Strictly Confidential?: Integrity and the Disclosure of Criminological and Socio-Legal Research

M. Israel
<span title="2004-05-07">2004</span> <i title="Oxford University Press (OUP)"> <a target="_blank" rel="noopener" href="" style="color: black;">British Journal of Criminology</a> </i> &nbsp;
When people allow researchers to investigate them, they often negotiate terms for the agreement. Participants in research may, for example, consent on the basis that the information obtained about them will be used only by the researchers and only in particular ways. The information is private and is voluntarily offered to the researcher in confidence. Researchers can justify protecting confidentiality by appealing to consequentialist-, rights-or fidelity-based arguments. Failure to respect
more &raquo; ... identiality might not only affect one research project, but could have a 'chilling effect' on all criminological research. However, various researchers working in criminology, socio-legal studies and related fields have come under institutional, legal, physical and ethical pressures to disclose confidential information. They have been subpoenaed, imprisoned and have faced threats from armed drug dealers. To protect their sources, they have lied to correctional authorities, prosecutors and police (as well as to armed drug dealers). Drawing on an international literature, I examine some of the legal and methodological measures that researchers have taken to protect data, as well as some of the rationales that might justify disclosing information given in confidence by research participants. 1 There may a distinction between safeguarding information and protecting the identity of people who have offered confidential information. Sometimes, this distinction is characterized as the difference between confidentiality and anonymity (e.g. Bjarnason and Adalbjarnardottir 2000), although, like many writers, I describe both in terms of confidentiality. ISRAEL 2 of 26 initiates the interaction and, in our experience, the respondent divulges the information only on the condition that they are not named. Since the interaction would not have happened if we had not initiated it, a tremendous ethical burden is placed on us to ensure no adverse effects befall the participant because of our entry into their lives. (Lowman and Palys 1999a) Yet, in some instances, researchers may feel that information provided by participants in confidence should not remain confidential. In this paper, I explore the difficulties associated with maintaining integrity as a researcher, while deciding whether to disclose or protect information given to criminological and socio-legal researchers by research participants in three difficult cases: first, when put under pressure by third parties to disclose information; secondly, when the nature of the information disclosed reveals past injustice or future harm; thirdly, when it seems that some people do not deserve to be offered confidentiality. The first case appears to be the most common for, and perhaps the most discussed by, researchers in criminology and socio-legal studies. Several criminologists have noted how they have faced pressure from criminal justice agencies to hand over confidential information (Polsky 1967). For example, Fitzgerald and Hamilton's (1996) work on illicit drug use in Australia was compromised when one researcher was approached by a police officer, working undercover: The undercover police officer suggested that a trade of information could be done: the undercover officer would introduce the ethnographer to drug users to interview in exchange for information that the ethnographer could pass on to the police. Hamilton 1996: 1593)
<span class="external-identifiers"> <a target="_blank" rel="external noopener noreferrer" href="">doi:10.1093/bjc/azh033</a> <a target="_blank" rel="external noopener" href="">fatcat:o6cdcxbewvh7lfbg63qlxyze2i</a> </span>
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