‘Except as required by law’: Australian researchers’ legal rights and obligations regarding participant confidentiality

Anna Olsen, Research School of Population Health, ANU

Julie Mooney-Somers, Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney

*Neither of us are lawyers and, as such, our interpretations are as social scientists and HREC members. Interested lawyers and legal scholars are encouraged to contribute!

Researchers’ promises of confidentiality are often easily and genuinely made. However, our experience in research ethics review (Julie through an NGO-run ethics review committee; Anna through formally constituted university and hospital human research ethics committees), in qualitative research and in teaching qualitative research ethics has led us to think about the limits of these promises.

Australian researchers generally rely on the National Statement (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2015) and Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) for guidance around ethical and legal conduct in research. For example, Chapter 4.6 in the National Statement notes that researchers may discover illegal activity and guides researchers and HRECs to consider what researchers might be obliged to disclose in a legal situation and how to best protect (and inform) participants of this threat to confidentiality.

The National Statement is currently under revision (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2016) and the review submitted for public consultation in late-2016 contains a proposal to include additional information on “Disclosure to third parties of findings or results” in Section 3 of the National Statement. Here the NHMRC explicitly state that: “There can be situations where researchers have a legal, contractual or professional obligation to divulge findings or results to third parties”. That is, researchers should concern themselves not only with the legal implications of revealing potential illegal activity, but any instance in which they may be asked to break participant confidentiality.

The recent review of the National Statement extends the NHMRC recommendations around potential data disclosure in a number of ways: it makes much more explicit that researchers (as opposed to HRECs or institutions) are responsible for understanding the risks to patient confidentiality: “researchers should be aware of situations where a court, law enforcement agency or regulator may seek to compel the release of findings or results”. Researchers are expected to anticipate legal risks to participant confidentiality by: identifying “(a) whether, to whom and under what circumstances the findings or results will be disclosed; (b) whether potential participants will be forewarned that there may be such a disclosure; (c) the risks associated with such a disclosure and how they will be managed; and (d) the rationale for communicating and/or withholding the findings or results and the relative benefits and/or risks to participants of disclosure/non-disclosure”. And, researchers should advise participants on legal risks to confidentiality and how they will be handled: “(a) have a strategy in place to address this possibility; (b) advise participants of the potential for this to occur; and (c) advise participants as to how the situation will be managed”.

For many researchers in health, legal risks are a very vague reality and legal intervention a remote threat. They may feel confident that their research does not and will not uncover illegal activity, or that their data would simply be irrelevant to a legal case. Or they may feel confident that they have taken sufficient steps to protect their participants’ confidentiality by following guidelines; researchers working in illicit drug use, for example.

Many Australian HRECs articulate the NHMRC guidelines on legal risks of disclosure to third parties by requiring that researchers inform participants that any data collected during research will kept confidential, “except as required by law”. In keeping with the ethical concept of informed consent, participants are thereby warned that researchers are not able to unconditionally offer confidentially. It has become clear to us that the intention of this phrase, to flag the legal limits of confidentiality, is not well understood by researchers (Olsen & Mooney-Somers, 2014).

The National Statement details some aspects of human research that is subject to specific statutory regulation however stresses that compliance with legal obligations is not within the scope of the National Statement: “It is the responsibility of institutions and researchers to be aware of both general and specific legal requirements, wherever relevant”. Moreover, in the document we are directed that it is not the role of a HREC to provide legal advice. It is relatively rare for Australian HRECs to provide explicit guidance on the relevant legal obligations for researchers, including: how they differ across jurisdictions; what protective strategies researchers could employ to better protect patient confidentiality; or how to best inform participants about the risks of legal action (Some useful HREC-produced resources are Alfred Hospital Ethics Committee, 2010; QUT Office of Research Ethics and Integrity, 2016) Criminology scholars have (unsurprisingly) considered these issues in their own field (Chalmers & Israel. 2005; Israel, 2004; Israel & Gelsthorpe, 2017; Palys & Lowman, 2014).

We believe there are real risks to participants, researchers and research institutions.

Recent international cases of research dealing with illegal activity becoming subject to legal action include The Belfast Project/The Boston Tapes (BBC News, 2014; Emmerich, 2016; Israel, 2014) and Bradley Garrett’s ethnographic work with urban explorers (Fish, 2014; Times Higher Education, 2014) (See also Israel & Gelsthorpe, 2017). On the whole, legal action was anticipatable in these cases as they involved illicit activities and the legal action was driven by law enforcement interest. In some instances, researchers took extensive steps to protect participant confidentiality. In other cases the promise of absolute confidentiality seems a little naïve (and in our opinion, perhaps negligent).

Perhaps of more concern are cases in which legal action was instigated by interested others, not law enforcement. Of particular interest to us are recent cases of tobacco companies using Freedom of Information laws in Australia to obtain research data from Cancer Council Victoria on young people’s attitudes to and use of tobacco, and an earlier attempt to seek data on adults from Cancer Council NSW (McKenzie & Baker, 2015; Schetzer & Medew, 2015). As these cases do not involve illegal activity, it is much less likely that researchers could have anticipated the specific legal actions that undermined participant confidentiality. (The tobacco industry has taken these actions in other countries (Hastings, 2015; McMurtrie, 2002)).

Our point here is that the promise of confidentiality should never be casually made. Researchers have an ethical obligation to think through what “except as required by law” may mean for each particular research project. Although it has been argued elsewhere that as professionals, researchers should be provided the same participant confidentiality rights as doctors and lawyers (Emmerich, 2016), the current state of affairs is that research data is not (necessarily) safe from legal, contractual or professional obligation to divulge findings or results to third parties.


Alfred Hospital Ethics Committee. (2010, Updated September 2016). Alfred Hospital ethics committee guidelines: Research that potentially involves legal risks for participants and researchers. Retrieved from https://www.alfredhealth.org.au/contents/resources/research/Research-involving-legal-risks.pdf

BBC News. (1 May 2014). What are the Boston tapes? Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-27238797

Chalmers, R., & Israel, M. (2005). Caring for Data: Law, Professional Codes and the Negotiation of Confidentiality in Australian Criminological Research. Retrieved from http://crg.aic.gov.au/reports/200304-09.pdf

Emmerich, N. (9 December 2016). Why researchers should get the same client confidentiality as doctors. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/why-researchers-should-get-the-same-client-confidentiality-as-doctors-69839

Fish, A. (23 May 2014). Urban geographer’s brush with the law risks sending cold chill through social science. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/urban-geographers-brush-with-the-law-risks-sending-cold-chill-through-social-science-25961

Hastings, G. (31 August 2015). We got an FOI request from Big Tobacco – here’s how it went. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/we-got-an-foi-request-from-big-tobacco-heres-how-it-went-46457

Israel, M. (2004). Strictly confidential? Integrity and the disclosure of criminological and socio-legal research. British Journal of Criminology, 44(5), 715-740.

Israel, M. (6 May 2014). Gerry Adams arrest: when is it right for academics to hand over information to the courts? Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/gerry-adams-arrest-when-is-it-right-for-academics-to-hand-over-information-to-the-courts-26209

Israel, M., & Gelsthorpe, L. (2017). Ethics in Criminological Research: A Powerful Force, or a Force for the Powerful? . In M. Cowburn, L. Gelsthorpe, & A. Wahidin (Eds.), Research Ethics in Criminology and Criminal Justice: Politics, Dilemmas, Issues and Solutions. London: Routledge.

McKenzie, N., & Baker, R. (15 August 2015). Tobacco company wants schools survey for insights into children and teens. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/national/tobacco-company-wants-schools-survey-for-insights-into-children-and-teens-20150819-gj2vto.html

McMurtrie, B. (8 February 2002). Tobacco companies seek university documents. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Tobacco-Companies-Seek/6959

National Health and Medical Research Council. (2015). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007) Retrieved from https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/printpdf/book/export/html/51613

National Health and Medical Research Council. (2016). Public consultation on Section 3 (chapters 3.1 & 3.5), Glossary and Revisions to Section 5: National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007). Retrieved from https://consultations.nhmrc.gov.au/files/consultations/drafts/ns-section3-public-consultation.pdf

Olsen, A., & Mooney-Somers, J. (2014). Is there a problem with the status quo? Debating the need for standalone ethical guidelines for research with people who use alcohol and other drugs. Drug Alcohol Rev, 33(6), 637-642. doi:10.1111/dar.12140

Palys, T., & Lowman, J. (2014). Protecting research confidentiality: What happens when law and ethics collide. Toronto: Lorimer.

QUT Office of Research Ethics and Integrity. (10 Novembeer 2016). Participants and illegal activities. Retrieved from http://www.orei.qut.edu.au/human/guidance/illegal.jsp

Schetzer, A., & Medew, J. (20 August 2015). Cancer Council spends thousands fighting big tobacco over children’s survey data. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/national/cancer-council-spends-thousands-fighting-big-tobacco-over-childrens-survey-data-20150820-gj3nh7.html

Times Higher Education. (5 June 2014). Place-hacker Bradley Garrett: research at the edge of the law. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/place-hacker-bradley-garrett-research-at-the-edge-of-the-law/2013717.article


Anna Olsen is a Senior Lecturer at the Research School of Population Health, Australian National University. She leads a number of qualitative and mixed methods public health research projects, teaches qualitative research methods and supervises post-graduate students. Dr Olsen is an experienced member of formally constituted university and hospital human research ethics committees. https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/olsen-phd-am

Julie Mooney-Somers is a Senior Lecturer in Qualitative Research in the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney. She is the director of the Masters of Qualitative Health Research at the University of Sydney. An experienced qualitative researcher, teacher and supervisor, she has taught qualitative research ethics and sat on a NGO-run ethics review committee for six years. http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/people/academics/profiles/julie.mooneysomers.php and http://www.juliemooneysomers.com

This article was originally published on Research Ethics Monthly. Read the original article.

This post may be cited as:
Olsen A, and Mooney-Somers J. (2017, 24 February) ‘Except as required by law’: Australian researchers’ legal rights and obligations regarding participant confidentiality. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://www.ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/except-required-law-australian-researchers-legal-rights-obligations-regarding-participant-confidentiality

More citations, new audiences, and memes… who doesn’t want that?

On the way back from teaching a bunch of HREC members about ethics in qualitative research I stopped at the delightful Berkelouw Book Barn for tea and cake. The sun beamed in the window, warming up my right side, while a fire blazed, warming up my left side. And I drafted a blog post.

In the middle of my teaching session I thought, hang on this is interesting… HREC members don’t sound confident about judging if a researcher is competent to undertake the qualitative project under review. When I started sketching out the blog idea I wasn’t sure where the idea would go. By the time I headed out into the cold winter day I knew it would produce a list of tips for spotting competence. That was Tuesday afternoon, Thursday morning the post was ready to go live.

In a great post for Writing For Research, titled “How to write a blogpost from your journal article“, Patrick Dunleavy says among the misconceptions about blogging is the idea that:

…publishing a blogpost takes the time and hassle involved in submitting to journals, trekking through box after box of obscure electronic publishing bureaucracy, and then waiting weeks or months before seeing a proof, and months more for publication.

Blogs are not supposed to be hard, they are a way to get your ideas out quickly. Stephen Dubner – half of the team behind Freakonomics – said this about the blogging that started the Freakonomics phenomenon:

I kinda miss, like, every morning waking up and saying, you know, “Do I have anything worth saying?” And going right there, and publishing it. ‘Cause, like, the whole idea of– Growing up as a journalist where there was a hierarchy and someone controlled the printing press, and above and below that were editors who controlled what went to the printing press; the whole notion of publishing yourself with the click of a button so that thousands of people can read it is incredibly intoxicating.

Not enough that it is easy and quick? How about the idea that it’ll boost your citations? In “How to write a blogpost from your journal article“, Dunleavy says:

Academically a blogpost boosts citations for the core article itself. It advertises your journal article in ways that can get it far more widely read than just pushing the article out into the ether to sink or swim on its own. A post reaches other researchers in your discipline (those who are not digital hermits). And because it’s accessibly written, it travels well, goes overseas, gets re-tweeted and re-liked. It takes the ‘memes’ key to your research into a limited viral spread. It also gets read by academics outside your immediate sub-field and discipline, potentially pulling new audiences to your work.

More citations, new audiences, and memes… who doesn’t want that? The VELiM blog had 265 views in May, 103 in June (and we’re only on day four). So why not read Dunleavy’s article, ‘bang out’ your 1000 words and share your idea?

And just in case you need any more encouragement. I once watched in awe as a colleague co-wrote an opinion piece via Google Docs with a co-author contributing from the other side of the world; they discussed it via Skype Messenger. Somehow she also managed to make meaningful contributions to the tedious meeting we were in. The lesson? You can always find time.