British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, St. Paul's Hospital, Canada; Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Canada; Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales, Canada. Electronic address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ethnographic research among people who inject drugs (PWID) involves complex ethical issues. While ethical review frameworks have been critiqued by social scientists, there is a lack of social science research examining institutional ethical review processes, particularly in relation to ethnographic work. This case study describes the institutional ethical review of an ethnographic research project using observational fieldwork and in-depth interviews to examine injection drug use. The review process and the salient concerns of the review committee are recounted, and the investigators' responses to the committee's concerns and requests are described to illustrate how key issues were resolved. The review committee expressed concerns regarding researcher safety when conducting fieldwork, and the investigators were asked to liaise with the police regarding the proposed research. An ongoing dialogue with the institutional review committee regarding researcher safety and autonomy from police involvement, as well as formal consultation with a local drug user group and solicitation of opinions from external experts, helped to resolve these issues. This case study suggests that ethical review processes can be particularly challenging for ethnographic projects focused on illegal behaviours, and that while some challenges could be mediated by modifying existing ethical review procedures, there is a need for legislation that provides legal protection of research data and participant confidentiality.