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Past Interpretations of the TCPS

Subject Occasional Videoconference Meetings for REBs
Keywords face-to-face meeting of REBs, videoconferencing, operational issues of REB meetings, REB decision-making, communications technologies, quorum
TCPS Articles 1.7, 1.9
Date December 2006

PDF Occasional Videoconference Meetings for REBs December2006.pdf

1. Thank you for your question on whether holding meetings by videoconference as an occasional alternative to face-to-face ones for a provincial Research Ethics Board (REB) is consistent with the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS). Your inquiry has been referred to the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) for advice1.

2. As elaborated below, the existing TCPS indicates that REBs are to meet “face-to-face” to review research proposals that require full review, but it does not provide explicit guidance with regard to videoconferencing or other alternative technologies or mediums of REB meetings. The face-to-face procedural standard is intended to foster effective REB decision-making through consideration of all communication, including non-verbal. Some REBs may interpret the procedural standard to require physical “face-to-face” presence at all times. Other REBs may give a purposive and functional interpretation of the standard to include videoconferencing, with such exceptions to apply to specific contexts and necessities. Under the latter view, it is consistent with the TCPS to resort to videoconferencing when necessitated by exceptional circumstances (convening REB members widely dispersed, urgencies, etc). It is PRE’s view that both approaches may be deduced from the current text of the TCPS without undermining the general standard of face-to-face meetings. PRE will propose clarifying amendments to the TCPS to address more precisely the REB meeting standard and procedures in light of emerging technologies, practices and necessities.

Why Face-to-Face Meetings of REBs under the TCPS?

3. Article 1.9 of the TCPS outlines a basic procedural standard for research ethics review under the TCPS. It provides that “REBs shall meet face-to-face to review proposed research that is not delegated to expedited review.” There are important reasons for the TCPS standard of face-to-face meetings in the conduct of full REB reviews. This procedural standard is intended to foster effective REB decision-making. The face-to-face medium provides interactive dynamics of immediate audio, visual and physical (non-verbal) exchanges that tend to heighten the quality and effectiveness of communications and decisions. Such a medium helps to foster collaborations that “are essential for adequate discussion of research proposals and for the collective education of the REB.”2 The TCPS standard of regular face-to-face meetings is thus intended to provide richer interaction and produce, over time, high-quality thinking and decisions.

Occasional Videoconferencing Meetings under the TCPS

4. While the TCPS indicates that REBs shall meet face-to-face, Article 1.9 does not specifically refer to videoconferencing as consistent or inconsistent with the standard of face-to-face meetings. How is this to be interpreted for REB guidance?

5. On one hand, some may give a plain or literal reading of the phrase—“REBs shall meet face-to-face”—as implying or requiring REB members to be physically present for a valid REB meeting. If so, then some REBs may conclude that nothing short of its members’ being physically present in the same room would suffice under the TCPS.

6. On the other hand, some REBs may interpret the apparent purpose and function of the phrase, noting that neither Article 1.9 nor the supporting commentary to Article 1.7 explicitly mention, specify or require physical presence. If so, then the standard might arguably be satisfied if its purpose, function and spirit are met. From this perspective, some REBs might acknowledge that videoconferencing does not offer the immediate physical presence dimension of face-to-face meetings, yet still conclude that for occasional uses, it does provide a sufficiently high quality approximation of the audio, visual, non-verbal, temporal and direct interactive dimensions of the face-to-face standard to permit effective REB deliberations.

7. Under this latter view, some REBs may regard the occasional use of videoconferencing as a functional equivalent to conventional face-to-face meetings, particularly with REBs that have already established the interactive dynamic, communications and discussion essential for effective committee decisions. For example, videoconferencing may occasionally be regarded as necessary for meetings when REB members are geographically dispersed and there is no other way of holding an effective REB meeting, when resource constraints prevent all meetings from being conducted face-to-face, or when exceptional or exigent circumstances significantly disrupt or limit the feasibility of face-to-face REB meetings, such as during a public health emergency. Being responsive to contextual issues in this way is consistent with the TCPS Ethics Framework, which encourages non-formulaic, context-sensitive implementation of the principles and standards of the TCPS.3

8. PRE is of the view that both interpretative approaches noted above may be deduced from the current text of the TCPS. This is due in part to its lack of explicit reference to alternatives or exceptions to face-to-face meetings, even for limited or exigent circumstances. The absence of specificity enables REBs across the country to differ in their views on how best to interpret and precisely apply the existing text in the TCPS. If a lack of specific and explicit guidance induces undue variation in REB procedures, then it undermines the TCPS goal of common procedures and coherent, harmonized ethics review.4 Upon reflection, PRE is thus of the view that REBs in our modern age should, under a principle of reasonable limited use, have recourse to such technologies as videoconferencing meetings, to address periodic or clear necessities without undermining the general standard of face-to-face meetings under the TCPS. The relevant TCPS text does not now clearly indicate so. Accordingly, PRE will recommend such an amendment.

Operational Issues in the Conduct of REB Meetings via Videoconference

9. If REBs make use of videoconferences under circumstances described above, such meetings should respect the principles and procedures outlined in the TCPS, while ensuring that the technology does not impede the operations and functions of the REB meeting. At the beginning of the videoconference, a roll call would inform all parties of the present participants at the various locations. A quorum would be established in accordance with the TCPS,5 and decisions should not be made if technical difficulties prevent the maintenance of an REB quorum. Appropriate measures to respect the privacy and confidentiality of information under review and the REB discussions may be best guaranteed in video communication through a secure transmission. It would seem prudent that you outline, ahead of time, written procedures for the occasional use of videoconference in the conduct of your REB meetings, taking the above elements into consideration.

10. Given PRE’s plan to clarify this issue in the TCPS, we would be interested in your practical experience and observations if you implement procedures for REB meetings using videoconference technology.

We hope you will find this information helpful to your human research ethics deliberations on the TCPS.

Sincerely,

Secretariat on Research Ethics
On behalf of the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics
pre.ethics.gc.ca


  1. PRE provides advice on such interpretation questions to assist the research ethics community in applying the TCPS to the ethical issues it faces. While responses to TCPS interpretation questions may address ethical dimensions of legal issues in research ethics, PRE does not provide legal advice. Nor does it act as an appeal body on REB or institutional decisions.
  2. TCPS, commentary to Article 1.7.
  3. See TCPS, “Context of an Ethics Framework,” page i.9.
  4. See TCPS, “Goals and Rational of the Policy,” page i.2
  5. According to TCPS commentary to Article 1.7, page 1.8, institutions “...should ...establish quorum rules for REBs. When there is less than full attendance, decisions requiring full review should be adopted only if the members attending the meeting possess the range of background and expertise stipulated in Article 1.3.”