Social scientists routinely promise confidentiality to those who participate in their research. They tell participants that they will not inform anyone else about their involvement with the research or they will not reveal what they have said. This is done to encourage and ensure frank participation. But while ethics committees and review boards often mandate these promises of confidentiality, it is rare for such bodies, or universities, to speak up for researchers when they are faced with demands that they break confidentiality.
Take the ongoing struggle over the Boston College Tapes, for example. The tapes were the result of a project to create an oral history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In order to interview a number of former members of loyalist and republican paramilitaries about their involvement in the violence of the past, researchers promised that what was said would only be released posthumously.
Nevertheless, legal action taken by the Police Service of Northern Ireland could force Boston College – where the tapes are held – to release interviews with former IRA volunteer turned academic, Anthony McIntyre, who was also a lead researcher on the project. The PSNI says it wants the tapes in relation to the notorious 1972 IRA murder of Jean McConville. The subpoena is currently being challenged by McIntyre.