Russel Ogden, a criminologist at Kwantlen University College in Surrey, B.C., has won $140,466 in damages from Exeter University after it broke a commitment to protect him while he conducted his PhD dissertation research on a secret global network conducting assisted suicides. Ogden studied at Exeter between 1995 and 1998.
The U.K.-based university was ordered to pay damages to Ogden because of its failure to abide by an assurance it would help keep secret the identities of the many respondents who told Ogden they had provided euthanasia and assisted suicide for terminally ill people.
"Years of my life were squandered solely because of Exeter's refusal to keep its written commitments and follow its own policies," Ogden says.
In 1999, Exeter's Senate Committee of Academic Enquiry ruled the ethics committee that oversaw Ogden's research had "mishandled" his case and "demonstrated serious incompetence." The committee also found the level of supervision fell short of the university's published standards. Nevertheless, the university refused to offer a remedy.
The only recourse Ogden had was to petition the university's "visitor," in Exeter's case the Queen. His appeal to the Queen as visitor was handled by the Lord Chancellor, who was ordered to take jurisdiction on her behalf.
The Lord Chancellor's department confirmed the findings of the academic enquiry, scolded Exeter for its refusal to award a remedy and ordered damages for "negligent action."
Ogden spent two years interviewing more than 100 people in Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States who claimed first-hand involvement in helping people with AIDS commit suicide.
To conduct his interviews, Ogden had to offer respondents absolute confidentiality, particularly if courts ordered him to release their names.
Exeter's ethics committee initially approved this guarantee of confidentiality and gave a written statement recognizing "that entry into commitments of this kind is integral to the pursuit of truth through sociological research, and (we) accept the obligation to support and sustain those who do so."
But in 1997, two years into his research, Ogden learned that just five days after he received ethical approval, the chair of the committee had quietly altered the statement, rescinding the committee's support. The change meant Ogden's research participants were misled about the true conditions for their informed consent.
In his ruling, the Lord Chancellor said "the main consequence of that negligence was he could not use the research he had undertaken in reliance of the university's assurances. In practice therefore he was denied the opportunity to obtain a PhD at Exeter University."
Ogden had previously fought a high-profile battle with Simon Fraser University over its refusal to financially support his legal efforts to protect the confidentiality of the subjects in his MA thesis research, which had uncovered 34 Canadians with AIDS who had died through assisted suicides. Ogden's research received widespread attention in the mid-1990s and changed understanding of suicide among people with AIDS.
After lengthy hearings, Vancouver's coroner ruled in 1995 that Ogden was not in contempt of court for refusing to identify his respondents. And in 1998, after a multi-year legal battle, Ogden received an official apology from Simon Fraser University and compensation for his legal costs in defending SFU's research policy in coroner's court.
In January this year Ogden faced another subpoena, this time from the B.C. Crown who will be prosecuting a 72-year-old woman next year on two counts of aiding suicide.
Ogden said he asked Exeter's ethics committee for guidance on what he should say to the court, but his answer came from the university solicitors.
"They told me not to communicate with the ethics committee."
"Ogden's experiences show the serious problems social scientists face in conducting important research into socially-sanctioned behaviour," said James Turk, executive director of CAUT.
"Without being able to offer respondents confidentiality, this kind of research cannot be done except with grave risk to the researcher. Yet, these studies are often of vital social importance."
Turk said CAUT is "having discussions with the Canadian funding agencies to explore mechanisms to deal with this problem."
Certainly Ogden is delighted that Kwantlen University College has undertaken to support his current research. "The vice-presidents called me to a meeting and said they would set aside money, just in case." He says after everything he's been through, "their commitment to free enquiry is refreshing."
Background: CAUT Bulletin reports June 1998 "When Research Ethics & the Law Conflict," October 1998 "Consultation Underway at Simon Fraser Following Coroner's Inquest," and November 1998 "Charting the Way for Research Ethics."
The original English version of these articles can be viewed at www.caut.ca.