Human Research Ethics

Research with human participants is a privilege, not a right

All research involving human participants conducted by staff or students affiliated with the University of Alberta, or involving University resources, must be reviewed and approved by one of the University’s Research Ethics Boards (REB), or an REB designated by the University before the research starts (ie. the University has designated the review of cancer research to the HREBA-CC). Human participant research at the University may be funded or unfunded. It ranges from anonymous internet surveys, interviews and focus groups to studies involving retrospective chart reviews and blood samples, clinical drug trials, surgical interventions and longitudinal studies. Human participant research is carried out in every Faculty and nearly every academic department. About 40% of human research studies are conducted by researchers in the humanities, fine arts, social sciences, education, business, science and law. The balance of human research ethics files relate to health research, including clinical research and industry sponsored clinical trials.

Research ethics review is focused on protection of the participants and maximizing benefits while minimizing harms. The review process is determined by the level of risk the proposed research presents for the participants. The level of risk is dependent on the participants, their capacity to provide free and informed consent and the nature of the intervention or activity being studied. Minimal risk and above minimal risk research is conducted in all domains. Using a proportionate review process, the REBs ensure that individual research projects involving human participants, identifiable data and/or human biological material meet the requirements of the current Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct of Research Involving Humans and University policy as well as provincial, federal and other legislation and regulations, as applicable.

Ethics approval is valid for up to one year at a time and must be maintained for the duration of the human participant research activity, through an annual review process. Changes to a study must be approved by the REB before they are implemented.

The human Research Ethics Boards or Panels administered by the University of Alberta are described in detail here

Access the Research Ethics and Management Online system

Evolution of Research Ethics Boards at the University of Alberta

In the 1990s, each Faculty maintained its own board so there were over 15 REBs on campus. Research involving staff or students from multiple Faculties had to be reviewed by multiple REBs, each of which had different processes, forms and standards. Over time, many REBs and researchers accepted that there were benefits to having fewer, larger boards so boards merged and were reorganized. In parallel, administration of the REBs moved from the Faculties to the Research Ethics Office. REBs 1 and 2, established in 2011, now review human participant research from every Faculty and School on campus, about 1600 applications a year. 

In the health sciences, larger, specialized REBs have been in place longer because of the University’s long-standing and collaborative relationship with provincial healthcare organizations. In 1997, the Capital Health Authority (now Alberta Health Services), Caritas Health (now Covenant Health) and the University agreed to merge their separate hospital and Faculty based REBs in favour of one conjoint board that would serve all three institutions at the same time. The result was the Health Research Ethics Board (HREB).

Through that agreement, the institutions confirmed that all human health research involving their researchers, facilities or resources would be reviewed by HREB. That agreement was updated in 2010, following the establishment of Alberta Health Services,. Currently, all University health research as well as all research involving Covenant Health personnel or facilities province-wide and all research involving AHS researchers and facilities in the Edmonton and North Zones is reviewed by HREB, which operates as two separate panels, REBs 3 (aka Health Panel) and 4 (Biomedical Panel). In 2014, the University of Lethbridge designated the HREB as the reviewing body for health research involving University of Lethbridge researchers, facilities or resources.