Corrections Research Guidelines

The BC Corrections Performance, Research, and Evaluation (PREv) Unit supports the commitment of the Corrections Branch to evidence-based practice and standards in custodial and community case management and supervision. The goal of the PREv Unit is to support operations. The PREv Unit supports internal, cross-ministry, and external academic research and evaluation projects. The unit ensures that external agencies, which are screened and approved to conduct research within the Corrections Branch, adhere to branch guidelines, accurately interpret branch policies and data, and demonstrate a high ethical standard in research practice.

All research proposals requesting access to Corrections Branch data, clients, inmates, or staff, are reviewed by the Research Application Committee of the Corrections Branch, Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. The Committee meets quarterly to review proposals, and not all proposals are approved. Proposals are assessed based on quality (e.g., purpose and methodology of the proposed study are clearly described); whether the proposed study supports the operational goals of the Corrections Branch and does not duplicate research already underway; as well as practical considerations such as timelines and demands the study would place on Corrections staff.

Research proposals submitted for consideration are expected to be of the highest quality and must clearly describe what the researcher is proposing to study and why; and detail how the researcher proposes to conduct the research. Student researchers may wish to consult the Appendix to ensure their research proposal contains all the necessary elements. In addition, proposed studies must conform to the highest ethical standards, including addressing issues relating to conflict of interest. 

Researchers wishing to access Corrections Branch data are encouraged to contact the Research Application Committee Chair to ensure the proposed research:

  • Does not duplicate research already underway;
  • Fits within the framework of supporting the operational goals of the Corrections Branch; and
  • Conforms to the highest ethical standards, including addressing issues relating to Conflict of Interest (see below). Because of the potential for conflicts of interest, internal applicants (i.e., Corrections Branch employees) in particular are encouraged to contact the Chair to discuss their proposed research prior to submitting an application.

Conflict of Interest

For researchers, it can be difficult to imagine how their work could be seen as a conflict of interest. Researchers must always consider the appearance of their work from the perspective of participants and research audiences. An apparent conflict of interest could be due to a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of a researcher's project by others. The existence of a conflict of interest should be based on whether a reasonable observer can conclude that a conflict may exist. When a real, potential, or perceived conflict of interest exists, researchers can then identify it and take steps to deal with it.

What is a conflict of interest?

A conflict of interest (COI) exists, or may exist, when a person or organization has multiple interests, which could impact a study or be perceived to do so. The heart of effective research is the ability to engage in fair assessments and interpretations without the influence of personal, institutional, or financial concerns. Conflict of interest or even the appearance of COI can damage the trust relationships the research community depends on – between researchers, participants, sponsors, institutions, professional associations, and society.

Researchers need to be aware of actual, perceived and potential conflicts of interest that may compromise their independence or objectivity. For any identified COI, researchers must demonstrate how the conflict can be eliminated, minimized or managed to ensure the ethical conduct of the research.

Types of COI that researchers may encounter in working with BC Corrections data are:

  1. Interpersonal: Researchers' conflicts of interest may arise from interpersonal relationships (e.g. family, colleagues, or community relationships). If a spouse or family member, colleague or friend stands to benefit from the outcome of a study, the researcher has a conflict of interest. For example, a researcher whose evaluation of non-violent communication programs includes one that their spouse’s company offers could be seen as having a conflict of interest because there is a real or perceived possibility that the outcome of the study could be biased to show the positive impact of the spouse’s treatment program.
  2. Dual Roles: Researchers often have dual roles in academic and other professional settings. Having responsibilities as both a researcher and a therapist, a probation officer (PO), a consultant, an employer, or other role can lead to conflicts of interest. For example, a researcher interested in evaluating treatment programs for domestically violent offenders who also serves as a consultant for a local service provider of one such program could be seen as having a conflict of interest because of a real or perceived view that the outcome of the study could be swayed to show the positive impact of the treatment program.
  3. Strong Personal Views: Researchers may hold unfavourable attitudes/views towards individuals or groups, which could create a perception of bias. It could be perceived that the researcher would use their discretion to disadvantage those particular people or sections of the community. Alternately, it could be seen that a researcher with strong views on an issue may use the study to pursue a personal agenda. For example, a researcher who wishes to investigate instances of wrongdoing by correctional officers and believes all COs abuse the power of their role, could design the study in a way to have the results confirm their belief.

How to assess if a conflict of interest exists

It is impossible to define all the potential areas where a COI may arise. To assess whether real or perceived conflicts of interest exist, consider:

  1. Would an outside observer, aware of the researcher’s personal or private interests, question the researcher’s ability to make objective decisions about the research?
  2. Is the research designed in such a way as to influence the outcome to match the researcher’s interests/views?
  3. If allegations of a conflict of interest were made public, would people be convinced by the facts of the matter that the ethical conduct of the study was not threatened, or, would suspicion of conflict of interest linger?

Even the appearance of COI can inflict damage on the reputation of the researcher and the research community. A COI may affect, or be seen to affect, not only the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data, but also the procurement of materials, sharing of results, choice of protocol, involvement of human participants, or the use of statistical methods.

Dealing with a conflict of interest

Once a conflict of interest is identified and determined to be a real, perceived or potential threat to the ethical conduct of research, the next step is to choose a strategy for dealing with it. There are three options:

  1. Researchers may be able to eliminate COI by adjusting the research design. For example, if there is concern that a researcher’s role as a correctional officer may interfere with the voluntariness of consent from inmate participants, the recruitment and conduct of the study can be delegated to an individual, such as an academic colleague of the researcher, who has no power relationship with prospective participants.
  2. If a COI cannot be eliminated, there may be a way to minimize it. For example, if a researcher discovers that a research assistant has a power relationship with potential participants, they can assign that research assistant to data entry or data analysis rather than recruitment and testing.
  3. A COI that cannot be eliminated or minimized may be managed. One way of managing COI is to disclose it and outline how it will be managed throughout all aspects of the study.

Note that dealing with a COI does not guarantee that a proposal will be approved by the Research Application Committee.

Staff research within BC Corrections

The Corrections Branch is committed to supporting staff pursuing educational opportunities outside the terms of their employment. Staff who are required to complete research as part of their studies have a dual role: they are studying and carrying out research whilst continuing a professional role. Students for whom this applies often choose to conduct their research project in their place of work. In such cases, extra care must be taken to address any actual, perceived, or possible conflicts of interest that may arise from the proposed research. This becomes particularly salient in instances where staff wish to conduct research with Corrections Branch data, clients, inmates, or staff.

Staff who wish to conduct research within the Corrections Branch need to demonstrate how they will ensure their research project will meet the highest ethical standards and will avoid actual, perceived, or possible conflicts of interest. Some issues to address include:

  • What if potential research participants already know the researcher in their professional role? This can create additional perceived pressure on participants to participate in the study. This issue is compounded if potential research participants are in the researcher’s professional care.
  • What level of anonymity and confidentiality can be offered to participants? Researchers must consider the dual nature of the audiences for the research findings. For example, if a participant is referred to in a thesis as a probation officer at a particular probation office, this may protect their anonymity to an external audience, but render them identifiable to those at the office who may also be reading the report.
  • How will the researcher separate their working role from their role as a researcher?
  • What happens if the professional role and role as a researcher come into conflict? An example of a common conflict is when one’s professional role obliges an individual to take action following disclosure by a participant, which falls outside the obligations for disclosure as a researcher (e.g., finding out about illicit activity).
  • How can the research be designed to eliminate or minimize bias?

The Corrections Branch takes potential conflict of interest arising from researcher’s dual roles very seriously. Because of real, perceived, or potential COI, proposals involving data collection from participants within a staff member’s direct workplace will not be approved. For example, a researcher who wishes to interview their colleagues about how working conditions in correctional facilities could be improved will not be approved to do so within their own facility. In addition, due to the hierarchical nature of correctional centres, depending on the researcher’s position within the correctional centre, staff (at this or any other centre) may feel pressured to participate in the research even though they may not want to. Consequently, it may not be feasible to conduct this study in any correctional facility in BC and the researcher may need to look to another jurisdiction in order to conduct the study.

Sources

Interagency Advisory Panel and Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research (2014 December). The TCPS 2 Tutorial Course on Research Ethics (CORE). Accessed October 27, 2015 at http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/eng/education/tutorial-didacticiel/

King’s College London (2011/12-1). Research in the Workplace. Retrieved December 21, 2015 from http://www.kcl.ac.uk/innovation/research/support/ethics/storeddocs/4TrainingAdvice/4Researchintheworkplace/ResearchintheWorkplaceguidance.pdf

Melbourne Research (2010, January). Conflict of Interest in Research (MRO_Pub51). The University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Retrieved December 21, 2015 from https://mro.unimelb.edu.au/sites/default/files/public/brochures/pub51web.pdf

Ombudsman Victoria (2008, March). Conflict of interest in the public sector. Victorian government printer, Session 2006-08, P.P. No. 82. Retrieved December 21, 2015 from https://www.ombudsman.vic.gov.au/getattachment/f6ba8398-2e7b-41f6-bbfd-bed87f0bcfac

Appendix -- Guidelines for Research Proposals

This is a guide for the types of questions/issues that should be addressed in a research proposal submitted to the Research Application Committee of the Corrections Branch, Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. Not all issues will need to be addressed in every proposal; however, researchers will need to carefully consider whether this is the case for any given study.

Purpose of the Study

  • Clear statement of purpose of the research; research question(s) are clearly stated
  • There is an explicit rationale for proposed study (e.g., Why is the topic worth studying? Does the research have practical significance? Will it add to existing theoretical perspectives or attempt to test theoretical perspectives?)
  • Positionality statement: Identify any potential conflicts of interest in relation to this research project. Describe the experiences, disciplinary training, theoretical perspectives that shape the researcher(s) relationship to this topic.

Participants/Data Sources

  • Who are the proposed participants or data sources? Are there any particular challenges that may be encountered in trying to gain access? How will these be addressed?
  • What potential harm could stem from the research? (This could include harm to Corrections clients, inmates, or employees; to members of the community; or to public confidence in Corrections.) What steps will be taken in order to lessen this potential harm?
  • What measures will be used to ensure confidentiality and/or anonymity?

Context of the Study

  • Where will the study take place? Why is this setting the most appropriate? How will the site be selected?
  • What characteristics of the setting are important to the study?
  • How will the context/setting shape or affect the findings of the study?

Data Collection Methods

  • How will data be collected? Which method(s) will be used?
  • How will each data collection method answer the research question(s)?
  • Address the strengths and weaknesses of the data collection methods

Measurement

  • What are the key variables? How will these be defined and measured?
  • Are any instruments/measures (for example, interviews or questionnaires) being developed specifically for this study, or will the study use existing measures? Include a copy of any measures with the proposal. If developing an instrument, it may be appropriate to describe the development process and how validity issues were addressed.

Data Management Plan

  • What is the proposed time frame for the study?
  • Has the study received ethics approval?