Gail Leicht is the Research Ethics Officer of the Research Centre of AU. She is also the Secretary and Coordinator for the Research Ethics Board (REB), as described in the interview. Here we get to know about an integral member of the AU community.
Let’s start with your background. What can you tell us, and what brought you to AU?
I am a native-born Athabascan. After graduating high school, I lived in Edmonton for about 27 years. During that time, I did a lot of different things. I worked in healthcare administration. I worked in professional regulation. I worked at the College of Psychologists for 13 years, looking at professional conduct and did a lot of policy-regulation work.
I got some expertise in professional ethics and ethics as a topic area. I had a desire to come back to the community, where my parents still are. They are needing some extra assistance in their aging years. I found myself applying to AU. I came first to the Research Centre 10 years ago covering a maternity leave in an administrative position.
Then I moved to Prior Learning Assessment. I was a portfolio mentor for students. I was also the assessment coordinator for 4.5 years. Then I moved back to the research center here as the research ethics officer (REO).
As the REO of a rather large institution, what tasks and responsibilities come along with that station?
I act as the secretary and coordinator for the REB. I coordinate meetings and the application process. It is a varied position. I see my role here to assist and facilitate the information for applicants—students, faculty, and external researchers and the like—who must all move through the ethics approval process in order to work with human participants in their research.
I spend time on the phone and with email. I provide pre-submission review and advice, particularly to graduate students who ask me to take a look at their applications and get them some feedback prior to them submitting their application for review by the Research Ethics board. I work with the board to ensure that we are compliant with the Tri-Council policy and relevant university policy and provide a place where applicants can reach out to if it might be needed. I do some research with a small “r” on behalf of the board to look up practices and guidelines, and so on, across the country from other institutions and boards.
I know there are various ethics certifications required for experiments involving human participants, such as the TCPS2, and other ones internationally. I’ve noticed a relatively set standard for research on humans. So what do you note, or bring to bear, when you are considering the validity of a particular study?
Number one, the role the Research Ethics Board plays. We are not the board or the proper process to critique in detail how the research methodology and procedures are to be done. Unless, it comes to bear on the ethical principles, which we are to uphold.
Certainly, if we look at a study, with the methodology proposed, and we cannot see how the research question can be answered appropriately using the methods proposed, we need to be mindful of that to ensure that participants’ time is valued and not wasted. It goes along with respect for persons in the TCPS2. We do look at some of those aspects of a study.
The REB is tasked with looking at the main principles in the TCPS2 and if they are being upheld. They revolve around the idea of autonomy and informed consent. Informed consent is a large concept. It is a flowing concept.
It is not a specific activity or a specific occurrence in time. Rather, it is an ongoing dialogue between researcher and participant. Research participants must be free to choose whether they want to engage in a research project or not.
If they engage with the research project, they must be fully informed of what they are being asked to do, what the time commitment will be, why they are being asked to participate and their decision to participate must be free from coercion, and so on.
Really, the main purpose of the board and research ethics as a discipline or as an activity really comes from the idea that human participants in research must be protected because they have not been in the past. That is why the boards exist across Canada.
Certainly, in the United States, it is the same, and throughout the world. It is protecting participants from harm. By doing it, we protect the researchers from getting into situations, which they should not be in.
Have there been cases where boards in Canada have failed in their duties and responsibilities ethically?
I am sure there have been. I am not particularly aware of specific cases. Certainly, the panel or secretariat on research ethics would have that information. There is a complaint mechanism or a mechanism that the secretariat would investigate a complaint of that nature to be sure. But I honestly cannot tell you off the top if that is the case or not.
So far as I know, for undergraduate students at AU there are not many who are interested in research. But, there are fewer resources for students to become involved in research at the undergraduate level, and because AU is online, it can make unique barriers to getting some research experiences at the undergraduate level.
If students have an interest in taking an initiative, as there aren’t as many pathways built yet, to conduct or start research, e.g., psychology doing a survey for an honors project or something of this nature, how might students become involved? How might the Research Ethics Office provide some guidance on how to do that?
I do not think I have been asked by undergraduate students. We have a well-oiled process for graduate students doing studies. Through the research Centre, there may be opportunities for an undergraduate student to be a research assistant and so on. I am not familiar enough with that process to comment on it.
I think, depending on the background of the student and what courses they are involved in, some undergraduate courses teach some of the research methods as an exercise. There are mechanisms for course-based activities that teach how to research, if you will.
It is a good question. I haven’t come across that issue yet. Certainly, I would be open to having a conversation to work that through, but I wouldn’t see that it would necessarily be much different from the process used for the graduate students.
As we do with the graduate students, the research has to be supervised. I assume that we would have the same conditions for an undergraduate student. I am here and would be happy to discuss that opportunity.
We would be more likely to see an undergraduate student involved as a research assistant.