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3.1 Understanding the Ethics of Data Collection

In order to act on your data collection you will most likely have to engage with your student population and other stakeholders. When approaching students with data collection requests it is important to be aware of certain ethical considerations.

Ethical considerations refer to the ethical practices of how data is collected, stored or shared. These can include securing clear and informed consent, how to safely store data or how to secure permissions to use or share data. Here are some common ethical considerations to think through before collecting your data:

Informed Consent

Informed consent refers to written consent by a person to participate in any given evaluation activity where private data and information may be collected. A document is typically prepared that outlines the goals of the evaluation, why data is being collected from whom and how, how it will be stored, for how long and who will have access to it. Facilitators or data collectors are required to ensure that participants understand this information and provide informed consent.

Confidentiality and Anonymity

Confidential data refers to information that is connected to a particular individual but kept confidential such as medical or service records. Anonymous data is information that cannot be traced to a particular individual. Both kinds of data may prove useful, but it is important to ensure that participants know if and how the information they provide is either confidential or anonymous.

Clear Communication and Data Sharing

While it is important to have clear processes for collecting data, it is equally important to have clear processes for sharing data. This is especially true when individual data is private and sensitive such as mental health or addiction related information. It is useful to let participants know that any information gathered is aggregated in the analysis process as a way of ensuring privacy of individual data.

In the context of mental health programs or services for student populations, the need for ethical considerations in data collection is especially critical given the sensitivity of information and the stigma associated with mental health challenges.

For example, if a professor were to be privy to a student’s clinical diagnosis it may affect how a professor views the student’s academic performance. Similarly, if other students were to be privy to a student’s challenges it may affect how they engage socially and could intentionally or unintentionally result in forms of social exclusion.

A Note on Ethics Reviews

The Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) is a body of the federal government that provides ethical guidelines for any organization or institution conducting research. The PRE has a Tri-Council Policy Statement on ethical conduct for research involving humans. That statements defines research as “[a]n undertaking intended to extend knowledge through a disciplined inquiry and/or systematic investigation. The term “disciplined inquiry” refers to an inquiry that is conducted with the expectation that the method, results, and conclusions will be able to withstand the scrutiny of the relevant research community”.

While the statement has been widely adopted across sectors, including in post-secondary environments, there are no clear set of guidelines or standards for when an evaluation has to go through an ethics review. This means it may not be so easy to know if you need to go through your campus’s ethics review. Often when program and services are using data for their own internal planning purposes, it is not necessary to go through an ethics review. Contact your campus Ethics Office once you have your evaluation plan complete to find out of you need to go through the ethics review process, and how to do it if you do.

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