Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Master of Arts




Walsh, Andrew


Based on interviews with key stakeholders in the ethics approval process at the University of Western Ontario, this thesis explores what it means to take ethics seriously in the context of formal, regulatory ethics policy and procedures. This study identifies several key tensions at play throughout the course of the ethics approval process, many stemming from often incommensurable understandings of ethical responsibility, ethical behaviour and ethics in research more generally. By centering key stakeholders and their relationships to one another and to the system that maintains and supports the ethics approval process, we can track many of these tensions to sincere displays of seriousness on the part of all actors, displays sometimes performed in contradictory and frustrating ways. Understanding the performance of seriousness, and its meaning to those involved, as part of the process can help us develop a more productive dialogue between administrative staff, researchers and board members, with the suggestion that all actors invested in improving the culture of their local Research Ethics Board draw from participatory research design to facilitate a sustainable discussion.

Summary for Lay Audience

When researchers in Canada want to conduct research involving humans, they have to receive ethics approval from their university’s Research Ethics Board, which is a committee made up of volunteer researchers that assesses whether or not a proposed research project will expose participants to unnecessary risk and/or harm. Several key players are involved in the ethics approval process, including the aforementioned researchers and Board Members, as well as graduate students and administrative staff. Ethics in the context of research is governed, in Canada, by the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS), but a lot of the policy is open to interpretation, leading to sometimes conflicting notions about what is right and wrong in the course of research, as well as leaving open who has the final say when it comes to dictating what ethical research looks like in various contexts. To that end, many researchers, board members, students and administrative staff will claim to take ethics seriously without realizing that they may have differing interpretations of ethics and what it means to take ethics seriously. Tensions precipitated by these differing, often conflicting interpretations lead to further tensions between key players in the process. Acknowledging that these tensions exist, and making them part of the process as opposed to something that is often ignored or swept aside, can lead to more productive dialogues between everyone involved, with the hope that open dialogue will lead to more thoughtful regulatory practices.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.