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The Canadian Journal of Sociology 31.3 (2006) 361-373

Myths about Qualitative Research and the Tri-Council Policy Statement
Carolyn Ells
Shawna Gutfreund

It is no secret that qualitative research and Canada's Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS) has been an unhappy union. Much in the TCPS is drawn from the research ethics literature that addresses research in the medical context. Although acknowledged, the social sciences and humanities research experience has a low profile in the TCPS. The presence of qualitative research methods within the spectrum of healthcare research has an even lower profile. Some might suggest (incorrectly) that the social sciences, humanities, and qualitative research methods do not appear to influence the policies found in the TCPS at all. Accordingly, in universities and hospitals, in discussions among colleagues at conferences and research venues, and outside the closed doors of research ethics board (REB) meetings, there has been much criticism about the TCPS by those who use different theories and methods than are typical in medical research protocols.

While some criticism is justified, some of it is misguided. Despite its emphasis on research ethics in medicine, the TCPS actually allows for more flexibility than some qualitative researchers and REB members sometimes give it credit for. In this paper we address eight common criticisms related to qualitative research and the TCPS, most of which relate to supposed "requirements" surrounding the consent process. It is our contention that these criticisms are not inherent in the TCPS itself, but rather in its interpretation and application. Hence we call these criticisms "myths". By debunking these myths, our aim is to free researchers and REBs from placing undue restrictions on qualitative research. We encourage qualitative researchers and REBs to refer to [End Page 361] the text of the TCPS and interpret it in the context of specific research projects. We advise REBs to think beyond the medical model, and qualitative researchers to quote relevant passages from the TCPS in their protocol submissions to justify the procedures they propose.

Tri-Council Policy Statement

In August 1998, Canada's three major research funding councils — the Medical Research Council (MRC) (now Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)), the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) — released their joint policy regarding research involving humans: the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS). This joint policy statement replaced previous guidelines of MRC and SSHRC and united the three major research-funding councils under one research ethics umbrella. The TCPS sets out the ethical norms and requirements for conducting research that involves human participants, as well as, requirements for structuring REBs and how they are to operate in their review of research involving human participants.

The Councils stipulate that they "will consider funding (or continued funding) only to individuals and institutions which certify compliance with this policy" (TCPS: i.1). Thus, access to funding (or the risk of loss of funding) motivates institutions receiving funding from any of the three Councils, to ensure that all research involving human participants conducted at these institutions or by their researchers complies with the TCPS. This motivation does not reach over privately funded institutions whose research in conducted behind their own closed doors. However, when privately funded institutions collaborate with academic researchers whose institutions receive funding from any of the three Councils, the TCPS is meant to apply to those collaborations.

The move from discrepant guidelines that apply to some to a unifying policy that applies to many was (and still is) a challenge, both for individual researchers and the institutions that receive Tri-Council funding. The concerns that we are responding to in this paper could be seen as arising in an era of transition when many institutions were/are formalizing their processes for research ethics review to be in accord with the new TCPS, and other regulations as well. We hope that the myths we address will be dispelled and left behind as qualitative researchers, REBs...