On Research Ethics Board (REB) Malfeasance: Letter to Ethics Listserve Members

January 2006

I am still searching for concrete examples of social scientists harming research subjects, but without much luck. However, the list of instances where REB malfeasance destroys or interrupts social science research is steadily growing. Here is the latest example from Simon Fraser University.

On October 27, 2005, SFU VP Research Mario Pinto awarded Criminology MA student Tamara O’Doherty a two-semester waiver of tuition fees in “recognition of delays to [her] research program caused by the actions of the Research Ethics Board.” The award was made ex gratia, i.e. a payment “made by one who recognizes no legal obligation to pay but who makes payment to avoid greater expense…” (Black’s Law Dictionary, 1990 p. 573).

Ms. O’Doherty’s research concerns prostitution, thereby making this the second time SFU has compensated prostitution researchers when the REB scuttled their research (in 1999, SFU compensated two professors for the 18 month REB-induced delay of the same kind of research). Briefly, the details of Ms. O’Doherty’s case are as follows:

  1. Ms. O’Doherty submitted her research ethics proposal to the SFU REB in October 2004. The SFU Director of Research Ethics (DoRE), determined the research constituted “minimal risk,” performed an expedited review as per SFU Policy R20.01 (Ethics Review of Research Involving Human Subjects), and approved the application on October 14th.
  2. On November 16th, 2004 the REB over-ruled the DoRE’s assessment, asserting that the research constituted more than a minimal risk. The REB ordered Ms. O’Doherty to stop work immediately.
  3. In the months that followed, and contrary to SFU Policy R20.01 and the Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS), the REB Chair did not respond to several requests from the student’s Supervisor -- who is named as a co-applicant on a student’s ethics application -- that the REB document its reasons for considering the application to constitute “greater-than-minimal risk.”
  4. In direct violation of SFU Policy R20.01 sections 6.4 and 6.5, the REB Chair allowed the REB to approve the research as greater than minimal risk without sending the application out for review; the Board effectively reviewed the research itself. The failure of the Chair to ensure that the REB complied with SFU policy in this regard is all the more surprising given that the Board was not constituted according to TCPS principle 1.3(a), which requires that “at least two members have broad expertise in the methods or in the areas of research that are covered by the REB.” The REB Chair never responded to the Supervisor’s emails asking which Board members attending the relevant meetings had the “broad expertise” necessary to assess Ms. O’Doherty’s application. The fact is no one did.
  5. Given that the REB had ruled that Ms. O’Doherty’s research constituted more than a minimal risk, she now needed to know what risk the REB deemed the research to pose so that she could inform research subjects. If she did not inform them about the alleged risk, how could she claim to have achieved informed consent? Again, the REB Chair did not reply to the Supervisor’s emails asking for this information -- so much for the TCPS principle that an REB must “provide reasoned and well-documented decisions” (Article 9.1).
  6. Because of the REB Chair’s failure to respond to the Supervisor’s queries, the Supervisor sent a formal letter of protest to the SFU VP Research on May 20, 2005.
  7. On June 17, the VP Research ruled that the REB had, indeed, failed to comply with SFU Policy R20.01. Surprisingly, the VP Research suggested that the research proceed -- imagine the consequences for SFU if some kind of harm had come to a research subject in light of the REB’s policy violations.
  8. After further deliberations concerning the problem outlined in paragraph 5 above, and with the assistance of the SFU Faculty Association, the VP Research instructed Ms. O’Doherty to resubmit her ethics application so that the process of evaluating it could begin anew. On July 21st, 2005 she resubmitted the same application, which the REB approved as “minimal risk” a few days later. With this decision, the REB endorsed the assessment the DoRE originally made on October 14, 2004.

In seeking compensation, Ms. O’Doherty asked for her fees to be waived for two semesters -- roughly the equivalent of the time the REB delayed her program.

In the real world, the cost to her is much greater -- the REB effectively robbed her of ten months of her working life. In other words, assuming she retires at age 65, if her annual salary over her working life averages $100,000, the REB has cost her $83,333.00 in foregone earnings.

Despite their blatant violation of SFU Policy and the TCPS, the SFU administration has done nothing to hold the REB and its Chair accountable -- not even a mild rebuke. Indeed, the Chair has never as much as apologized to the graduate student and her Supervisor for the huge amount of time the REB cost both parties.

How anyone can continue to have confidence in the REB Chair responsible for this debacle is a mystery to this commentator. So much for “ethics” at SFU. But at least the VP Research did award Ms. O’Doherty a two-semester fee waiver, and changed course when the problem outlined in paragraph #5 above was brought to his attention.