Friday, August 07, 2009

Truth, Honesty and Confidentiality

As doctor-patient and lawyer-client confidentiality is so essential that it’s protected by law, so is the role of confidentiality between researcher and participant. In fact, before researchers can start work on studies, they must explain how they plan to protect the their participants—and that plan must receive the approval of a research ethics committee.

Although researchers do not have to provide confidentiality, when they say they plan to do so in their research plans, then they are bound to do so.

Further binding participants is the informed consent agreement they must sign before starting a study. In it, the researcher must explain whether participants’ identities will be protected and, if so, how it will be protected. If participants are promised confidentiality, then that’s stated in the agreement and that becomes a legally binding promise between the researcher and the participant.

Of course, when the participants are well-known people, people are naturally tempted to know the results.

But legally, if researchers have promised confidentiality to the participants, they have a legal obligation to abide by it.

Whether all of these protocols were followed when baseball players participated in drug testing in 2003, I don’t know. What I do know is that they were promised confidentiality and it was violated.

In his opinion piece from the August 4, 2009 edition of the New York Times, Doug Glanville eloquently explains the sense of violation felt by the players whose drug test results have been leaked to the public.

Having had my confidential comments leaked, I can empathize with their feelings.

Read Glanville’s piece at at


Micha said...

It's a little ironic that someone would choose a newspaper to complain about confidential information being leaked to the media. Those living in glass houses should not throw stones. Perhaps there should be another post entitled "lie, invasion of privacy, and capitalism".

Janet Clarey said...

The web creates an interesting twist on confidentiality. If a researcher is doing an ethnographic study of a person's online activities and then references quotes from those activities (forum, discussion board, blog, tweet, status update, etc.) in their research then the subject is instantly identified. Just type the direct quote into Google and there it is. I struggle with that. Any thoughts or is it an non-issue because the information is already public?

Saul Carliner said...

In response to the comments: (1) Not sure to whom Micha's comment is directed, but the article cited is an opinion piece and the issue was the appropriateness of other newspapers leaking the information. That one journalist calls into question the choices of others is an ongoing theme in journalism.All that was done in this blog was to cast my vote on the issue or leaking confidential information. (2) In terms of Janet's comment, it's a concern I share. The only choices I see available are these: (1) to paraphrase the original quote so that it cannot be easily googled. (A persistent person could probably find the original, to be honest.) (2) To not perform anonymous research. In an age in which people are willing to go on TV and reveal their most intimate details--under their real first name--perhaps anonymity is not as desired as thought. But my hunch is that there are still a large number of modest people out there who won't be comfortable sharing all without some protection of their identities.