Academics sometimes use the term “ethics” to refer to the application process with a given institutional research ethics board (IREB). So, one may overheard the comment “Country X doesn’t have ethics” and wonder what the state of research ethics is in said country. Ethics meaning “the fair dealing with participants during the research process” exist, whether or not a given country or institution has an IREB, as ultimately fair dealing is the responsibility of the researcher. However, in my recent research in Germany, I experienced what IREB approval entails there in comparison to how I experience it generally in Canada, which draws attention to the many aspects of research that are not always apparent at first glance.
In 2016, I embarked on a research project exploring responses to linguistic diversity, primarily the influx of refugees to the school system in Hamburg. I envisioned a very full month of data collection: document analysis and interviews at various institutions. For this, I applied for, and received, IREB approval from my home institution. This is a familiar process that involves answers a large number of questions in a specific institutional portal, creating the accompanying forms, translating those into German, running my translations by a native speaking friend, and hitting submit. After a 57 day review with some questions to answer mid-way, I received approval.
From previous casual conversations with German academics, I was under the impression that school-based research was not yet requiring IREB approval. However, to be sure, I asked my host to share corresponding ethics information for both the university and the school board that I was interested in doing research with. While there was no application procedure at the university at that time, my host was able to share with me a website link regarding research in Hamburg schools. Although my German is relatively advanced, I found the website she pointed me too was a challenging read. Once through it, I concluded that classroom research required IREB approval equally complicated and time-consuming as what existed in my institution and that I did not have adequate time to prepare for such data collection during my first visit. For the initial stay then, I opted to focus on publicly available documents so I could learn more about the IREB processes before endeavouring to branch out to interviewing.
While planning to return to Germany this year with an expanded project, I decided it was time to pursue approval to interview instructors who work directly with pre-service teachers in order to find out how their university teaching education prepared them to teach refugee children. I learned that the university did not require an IREB process as I was familiar with, but because of new regulations, my consent documents did require a vetting with regards to data security.
Data security means giving consideration to where research data is stored and how private or safe it is. While my university’s IREB process requires me to stipulate how my data will be stored securely, the degree to which the German process focused on that was much more. Data security falls under the General Data Protection Regulation of the EU, which came into effect May 25, 2018. Coming from Canada was a privilege, as it was considered a secure third country with adequate levels of protection. This meant that I could securely transfer research data back to Canada. Still, I was required to create parallel German documents to the ones I had from Canada, vetted by the university’s data security office, which handled my queries in a speedy manner. I am grateful for the patience of the data security officer as I endeavoured to make sense of the legalese German on the website, tip sheets, and template. In the end, two weeks into my one month stay (having begun before leaving Canada), I had approval.
I was excited for the opportunity to interview university instructors and, after a whirlwind recruitment cycle, eight agreed to participate. Erring on the side of caution, I had participants sign both sets of forms. Looking forward, I would still like to interview teachers in the school system, but that is for a future visit. Based on my experience this round, I am cognizant that I will need to start early on getting IREB approval.