Five research ethics board members at the University of Ottawa who signed the letter to university president Allan Rock. Clockwise from bottom left: Giuliano Reis (Social Sciences & Humanities Research Ethics Board), Brendan Walshe-Roussel (Health Sciences & Science Research Ethics Board), Hélène Laperrière (Health Sciences & Science Research Ethics Board), Joel Westheimer (Social Sciences & Humanities Research Ethics Board), & Sheena Sumarah (Social Sciences & Humanities Research Ethics Board).
Twenty members of the University of Ottawa’s research ethics boards have written to university president Allan Rock protesting the university’s refusal to support two of its criminology professors’ legal efforts to protect the confidentiality of their research records.
The REB members noted the research had been approved by the university on the explicit condition that the research participants’ confidentiality would be protected.
The “inaction on the part of university officials entrusted with advancing intellectual inquiry is inexcusable,” the letter said. “By failing to come forward in support of professors (Chris) Bruckert and (Colette) Parent, the university is setting a dangerous precedent.”
The letter also warned of consequences from inaction: “a ‘chill factor’ placed on any research involving participants who require trust in the strength of confidentiality agreements they sign and that are co-signed by university researchers”; possible “censure by research funding agencies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada”; and “refusal of these same agencies to release research funds until the university’s actions are brought into alignment with the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Research Involving Human Participants.”
That policy statement recognizes research probing “sensitive topics (e.g., illegal activities) generally depends on strong promises of confidentiality to establish trust with participants.” It notes that promised confidentiality entails an “ethical duty that is central to respect for participants and the integrity of the research project.”
Professors Bruckert and Parent’s difficulties began last June when Montreal police indicated their intention to seize the researchers’ interview recordings and transcripts from their 2007 study of sex workers. The criminologists refused to give the records to the police, citing assurances of confidentiality that had been made to the research participants. The issue is now being presented before Quebec Superior Court.
CAUT covered Bruckert and Parent’s substantial legal costs while the university considered its position. In December, Rock advised CAUT the university would not assist the criminologists.
A campus student group has organized a letter writing campaign to protest the university’s stance.
Speaking to the University of Ottawa’s Fulcrum last month, third-year criminology and women’s studies student Meg Lonergan questioned why she would want to pursue graduate studies at the UofO if the university won’t protect her or her research, and believes the case will have an effect on every student in social sciences and epidemiology.
“This is a landmark case that will set the precedent on how courts will deal with confidentiality between academic researchers and research participants,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “Just as with investigative journalists, academic researchers fulfill a vital public good by examining a variety of issues that can only be studied when confidentiality is promised to research participants.”
He noted that there is solid juris-prudence regarding journalists and confidentiality, but none with respect to academic researchers.
“We hope the university will reconsider its refusal to assist professors Bruckert and Parent, as it is both the right thing to do and an obligation under tri-council policy,” Turk said.