Journal of Academic Ethics

, Volume 5, Issue 2–4, pp 163–177 | Cite as

Strict Confidentiality: An Alternative to Pre’s “Limited Confidentiality” Doctrine

  • John Lowman
  • Ted Palys


In “Advisory Opinion on Confidentiality, Its Limits and Duties to Others” the Canadian Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) articulates a rationale for a priori limitations to research confidentiality, based largely on putative legal duties to violate confidentiality in certain circumstances. We argue that PRE promotes a “Law of the Land” doctrine of research ethics that is but one approach to resolving potential conflicts between law and research ethics. PRE emphasises risks that have never materialized, and ignores jurisprudence on challenges to research confidentiality. When we examine what the courts have actually done with research-based claims of privilege, we find they clearly recognize and affirm researchers’ ethical obligations to maintain strict confidentiality and protect research participants. Ironically, the one exception – where the court ordered that information be disclosed – occurred precisely because the researchers had limited confidentiality. The passive approach PRE espouses leaves vital questions about what protecting confidentiality to the “full extent possible in law” means, and leaves the impression that academics should accept whatever limitations the courts may impose without participating in the courtroom dialogue determining where those limits are drawn. In contrast, we believe confidentiality is so important to the protection of research participants and the integrity of the research enterprise that it is worth fighting for. The “ethics-first” doctrine of “strict confidentiality” we describe adheres to the social sciences’ and humanities’ longstanding commitment to research confidentiality and duty to the research participant.


Strict confidentiality Limited confidentiality doctrine Canadian research ethics Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics 



Thanks to Russel Ogden for his comments on this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of CriminologySimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

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