Journal of Academic Ethics

, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 265–284 | Cite as

Going Boldly Where No One Has Gone Before? How Confidentiality Risk Aversion is Killing Research on Sensitive Topics

  • Ted PalysEmail author
  • John Lowman


Bernhard and Young (Journal of Academic Ethics, 7, 175-191, 2009) allege that a “myth of confidentiality” plagues research in North America because of the absence of statute-based legal protections and the requirements of some REBs to limit confidentiality “to the extent permitted by law.” In this commentary we describe statute-based protections for research confidentiality available in the United States, clarify the legal situation regarding research confidentiality in Canada, and explain that REBs that “require” confidentiality to be limited by law are imposing a doctrine that is not required by the TCPS and may violate researchers’ academic freedom. The paper laments how excessive REB risk aversion and inaction by the granting agency Presidents has created a situation where some REBs are encouraging researchers to download research risks to research participants and forcing researchers to choose between exposing themselves to the prospect of going to jail to protect confidentiality, watering down their research objectives, or conducting “vanilla” research rather than engaging in controversial and/or sensitive areas of study. The paper urges the granting agency Presidents to seek legislative change to protect research participants who provide information that could cause them harm if their identity were to be revealed.


Confidentiality Statute-based protections Wigmore criteria REB review Confidentiality certificates Ethics and law 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of CriminologySimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

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