Journal of Urban Health

, Volume 84, Issue 4, pp 478–493 | Cite as

Ethical Dilemmas in Community-Based Participatory Research: Recommendations for Institutional Review Boards

  • Sarah FlickerEmail author
  • Robb Travers
  • Adrian Guta
  • Sean McDonald
  • Aileen Meagher


National and international codes of research conduct have been established in most industrialized nations to ensure greater adherence to ethical research practices. Despite these safeguards, however, traditional research approaches often continue to stigmatize marginalized and vulnerable communities. Community-based participatory research (CBPR) has evolved as an effective new research paradigm that attempts to make research a more inclusive and democratic process by fostering the development of partnerships between communities and academics to address community-relevant research priorities. As such, it attempts to redress ethical concerns that have emerged out of more traditional paradigms. Nevertheless, new and emerging ethical dilemmas are commonly associated with CBPR and are rarely addressed in traditional ethical reviews. We conducted a content analysis of forms and guidelines commonly used by institutional review boards (IRBs) in the USA and research ethics boards (REBs) in Canada. Our intent was to see if the forms used by boards reflected common CBPR experience. We drew our sample from affiliated members of the US-based Association of Schools of Public Health and from Canadian universities that offered graduate public health training. This convenience sample (n = 30) was garnered from programs where application forms were available online for download between July and August, 2004. Results show that ethical review forms and guidelines overwhelmingly operate within a biomedical framework that rarely takes into account common CBPR experience. They are primarily focused on the principle of assessing risk to individuals and not to communities and continue to perpetuate the notion that the domain of “knowledge production” is the sole right of academic researchers. Consequently, IRBs and REBs may be unintentionally placing communities at risk by continuing to use procedures inappropriate or unsuitable for CBPR. IRB/REB procedures require a new framework more suitable for CBPR, and we propose alternative questions and procedures that may be utilized when assessing the ethical appropriateness of CBPR.


Community-based participatory research Ethical dilemmas Ethical issues in CBPR Research ethics Vulnerable communities 



The authors thank the many community-based researchers who shared their problems and concerns with us. In addition, our gratitude goes to Meredith Minkler, Sarena Seifer, and the anonymous reviewers who gave us feedback to improve the manuscript. Finally, we are indebted to David Flicker for his editorial genius. This research was supported by the Wellesley Institute.


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Copyright information

© The New York Academy of Medicine 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah Flicker
    • 1
    Email author
  • Robb Travers
    • 2
  • Adrian Guta
    • 3
  • Sean McDonald
    • 4
  • Aileen Meagher
    • 5
  1. 1.Faculty of Environmental StudiesYork UniversityTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Ontario HIV Treatment NetworkTorontoCanada
  3. 3.University of TorontoTorontoCanada
  4. 4.Community Based Research Resource CentreWellesley InstituteTorontoCanada
  5. 5.Mental Health Community Advisory PanelSt. Michael’s HospitalTorontoCanada

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