Research Ethics – Confidentiality and Impact of Boston College’s Decisions

Research Ethics
The Opinion Pages | Letter
New York Times
MAY 13, 2014

To the Editor:

Re “College Says It Will Return Interviews About Ulster” (news article, May 7), about Boston College’s oral history project involving former paramilitaries who had been promised confidentiality so they would speak openly about their roles in the Northern Ireland conflict:

In our academic research, we occasionally gather information about an individual’s involvement in serious crimes during conflicts in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and the Central African Republic.

The data raises different issues concerning research ethics. There may be legal obligations to report knowledge of certain crimes and to report information that could prevent potential or intended future crimes. There may also be ethical obligations to share information needed to prosecute perpetrators of serious crimes, or establish the truth about atrocities.

These obligations may threaten research confidentiality and the process known as informed consent, in which respondents and researchers agree on well-defined possible risks and benefits from participating in the research, and on how data will be handled and for what purpose.

The tension that exists between both sets of obligations remains largely unresolved. It will remain so until the limits of research confidentiality and informed consent are defined, and until clear principles of legal protection for researchers refusing to violate confidentiality agreements are established.

PATRICK VINCK
Wayland, Mass., May 7, 2014

The writer is the director of the Program for Vulnerable Populations, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.