The Betrayal of Research Confidentiality in British Sociology

The Betrayal of Research Confidentiality in British Sociology
John Lowman and Ted Palys, Simon Fraser University
Research Ethics journal

Published online before print Research Ethics March 20, 2013


Research confidentiality in Britain is under attack. Indeed, in some quarters the ‘Law of the Land’ doctrine that absolutely subjugates research ethics to law is already a fait accompli. To illustrate the academic freedom issues at stake, the article discusses:

  1. the Cambridge Psychology Research Ethics Committee’s ban of interview questions about a research participant’s involvement in criminal acts;
  2. the awarding of damages against Exeter University when it reneged on its agreement to uphold a doctoral student’s guarantee of ‘absolute confidentiality’ in his research on assisted suicide; and
  3. the controversy around the UK government’s attempt to obtain confidential records from the Belfast Project – an oral history of paramilitaries involved in the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The article urges British researchers to practice – or, at least, defend the academic freedom of their colleagues to practice – the ‘ethics-first’ doctrine of strict confidentiality that several North American disciplinary associations encourage.

Access full article at Sage Journals

Contact for comment: T. Palys and J. Lowman

Within this article:
A brief description of the debate over research confidentiality in North America sets the stage for a discussion of the culture of disclosure that has taken hold in Britain. The paper aspires to defend an ethic of strict confidentiality against those who would impose the Law of the Land perspective on their peers in the UK

The threat of court-ordered disclosure in North American research
‘Guilty knowledge’: Losing the plot
Co-opting researchers as informants: Research on assisted suicide
– Exeter’s ethics review process
– The inquiries
– The Visitor’s judgment
The Belfast Project
– Inconsistency in the Belfast Project contracts
– Academic reactions to the subpoenas: A study in contrasts
US confidentiality certificates: Reconciling research ethics and the Law of Disclosure
Protecting research confidentiality Research Ethics

The Betrayal of Research Confidentiality in British Sociology
John Lowman and Ted Palys
Research Ethics published online 20 March 2013
DOI: 10.1177/1747016113481145

The online version of this article can be found at:

Published by:
On behalf of:
The Association of Research Ethics Committees
Research Ethics

assisted suicide research, Belfast Project, guilty knowledge, research confidentiality