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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Strictly Confidential?: Integrity and the Disclosure of Criminological and Socio-Legal Research (Papers: Mark Israel 2004)

 


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Abstract: When people allow researchers to investigate them, they often negotiate terms for the agreement. Participants in research may, for example, consent on the basis that the information obtained about them will be used only by the researchers and only in particular ways. The information is private and is voluntarily offered to the researcher in confidence. Researchers can justify protecting confidentiality by appealing to consequentialist-, rights- or fidelity-based arguments. Failure to respect confidentiality might not only affect one research project, but could have a ‘chilling effect’ on all criminological research. However, various researchers working in criminology, socio–legal studies and related fields have come under institutional, legal, physical and ethical pressures to disclose confidential information. They have been subpoenaed, imprisoned and have faced threats from armed drug dealers. To protect their sources, they have lied to correctional authorities, prosecutors and police (as well as to armed drug dealers). Drawing on an international literature, I examine some of the legal and methodological measures that researchers have taken to protect data, as well as some of the rationales that might justify disclosing information given in confidence by research participants.

“When people allow researchers to investigate them, they often negotiate terms for the agreement. Participants in research may, for example, consent on the basis that the information obtained about them will be used only by specific researchers and only in particular ways. The information is private and is voluntarily offered to the researcher in confidence.

In some research projects, negotiations around confidentiality may be fairly straightforward. Some researchers are able to operate in relatively predictable contexts, where standardized assurances about material may be included in a covering letter with a questionnaire. However, other work takes place in informal and unpredictable environments, where agreements may need to be negotiated with individuals and groups and renegotiated during the course of lengthy fieldwork.

Some forms of research may create significant risks for research participants. In criminological and socio–legal research, it is typically the researcher who approaches a potential participant and asks for confidential information to be revealed in exchange for . . . possibly not very much direct benefit (Robinson 1991). As two Canadian criminologists, John Lowman and Ted Palys, have argued:

Our research subjects divulge information in confidence about their own criminal activity . . . and sexual activity to a person who has asked them to divulge the information, with the full knowledge they are offering us ‘data’ that will at some point be compiled, analyzed and published. The researcher usually…

Israel, M (2004) Strictly Confidential? Integrity and the Disclosure of Criminological and Socio-Legal Research. British Journal of Criminology 44/5, pp715-40.
https://www.academia.edu/16344714/Strictly_Confidential_Integrity_and_the_Disclosure_of_Criminological_and_Socio-Legal_Research?verify_fulltext=42515537
Publisher: http://bjc.oxfordjournals.org/content/44/5/715



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