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Protecting Research Confidentiality : Towards a Research-Participant Shield Law

  • Ted Palys (a1) and John Lowman (a1)

Protecting research confidentiality is an integral principle of all social sciences and humanities ethics codes. But what if a court were to want access to confidential research information, either in pursuit of civil litigation or a criminal case? In Canada, only Statistics Canada research information enjoys an evidentiary privilege—a court cannot compel its disclosure. All other researchers would have to turn to common law to defend confidential research. The onus would be on them to prove on a case-by-case basis that confidential research information should remain confidential, thereby creating the possibility that a court might order its disclosure. The first part of the article identifies five problems arising from this current state of the law. Statute-based protections of research confidentiality would go a long way toward resolving these problems. But what would these protections look like? Who would administer them? The second half of the article examines statute-based protections of evidentiary privilege, including the Canadian Statistics Act and Canada Evidence Act, and US “confidentiality certificates” (for certain kinds of health research) and “privacy certificates” (for certain kinds of criminological research) with an eye toward formulating criteria that a Canadian research shield law might emulate.


La protection de la confidentialité des recherches est un principe intégral de toutes les sciences sociales, ainsi que des codes d'éthique de l'humanité. Mais que se passerait-il si une juridiction exigerait l'accès à des informations confidentielles sur des recherches, tant dans le cas de litiges au civil, que pour des affaires criminelles? Au Canada, seules les informations provenant des recherches de Statistiques Canada jouissent de ce privilège relatif à la preuve—une juridiction ne peut exiger une divulgation. Tous les autres chercheurs devront faire appel à la common law afin de protéger des recherches confidentielles. Il leur appartiendrait, pour chaque cas, d'apporter la preuve de la nécessité de garder confidentielle toute information sur ces recherches, avec le risque malheureux qu'une juridiction ordonne leur divulgation. Cet article décrit cinq problèmes découlant de l'état du droit. Les protections juridiques de la confidentialité de la recherche ont encore beaucoup de chemin à parcourir avant de résoudre ces problèmes. Mais comment se présenteront ces protections? Qui aura à les gérer? La deuxième partie de cet article examine les protections législatives des privilèges relatifs à la preuve, y compris la Loi sur les statistiques, et la Loi canadienne sur la preuve, ainsi que les «certificats de confidentialité» (pour certains types de recherches en santé) et les «certificats de vie privée» (pour certaines enquêtes criminelles) des États-Unis, en vue d'établir des critères permettant l'établissement d'une loi protégeant la recherche canadienne.

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1 Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (1998) at i5 (with 2000, 2002 and 2005 amendments), online: Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics <>[TCPS].

2 R.S., 1985, c. C-5.

3 R.S., 1985, c. S-19.

4 Ibid. s. 18.

5 TCPS, supra note 1.

6 For an overview of challenges that have occurred in the United States and Canada, see Lowman J. & Palys T.S., “The Ethics and Law of Confidentiality in Criminal Justice Research: A Comparison of Canada and the United States” (2001) 11 Int'l Crim. Just. Rev. 1 [Lowman & Palys, “Confidentiality in Criminal Justice Research”].

7 For example, the TCPS, supra note 1, asserts that, “[t]he researcher is honour-bound to protect the confidentiality that was undertaken in the process of free and informed consent, to the extent possible within the law. The institution should normally support the researcher in this regard (…).”

8 See Social Sciences and Humanities Research Ethics Special Working Committee (SSHWC), Reconsidering Privacy and Confidentiality in the TCPS: A Discussion Paper (2005), online: Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics <>.

9 See Wigmore J.H., A Treatise on the System of Evidence in Trials at Common Law, Including the Statutes and Judicial Decisions of All Jurisdictions of the United States, England, and Canada (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1905). For a discussion of the application of the Wigmore test to the researcher-participant relationship see Palys T.S. & Lowman J., “Ethical and Legal Strategies for Protecting Confidential Research Information” (2000) 15 C.J.L.S. 39 [Palys & Lowman, “Ethical and Legal Strategies”]; Palys T.S. & Lowman J.Anticipating Law: Research Methods, Ethics and the Common Law of Privilege” (2002) 32 Soc. Method. 1 [Palys & Lowman, “Anticipating Law”].

10 Inquest of Unknown Female (1994) Vancouver Regional Coroner, Burnaby, B.C., Decision 91-240-0838 [Inquest].

11 Palys & Lowman, “Anticipating Law”, supra note 9; Lowman J. & Palys T.S.Subject to the Law: Civil Disobedience, Research Ethics and the Law of Privilege” (2003) 33 Soc. Method. 381 [Lowman & Palys, “Subject to the Law”].

12 See Palys & Lowman, “Ethical and Legal Strategies”, supra note 9.

13 Edwards S., “Freed Reporter Talks to CIA Leak Inquiry” Vancouver Sun (1 October 2005) A15.

14 Jaffee v. Redmond, 518 U.S. 95 (1996).

15 Ibid.. at 27.

16 See Lowman J. & Palys T. S., “Ethics and Institutional Conflict of Interest: The Research Confidentiality Controversy at Simon Fraser University” (2000) 2 Soc. Practice: Am. J. of Clin. & Applied Soc. 245 [Lowman & Palys, “Institutional Conflict of Interest”].

17 See Clayman B. “The Law of the Land” Simon Fraser News (30 October 1997) 5.

18 Email memorandum from J. Ogloff to the authors, as well as to other members of the Simon Fraser University Research Ethics Review Committee (18 December 1997), articulating his view of the committee's then-policy of requiring researchers to limit confidentiality [Unpublished Memorandum]. For a similar statement to therapists advocating they limit confidentiality, see Ogloff J.New threats to confidentiality safeguards” Psynopsis (1996), online: Canadian Psychological Association <>.

19 TCPS, supra note 1.

20 Unpublished Memorandum, supra note 18.

21 TCPS, supra note 1.

22 In criminology, see e.g., Wolfgang M., “Criminology: Confidentiality in Criminological Research and Other Ethical Issues” (1981) 72 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 345. Even now, the code of ethics of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences asserts that, “[c]onfidential information provided by research participants should be treated as such by members of the Academy, even when this information enjoys no legal protection or privilege and legal force is applied.” See Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Code of Ethics, s. B19, online: ACJS <>.

23 See Palys & Lowman, “Ethical and Legal Strategies”, supra note 9.

24 Richards of Rockford v. Pacific Gas and Electric, 71 F.R.D. 388 (N.D. Cal. 1976); Caroll J. & Knerr C., “Confidentiality of Social Science Research Sources and Data: The Popkin Case” (1973) 6 Pol. Sci. Q. 268; In re Michael A. Cusumano & David B. Yoffie (United States of America v. Microsoft Corporation), no. 98-2133, (1st Cir. 1998), online: Emory School of Law <>.

25 Leo R., “Trial and Tribulations: Courts, Ethnography, and the Need for an Evidentiary Privilege for Academic Researchers” (1995) 26 Amer. Sociologist 113 [Trial and Tribulations].

26 In re Grand Jury Subpoena Dtd. January 4, 750 F.2d 223 (2nd u Cir. 12/13/1984); Brajuha M. & Hallowell L., “Legal Intrusion and the Politics of Field Work: The Impact of the Brajuha Case” (1986) 14 Urban Life 454.

27 See R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., v. Fischer, 427 S.E.2d 810 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993); Fischer P.M., “Science and Subpoenas: When Do the Courts Become Instruments of Manipulation?” (1996) 59 L. & Contemp, Probs. 159.

28 In re Grand Jury Proceedings. James Richard Scarce, 5 F.3d 397 (9th Cir. 09/17/1993); Scarce R., “(No) Trial (But) Tribulations: When Courts and Ethnography Conflict” (1994) 23 J. Contemp. Ethnography 123; Scarce R., “Good faith, bad ethics: When scholars go the distance and scholarly associations do not” (1999) 24 L. & Soc. Inq. 977.

29 It is noteworthy that three of these four cases (Leo at Berkeley; Brajuha at SUNY-Albany; and Scarce at Washington State) involved graduate students. Ogden's experiences at SFU and Exeter arose when he was a graduate student as well. The TCPS (supra note 1) neither makes a distinction between the ethical responsibilities of graduate students and faculty members, nor in its admonition that research confidentiality should be defended.

30 Traynor M., “Countering the Excessive Subpoena for Scholarly Research” (1996) 59 L. & Contemp. Probs. 119.

31 See Ogden v. Simon Fraser University, [1998] B.C.J. 2288, Burnaby Registry No. 26780, online: Simon Fraser University <>; see also Blomley N. & Davis S., Ogden Russel, Decision Review: A Report to the President of Simon Fraser University (British Columbia: Simon Fraser University, 1998), online: Simon Fraser University <>.

32 Lemon K.Secret Files, Subpoena and SuicideThe Peer Review (2005, 2:1), online: TPR <>.

33 TCPS, supra note 1.

35 See Inquest, supra note 10; see also Lowman & Palys, “Institutional Conflict of Interest”, supra note 16.

36 After Ogden's negative experiences at Simon Fraser University and Exeter University, Kwantlen University College deserves recognition for being the first institution to understand what is at stake for the research enterprise and to rise to the challenge.

37 The description above of Ogden's second and third subpoenas is based on a 17 March 2005 email communication.

38 This is in part because the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to hear a case involving a claim of research-participant privilege, and it is only that Court that can create a binding recognition of privilege, as they did in Jaffee v. Redmond (supra note 14) for the therapist-client relationship; the highest level courts involved in adjudications regarding research participant privilege have been District Courts of Appeal. Also, the advent of Confidentiality Certificates and Privacy Certificates has likely had the effect of dissuading third party challenges to the research that they protect.

39 Lowman & Palys, “Confidentiality in Criminal Justice Research”, supra note 6.

40 See the 2002–2003 Annual Report of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, particularly Chapter 1: “20th Anniversary Year in Review, B. Privacy vs. Openness—Census Records”, online: Office of the Information Commissioner <>.

41 Canada Evidence Act, R.S.C. 1985, C-5. Section 10 states, “[n]othing in this section renders admissible in evidence in any legal proceeding (a) such part of any record as is proved to be (i) a record made in the course of an investigation or inquiry; (ii) a record made in the course of obtaining or giving legal advice or in contemplation of a legal proceeding; (iii) a record in respect of the production of which any privilege exists and is claimed; or (iv) a record of or alluding to a statement made by a person who is not, or if he were living and of sound mind would not be, competent and compellable to disclose in the legal proceeding a matter disclosed in the record; (b) any record the production of which would be contrary to public policy; or (c) any transcript or recording of evidence taken in the course of another legal proceeding.”

42 Articles that argue for the establishment of what has variously been described as an “academic privilege” or “researcher's privilege” include Leo, see Trial and Tribulations, supra note 25; Levine F. & Kennedy J.M., “Promoting a Scholar's Privilege: Accelerating the Pace” (1999) 24 L. & Soc. Inq. 967 [Levine & Kennedy, “Promoting a Scholar's Privilege”]; McLaughlin R.H., “From the Field to the Courthouse: Should Social Science Research be Privileged?” (1999) 24 L. & Soc. Inq. 927 [McLoughlin, “From the Field to the Courthouse”]; O'Neil R.M., “A Researcher's Privilege: Does any Hope Remain?” (1996) 59 L. & Contemp. Probs. 35 [O'Neil, “A Researcher's Privilege”].

43 Wolf L.E., Zandecki J. & Lo B., “The Certificate of Confidentiality Application: A View from the NIH Institutes” (2004) 26 IRB: Ethics & Human Res. 14.

44 See National Institutes of Health, “Certificates of Confidentiality Kiosk” (2004), online: National Institutes of Health, Office of Extramural Research <>.

47 People v. Newman, 32 N.Y. 2d 379, 298 N.E. 2d 651, 345 N.Y.S. 2dn 502 (1973).

48 See National Institutes of Health, “Certificates of Confidentiality Kiosk” (2004), online: National Institutes of Health, Office of Extramural Research <>.

49 National Institutes of Justice, “Privacy Certificate and Confidentiality Requirements of NIJ Funding” (2003), online: online: NIJ <>.

51 For example, see Trial and Tribulations, supra note 25; Levine & Kennedy, “Promoting a Scholar's Privilege”, supra note 42; McLaughlin, “From the Field to the Courthouse”, supra note 42; O'Neil, “A Researcher's Privilege”, supra note 42.

52 See Lowman & Palys, “Confidentiality in Criminal Justice Research”, supra note 6; See also Palys & Lowman, “Anticipating Law”, supra note 9.

53 For more information on the Thomas Jefferson Researcher's Privilege Act, see The Library of Congress, online: <>.

54 Supra note 5.

55 SSHWC, “Social Sciences and Humanities Research Ethics: Privacy and Confidentiality” (1 June 2005) (Annual Congress of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences; University of Western Ontario, held in London, Ontario), online: Simon Fraser University <>.

56 Palys T., Research Decisions: Qualitative and Quantitative Perspectives on Research. 3d ed. (Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2003).

57 See, e.g., SSHWC, Giving Voice to the Spectrum (2004), online: Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics <>.

58 However, this creates something of a legal conundrum as truly independent bodies with no direct link to government may lack the legal authority to administer what ideally would be an authoritative legal document.

59 See also Lowman & Palys; “Institutional Conflict of Interest”, supra note 16.

60 TCPS, supra note 1.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the National Council on Ethics in Human Research (NCEHR) in Aylmer, Québec in March, 2004 under the title, “Reconciling the Law and Ethics of Research Confidentiality.” We thank those who attended the meeting, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on a subsequent draft of the paper.

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