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Application denied

Digital worlds, ethics and liability.


My inbox pinged. There it was! My response from my university’s human ethics review board. Excited, I opened it.


Given the way I presented my re-search question and approach in my application, the board felt that my project posed more than a minimal risk to participants. They had 15 objections or concerns that addressed almost every aspect of my ethnographic work. Completing my master’s degree suddenly felt a lot more complicated.

My adviser was careful to point out that my ethics application was denied, not rejected. I could revise and resubmit it. Still, the denial was a blow. What was the problem?

For those who aren’t familiar with the process, all proposals for research in a Canadian university that involve human subjects must go before a human research ethics boards, or HREB, for approval. I understand the reason for HREBs, but navigating their requirements can be difficult for students. You may be able to learn from some of my mistakes.

While I had anticipated possible revisions to my application, given that both my adviser and I were new to the university, we were surprised to see the extent to which the HREB could delve into my research focus, question, method and approach if they felt it was warranted.

I am an ethnographer. That is to say I study groups and cultures over a period of time. The goal of this type of research is to comprehend the particular group or culture through observer immersion in that group or culture.

My research is centred around people who participate in multiplayer online game worlds, known as MMOGs, like World of Warcraft. Taking ethnography as a stance means that to understand the digital game worlds and people I observe, I need to make myself part of that MMOG. To do this methodologically, I need to observe interactions directly within the MMOG. This means doing direct observation and reflexive analysis on my own interactions and reactions to the norms, values and beliefs found in that world.

Thanks to the ethics review process, I’ve learned a few things about doing human-centric research at a university. For one, despite the fact that the commercial Internet is now over 15 years old, studying Internet culture is still new in the university sphere. The standard ethics review preoccupations do not graft well onto work done in a digital context.

I took a textbook approach to the research ethics review process. Based on my research methods training, I viewed the process as a preoccupation with protecting the rights, well-being and privacy of human research subjects. I learned that HREBs are as much concerned about the legal liability of their universities as they are about the ethical situation of the research subjects.

Also, I didn’t cover the full scope of my project in the research ethics application and instead described only the research component. Because of this, the board judged me unable to answer my research question. Had I described the entire project and been clear about what the research component would do for it, this would not have been an issue.

Additionally, I hadn’t provided a definition and explanation of ethnography as it applies to sociological work. I assumed that people who served on an HREB knew what ethnography was. Yet many board members come from law, psychology, biology and other disciplines that do not necessarily do ethnographic work.

The last issue I encountered was specific to the digital aspect of my work. To my HREB, the Internet is a troublesome, murky place full of liars and thieves, underage participants and questionable data, often pursued by students with questionable ethics and methods and who have a lack of seriousness or foresight. This mentality led my HREB to look at digital worlds research with a critical, even suspicious eye. Had I provided greater detail on what my MMOG research environment is, why I chose it, how it operates, why it is worth studying and how privacy is managed within it, I might not have encountered this issue.

I rewrote and resubmitted my application and had it approved. Ultimately, I have walked away from this process with a better understanding of the reality of getting ethnographic work approved by a university HREB. I now know the differences between the ethical concerns of ethnographic work based on my academic formal training and the realities of such concerns as seen by my department and my university.

Tamara Peyton has completed her first year of doctoral studies in the communications and culture program at York University. This piece is adapted from her presentation at the 2010 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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  1. Hamish Haverford / June 14, 2011 at 01:11

    Reading this article, I have no sense that the graduate student denied ethics clearance is in any way different from people in other disciplines who try to get ethics clearance. It is not simply that research ethics boards do not understand ethnographic method, but rather they misunderstand most social science research. Also, people in “Communications and Culture” actually do ethnography? How, by interacting with pixels on a monitor? Work like that is only ever really buttressed through a whole lot of theoretical puppeteering of the kind that everyone should be suspicious of, not just research ethics boards.

  2. dr.doinglittle / June 14, 2011 at 12:56

    I think that all university ethics boards have an unwritten policy to deny all student applicants first time. I’ve seen faculty get approved for proposals while their students submit the same proposal and are denied.