, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 271-297

Defending Research Confidentiality “To the Extent the Law Allows:” Lessons From the Boston College Subpoenas

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Abstract

Although in the US there have been dozens of subpoenas seeking information gathered by academic researchers under a pledge of confidentiality, few cases have garnered as much attention as the two sets of subpoenas issued to Boston College seeking interviews conducted with IRA operatives who participated in The Belfast Project, an oral history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. For the researchers and participants, confidentiality was understood to be unlimited, while Boston College has asserted that it pledged confidentiality only “to the extent American law allows.” This a priori limitation to confidentiality is invoked by many researchers and universities in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, but there has been little discussion of what the phrase means and what ethical obligations accompany it. An examination of the researchers’ and Boston College’s behaviour in relation to the subpoenas provides the basis for that discussion. We conclude that Boston College has provided an example that will be cited for years to come of how not to protect research participants to the extent American law allows.

The authors thank Chris Bray, Anthony McIntyre, Ed Moloney, Russel Ogden, John Russell, and an anonymous reviewer for their comments.