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Past Interpretations of the TCPS

Subject Research or Art? Video Documentation of Reactions to Performing Arts
Keywords art, research, naturalistic observation, consent, privacy, confidentiality, videotaping, data storage, practicably, secondary use, identifiable
TCPS Articles 1.1, 2.1, 2.3, 3.2
Date November 2003

PDF Research_or_Art_Video_Documentation_of_Reactions_to_Performing_ Arts_Nov2003.pdf

1. This is in response to your question about the interface between art and research. Our response to your question is provided within the context of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS) of 1998 (with 2000, 2002 amendments). It is also based on the description you provided in your inquiry. You ask whether the use of artistic installations or performances that include observational and video documentation of people's reactions to artistic performances constitute "research." Your question has been referred to the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) for advice1.

2. Your inquiry raises several issues about (a) circumstances in which techniques or methodologies such as observational and video documentation of artistic performance or installations would qualify as "research involving humans," (b) informed consent of participants, and (c) privacy and confidentiality issues related to the storage or banking of data that identify participants on videotapes.

Art as "Research" and Research Ethics Board (REB) Review

3. The use of video-based research to study and document natural behaviour in a variety of settings raises important ethical issues.2 With regard to "research" requiring ethics review, the TCPS (articles 1.1 and 2.3) describes the basic elements that determine whether research that involves human participants should undergo ethics review by an institutional Research Ethics Board (REB). The TCPS defines research as "a systematic investigation to establish facts, principles or generalizable knowledge." Furthermore, according to the explanatory comment to TCPS article 2.3: "Naturalistic observation is used to study behaviour in a natural environment" and "generally implies that the subjects do not know that they are being observed." Article 2.3 requires studies that qualify as naturalistic observation to undergo REB review, but provides exceptions for particular situations. Based on the description of your question, the undertaking that you describe as "art" may be regarded as, or have elements of, "naturalistic observation." Naturalistic observation is one variety of ethnographic research that focuses on the behaviors of members of a community in naturally occurring settings.

4. A central step in distinguishing research from other undertakings is to clarify the purpose and function of the initiative. What is the purpose and function of the artistic performance, the installation, and the videotaping of attendees? The intent of observing and documenting people's reactions may be considered "quality assurance," "program evaluation" or even "performance evaluation/review." If the investigation is simply to find out how an exhibit is progressing, it would not qualify as "research." However, performance reviews or studies that contain an element of research in addition to assessment may need ethics review (see explanatory notes to TCPS article 1.1[d]). If one purpose, use or eventual function is to provoke reactions or behaviours, to collect data on those reactions, and then use the data in a study of behaviours, then the undertaking is likely to qualify as research involving humans. It would thus require REB review.

5. Consideration should be given to the intent to apply the findings beyond the specific instance under study, such as to develop a theory or concepts with wider applicability.

Informed Consent

6. We assume that the setting in which this activity takes place is a public space. The description you provide implies that attendees are not necessarily conscious of the fact that a video recording and/or study of their behaviours is being made. If the factors noted above indicate that the undertaking likely involves research, then attendees need to be informed of their potential for being videotaped. REBs can help researchers design appropriate consent procedure. For example, one consent model that the REB may wish to consider in these circumstances is a notification, such as a prominent posting, about the study. If pre-notification is deemed to be inimical to the spontaneous reactions of viewers or to in some other way detract from the intended effects of the performance, participants may afterward be offered the option of withholding permission to use their images.

7. Even if the proposed activity does not constitute research, your province or territory's privacy laws and regulations may require informing attendees about the videotaping. It is also advisable that participants are provided with additional pertinent information following participation. However, in exceptional circumstances that indicate that a study can practicably be carried out only with a full waiver of informed consent, the REB may consider a waiver or alteration of some elements of informed consent, provided that the conditions outlined in TCPS article 2.1(c) are met.

Privacy and Confidentiality

8. You mention that the reactions/data collected may be made available on videotapes and in databases. When there is a possibility to identify subjects, "researchers shall secure REB approval for obtaining identifiable personal information about subjects. Approval for such research shall include such considerations as: (e) any modes of observation (e.g., photographs or videos) . in the research that allow identification of particular subjects." (TCPS, article 3.2). "As a general rule the best protection of the confidentiality of personal information and records will be achieved through anonymity. If the data being stored are truly anonymous, the research project will need only minimal REB scrutiny" (TCPS, page 3.2). As we responded to a previous inquiry about naturalistic observation and videotaping in another context:

The more that the data contained in video recordings are "truly anonymous,"the more that the privacy interests of participants are protected. We recognize within the privacy and confidentiality provisions of the TCPS a general ethical duty of researchers in such circumstances to anonymize personally identifying recorded data, as one means of minimizing risks to targeted and inadvertent participants. The researcher should demonstrate to the REB that necessary precautions have been taken to ensure the confidentiality of the records and anonymity of the data used publicly.3

9. In the case of storage of videotapes, participants also need to be informed about where and for how long the tapes will be stored, who will have access to them, what the tapes will be used for, whether these may be published, and what precautions have been taken to secure the tape(s) or database's confidentiality--especially in cases where participants' identity may be revealed. According to commentary to TCPS article 2.3, "Researchers and REBs should also be aware that, in some jurisdictions, publication of identifying information-for example, a photograph taken in a public place but focusing on a private individual who was not expecting this action-may be interpreted in a civil suit as an invasion of privacy."

10. Other issues relate to secondary use of data, especially for data with identifiable information. Under the TCPS, data collected for one purpose and then proposed for use in research, or the subsequent use of research videos for educational purposes, may require participants' consent for the new use (TCPS, page 3.4). The issue of secondary use should be one of the main elements for the researcher to address and the REB to review. This should be given scrutiny in cases that you describe as "feedback by participants on sensitive subjects." This activity increases the potential for invasiveness, and may be considered comparable to interviewing individuals on sensitive subjects and obtaining their feedback.

11. In summary, the purpose and functions of artistic performances that involve videotaping of participants' feedback influences whether it qualifies as research. If those purposes and functions indicate that human research is involved, then participants need to be informed that they are being videotaped. Futhermore, unless the REB alters or waives the informed consent for the study, the potential for storage and usage of the tapes, as well as the potential for identifying information, needs to be disclosed to participants. Participants' privacy should be appropriately protected relative to the context in which information about them is gathered, and appropriate precautions need to be taken to secure the confidentiality of their data.

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


Secretariat on Research Ethics,
on behalf of
The Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics

  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. See, e.g., U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Legal and Ethical Issues in the Use of Video in Education Research, Jan. 2002.
    Margaret A. DuFon, "Video recording in ethnographic SLA research: Some issues of validity in data collection," Language Learning & Technology 6, 1 (Jan. 2002) 40-59.
  3. See PRE's interpretation on Inter-University Ethics Approval, Naturalistic Observation and Privacy, Sept. 2003.