Over the past several decades the University and outside research funding agencies have become increasingly concerned with ethical questions arising from research on human subjects. Although most of those concerns have arisen in disciplines outside of history, historians and history students whose research includes interviewing people must also pay close attention to ethical guidelines. To that end, the following practices have now been established in the Department of History:
Undergraduate students who plan to use any interviews or questionnaires as part of their research for an essay in any course (or in a HIST 515 individual study project), must receive the prior approval of the Chair of Undergraduate Studies. It is the student's responsibility to present a research plan that demonstrates how he/she will satisfy the two key requirements of informed consent and independent verifiability (see below for more information). In cases that involve low ethical risk, the Undergraduate Chair, in consultation with the Departmental Research Ethics Board, should be able to approve or modify a research plan within a day or two. No interviews may be done until approval is given.
In some situations, as when many or all students in a class are doing research projects with a similar methodology, the instructor can and should act on the students' behalf, designing research ethics guidelines and submitting them for approval. Once approved, the instructor will be responsible for overseeing their correct implementation.
In cases involving more serious ethical risks, the Departmental Research Ethics Board will need to subject the proposal to a detailed full review, or may need to send the proposal to the General Research Ethics Board of the University for further evaluation. Again, no interviews may be done until final approval is given.
Informed Consent and Independent Verifiability are the two principles that govern all research ethics questions.
Informed consent: Research subjects (i.e., the people you are interviewing), must clearly and completely understand why you are interviewing them, and how you will be using the information that they provide you. They must understand how their information will be stored, whether or not their identity will be kept confidential (and if so, how that confidentiality is to be guaranteed), and how they will be cited in your final paper. The simplest and easiest way to obtain informed consent is to have your subject sign a consent form that explicitly sets out this information. Consent forms should be made in duplicate, with the research subject keeping one copy and you keeping the other.
Independent verifiability: It is your duty to ensure that you do not misrepresent another's words. It is your responsibility to keep records so that you can prove that your subjects did in fact say the things that you attribute to them. These records must be preserved, and may have to be made available to other scholars under certain circumstances.
The best way to do this is simply to preserve tape recordings of all interviews. If transcripts of the tapes are made (a very good thing to do), you must still not erase or discard the original tapes unless the research subject is permitted to read the transcript and signs a document attesting that the transcript is a faithful account of his/her words.
If you do not record an interview, but work only from notes, it is mandatory that you show your notes to the research subject at the end of the interview, and have him/her sign a document agreeing that your notes faithfully represent what he/she said. You must keep those notes and the subject's signed verification of their correctness.
"On the record" versus confidential interviews: For most historical research, "on the record" interviews are expected and preferred. The interview subject agrees to provide information "on the record,"and agrees to be cited by name as the source. When interviews are clearly and explicitly "on the record," the dual principles of informed consent and independent verifiability are easily satisfied and do not conflict. These cases are normally considered "low ethical risk" and receive expedited review.
Under some circumstances, however, interview subjects may not be candid and forthcoming unless they are guaranteed confidentiality. Requests for confidentiality must be honoured (or the interview terminated); however, requests for confidentiality cannot be allowed to compromise the principle of independent verifiability. In these cases, therefore, special procedures must be established and very carefully followed in order to guarantee the anonymity of the subject on the one hand, but on the other hand to ensure that interview records are still preserved and can still be consulted by other scholars under tightly controlled conditions.
These are the difficult cases that require closer scrutiny by the Departmental Research Ethics Board, or in some cases by the University's General Research Ethics Board. Fortunately, procedures have been developed to deal with such cases, and there are models to follow. Researchers who find themselves in this kind of situation are advised to read several books about the theory, practice, and ethics of oral history before writing their ethics proposals and before embarking on their research.