Duty of confidentiality for research participants

  • The University research ethics code of practice states that: 'information obtained in the course of a research project should be considered privileged information and should under no circumstances be publicly disclosed in a fashion that would identify any individual or organisation (except if subpoenaed by a court)'.

    This note is to provide brief guidance as to how this might operate in practice.

    Duty of Confidentiality

    In UK law, there exists a 'duty of confidentiality'. However, it has not been established by statute, but instead developed through case law, and this makes interpretation difficult. A duty of confidentiality can be established in situations where information is passed, in confidence, to the confidant (the receiver of the information). Exceptions to this duty of confidentiality occur where there is a legal compulsion, as a result of police investigations or court proceedings, or where there is a disclosure of the information made 'in the public interest', as defined by the courts.

    Research participants should be informed about how far they will be afforded anonymity and confidentiality. Guarantees of confidentiality and anonymity given to research participants must be honoured, unless there are clear and overriding reasons to do otherwise. Researchers should not breach the 'duty of confidentiality' and not pass on identifiable data to third parties without participants' consent. However, research data given in confidence do not enjoy legal privilege and may be liable to subpoena by a court. In relevant circumstances research participants should be made aware of this fact.

    Researchers (including students and those undertaking work on behalf of the University) should guard against giving unrealistic guarantees of confidentiality and anonymity and be aware that legal challenge, your sense of moral duty, and mishap may preclude the honouring of such a guarantee. It may be necessary to inform research participants of obligations under law, such as the possibility that the researcher will be required to give evidence or to reveal documents, which may make it impossible for certain information to be kept confidential without breaking the law.

    UREC February 2007