November 19 - 26, 1998

Charlie Smith

p. 12.

Ethics Policy Stalls Research

A Simon Fraser University criminology professor has claimed that SFU's research-ethics review committee has delayed two of his research projects for as much as a year. John Lowman told the Georgia Straight that the problem stems from a 1995 change to the university ethics policy, whereby "absolute confidentiality" for research subjects was discarded in favour of "limited confidentiality." That policy states that a court could subpoena confidential research data, Lowman said, which means that his research subjects -- pimps and sex-trade workers -- couldn't be guaranteed that their communications wouldn't be disclosed to law-enforcement officials.

One research project into pimps has been delayed for a year, he said, and another one looking into the safety of escorts and other off-street sex workers has been delayed by eight months. Lowman also claimed that he and his research colleague, Ted Palys, can't get their projects approved because they refuse to take sole responsibility for fighting possible subpoenas in court.

"Palys and I are going to do a grievance this week," he said.

Lowman said the research projects might have to be cancelled because he and Palys have lost several contacts during the past year. "Since they introduced the new street-prostitution law, we have had at least 60 murders of street prostitutes in British Columbia," Lowman said. "What we want to do is talk to men and women working off-street to see what their experiences of violence look like in comparison to the women on the street. To me, it's incredibly socially relevant research."

He noted that recently, SFU promised to fight subpoenas issued to researchers. But he said that the ethics committee's limited-confidentiality statement doesn't say that the university will employ a common-law defence to argue that researchers can't be forced to answer questions, therefore not going to the fullest extent possible under the law to protect confidentiality. "The problem with that is it allows researchers who don't want to fight a subpoena to roll over," Lowman said.

A former SFU graduate student. Russel Ogden, successfully avoided turning over assisted-suicide research data to coroner's court by citing the common-law argument, which is known as the Wigmore criteria. It states that subject-researcher communications must meet several tests not to be disclosed, including one that the communications must have taken place with the understanding that they won't be disclosed. SFU originally refused to pay Ogden's entire legal bill or speak in his defence, but later agreed to pay and apologize, following an investigation ordered by SFU president Jack Blaney.

SFU's vice-president of research, Bruce Clayman, told the Straight that the three major research-granting bodies in Canada -- the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada -- released a statement in September that upholds the principle of unlimited confidentiality. "It's goint to have profound effects on the conduct of university research across the country," he said.

Clayman said that the tri-council policy, which received very little media attention, stated that information disclosed in the context of a professional or research relationship must be kept confidential. However, he noted that the statement also acknowledges that the protection of privacy and confidentiality are not absolute: "Compelling and specifically identified public interests -- for example the protection of health, life, and safety -- may justify infringement infringement of privacy and confidentiality. Laws compelling mandatory reporting of child abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, or intent to murder are grounded on such reasoning; so, too, are laws and regulations that protect whistle blowers."

Lowman has alleged that the ethics committee changed its policy in 1995 despite not having a quorum; that the policy is contrary to the disciplinary standards of criminology and sociology; that it violates the university's policy; and that it violates SFU's framework agreement, which defines academic freedom.

Clayman, a former chair of the ethics committee, said the limited-confidentiality policy was approved through the "proper channels." SFU recently appointed a committee, chaired by sociology professor Ellen Gee, to revise the university's research-ethics policy to make it consistent with the tri-council policy statement. The task force, which will report to Clayman, will examine, among other issues, the relationship between the research-ethics policy and other university policies, as well as the role of administrators and staff in the "administration of the policy."

Lowman said the task force has no mandate to deal with "procedural improprieties" in connection with the introduction of limited confidentiality. He also claimed that the ethics committee has functioned for more than two years without a medical doctor, even though it accepts kinesiology-research applications. "The isse here is one of accountability of university administrators, he said.

[Vancouver '98] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: December 5, 1998
Last modified: December 6, 1998

CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710