the primary audience and purpose, and rhetorical skill of the author, and the widespread effects and implications, of the course-based research ethics application.

What is our persuasive message?


Frame 2

As my cartoon  illustrates, those who submit applications for course-based ethics approval must persuade the committee that at three levels the “social risk” is appropriate and is worth taking:

  1. That our research is not subjecting members of the public or organizations to undue social risk and is informing them of such risks so that they take them voluntarily with full informed consent
  2. That we as teachers understand the ethical seriousness and complexity of carrying out this research and teaching students to do it well
  3. That the students themselves are capable, within the scope of this course and with this teacher’s guidance, of carrying out the research ethically

Ultimately, research ethics is about not embarrassing the school or subjecting it to risks by fumbling up our research communication.


Frame 3

Committees who approve applications are protecting the ethos of the school to which the students and teacher belong.  They are also protecting the students and teachers from the harm of being misunderstood and accused of doing something unethical.

Indirectly, they are protecting the ethos of university research itself, protecting the tax dollars that are spent on it by protecting it from harmful controversy and suspicion.

The policy document that governs all research ethics boards at Canadian institutions that receive federal dollars for research funding — The Tri-council ethics guidelines (2nd ed. draft, Dec. 2009) — states that

Given the fundamental importance of research and of human participation in research, we must do all that we can as a society to ensure that research is conducted in an ethical manner so as to build public confidence and trust. (Chapter 1.A)

Even when the students’ research is not being directly funded, it occurs at an institution that receives such funding.  Students are being educated in the “research ethos” of that institution.

The committee as audience

I’ve served on a faculty research ethics committee for over three years and have vetted over 70 ethics applications over the years.  I have a lot of sympathy for their challenging role.

  • Members of ethics committee have varying levels of familiarity with the government of Canada’s ethics statement, which sets the standards and policies.
  • They also have varying levels of experience as researchers who conduct surveys, interviews, and ethnographies of human subjects in the course of their own work.
  • They also have varying levels of experience as teachers who guide students in performing this kind of research.

Nevertheless, they each learn a lot during the fulfillment of their duties, especially when they meet to confer over applications.

Hopefully they learn to respect and appreciate the challenges of teachers and student researchers, and do not let fear and inexperience overrule the flexibility and purposes of the government documents we follow.

To reassure the committee, in my ethics applications, I like to refer to earlier courses in which I have done similar things with ethics approval (argue based on precedent), and when I do something a little nonstandard, I sometimes quote the tri-council ethics guidelines to show that I have thought through them carefully.

The committee’s rhetorical challenge

I like to call the ethics committee the “what if?” committee. It is their job to imagine anything and everything that could go wrong, and to make sure that all the safety nets are in place.  They often scrutinize the wording of recruitment statements and consent forms and imagine the misunderstandings that could ensue.

However, after all is said and done, everyone takes some risks in research.  They also have to consider their audience, the colleague who has applied for approval, especially if they are within the same department.  How can they ask questions and make suggestions without souring their collegial relationship?

Most of their committee work involves approving applications (not rejecting them), but not until an application has gone through some degree of questioning and revision.  This involves hours of effort on behalf of all the committee members.

It is the committee’s job to decide whether the risks taken by all parties are within the policies but also the comfort level of the committee — ultimately it often comes down to whether they believe that the research being proposed can and ought to be taught and implemented within our classrooms.

Documenting the teaching of ethical research

To ensure that research ethics are being taught well, the committee often asks for course material that explains the ways in which students will be educated, advised and supervised in their research at every step in the process.

  • When will there be a lecture about it?
  • Which assigned readings address it?
  • Will students be required to address ethics in their assignments?

To I like to provide students (and the committee) with course-specific ethics guidelines that are posted on my course website.  As teacher/applicant I am providing a rhetorical “contract” between myself and the students on the one hand, and between myself and the committee on the other hand.  This ensures that everyone knows the boundaries of ethical research in a given course and that there is a clearly outlined process and paperwork system to ensure, and to prove, that students will be likely to understand and follow ethical standards.

For instance my COMS 463 Ethics Guidelines web page in Winter 2010 states the following:

Ethics Guidelines Clip

Positive outcomes and effects

Hopefully, good research ethics application processes and committee responses build

  • Increased understanding
  • Students’  ethical and professional education
  • Collegiality
  • Better understanding of one’s teaching

On the positive side, the outcomes may involve an increased level of understanding of research ethics by all parties.

Students benefit by becoming much more sensitive to the professional and ethical nature of their activity.  They learn to take responsibility for the impact of their research beyond their own assignment and grade.

The process also ideally results in collegial cooperation among teachers and members of the ethics committee for carrying out their responsibilities dutifully.

The process may also, ideally, educate colleagues about the effort that one puts into teaching.  Normally courses and teaching do not come under this sort of scrutiny.  When it comes time for colleagues to evaluate my work as a teacher and researcher, doing a good job with these ethics applications is part of the process of demonstrating due diligence and ethics.

Risks and barriers

Factors that make a positive outcome less likely include

  • Rhetorical and practical expertise required in the applicant
  • “Bumpy experiences” with application & response
  • Short timelines for obtaining approval
  • Significant revisions required that disrupt teaching plans and the learning experience
  • Overall time investment for the applicant
  • Community partners’ needs for relevant research

The degree of expertise involved in teaching research and in putting together a strong application makes the teaching of research a challenge that goes beyond “normal” teaching.

I would suggest that the teaching of research methods should involve some degree of mentorship by an experienced teacher-researcher, or it will naturally entail deep learning by a sometimes bumpy experience.

In order to make a good application, all the course materials must first be in place as well, and this often means that applications are usually submitted after the course begins, with fingers crossed that not much will change prior to the time when students must begin recruitment.

If a committee recommends serious changes to an ethics application, asking a teacher to eliminate one type of research method or one type of participant, then students’ course assignments must also be changed mid-stream through a course.

Even as an experienced applicant for research ethics approval who inherited templates and course material from a previously approved application, I spent 6 hours on my application.

Last term after receiving feedback on the students’ 3 proposed methods involving 4 types of participants, I spent 7 hours making revisions to consent forms and ethics application text.

In courses like mine where community partners are also involved in guiding and benefiting from students’ research, their hopes and plans for beneficial and relevant research results may also be at stake in the committee’s decision.


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