News of Interest: Canadian Academics Strongly Defend Research Confidentiality, Call for University Support of Researchers

Université d’Ottawa – University of Ottowa
Canada’s University
550 Cumberland
Ottawa ON K1N 6N5
25 March 2013

Allan Rock
President, University of Ottawa
Office of the President
Tabaret Hall
550 Cumberland, Room 212
Ottawa ON K1N 6N5

Dear President Rock,

The undersigned are faculty members of the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Ethics Board and the Health Sciences and Science Research Ethics Board. We write to you out of our profound concern with the position of the university administration with regard to the confidentiality case involving University of Ottawa professors Chris Bruckert and Colette Parent (Faculty of Social Sciences). The issue, as we understand it, concerns the Montreal Police department’s efforts to seize confidential data collected in the context of a 2007 research study – in particular, an interview the researchers conducted with a Montreal sex worker. This study received approval by the university’s Research Ethics Board on the explicit condition that the research participants’ confidentiality would be protected. We are asking that the university immediately step forward to offer support to these professors including but not limited to their legal costs in defending the confidentiality of their research records.

Professors Bruckert and Parent have petitioned the Superior Court of Quebec to ensure the confidentiality their research participant was promised in exchange for his participation in the research. The two professors, the Association of Professors at the University of Ottawa, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) have all requested support from the University of Ottawa for the professors’ legal expenses. Despite these requests, the university has thus far refused to cover or contribute to the legal costs of defending research confidentiality.

As you know, publicly-funded research involving human participants must be approved by our research ethics board and must be conducted within the guidelines set forth by the federal Tri-Council Policy Statement on Research Involving Human Participants. This policy states that “when researchers obtain information with a promise of confidentiality, they assume an ethical duty that is central to respect for participants and the integrity of the research project. Breaches of confidentiality may harm the participant, the trust relationship between the researcher and the participant, other individuals or groups, and/or the reputation of the research community.” Furthermore, the Tri-Council Policy Statement makes specific reference to research topics of social importance that may concern illegal activities by participants: “Research that probes sensitive topics (e.g., illegal activities) generally depends on strong promises of confidentiality to establish trust with participants” (TCPS-2: Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. Article 5.1.

By failing to come forward in support of professors Bruckert and Parent, the university is setting a dangerous precedent. Consequences of inaction on this matter could lead to the following:

  1. A “chill factor” placed on any research involving participants who require trust in the strength of confidentiality agreements they sign and that are co-signed by university researchers.
  2. Censure by research funding agencies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
  3. Refusal of these same agencies to release research funds until the university’s actions are brought into alignment with the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Research Involving Human Participants

This sort of inaction on the part of university officials entrusted with advancing intellectual inquiry is inexcusable. At a time when the University of Ottawa is working to take its place among the top research universities in Canada, it is damaging to the reputation of our university and could have an adverse impact on the university’s ability to both recruit students and faculty and attract public and private research grants and contracts.

We believe that the integrity of academic research requires that the university upholds its commitments to confidentiality not only when it is convenient to do so, but also when our ethical and moral obligations require it.

(in alphabetical order)

Jennifer Kilty, Assistant Professor
Department of Criminology, Faculty of Social Science

Marie-Eve Desrosiers, Assistant Professor
School of International Development and Global Studies

Angel M. Foster, Echo Endowed Chair in Women’s Health Research
Faculty of Health Sciences

Thomas Foth, Assistant Professor
School of Nursing, Faculty of Health Sciences

Barbara Graves, Vice-Dean Programs of the Faculty of Education
Chair, Social Sciences and Humanties Research Ethics Board

David Handelman, Professor
Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Faculty of Science

Hélène Laperrière, Associate Professor
School of Nursing, Faculty of Health Sciences

Catherine Lee, Professor
School of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences

Stephen Levey, Assistant Professor
Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Arts

Jean-François Méthot, Professor
Faculty of Philosophy, Dominican University College

Jonathan Paquette, Associate Professor
School of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences

Sergio Piccinin, Professor Emeritus
Humanities and Social Sciences Research Ethics Board

Giuliano Reis, Assistant Professor
Faculty of Education

Gordon Robertson, Professor Emeritus
School of Human Kinetics, Faculty of Health Sciences

Andra Smith, Associate Professor
School of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences

Veronique Strimelle, Professeure agrégée
Département de criminology, Faculté des sciences sociales

Sheena Sumarah, Ph.D. candidate
Educational Counselling, Faculty of Education

Brendan Walshe-Roussel, PhD Candidate
Department of Biology, Faculty of Science

Joel Westheimer, University Research Chair in the Sociology of Education
Faculty of Education

Dr. Chris Bruckert, Criminology
Dr. Christian Detellier, VP Academic
Dr. Mona Nemer, VP Research
Ms. Catherine Paquet, Director, Office of Research Ethics and Integrity
Dr. Collette Parent, Criminology
Dr. Christian Rouillard, APUO President
Mr. James Turk, CAUT President

See previously: Debate over interview material could be key to Luka Rocco Magnotta murder trial