‘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

Why I always get an ISBN for my research reports

Julie Mooney-Somers

Mooney-Somers, J, Erick, W, Brockman, D, Scott, R. & Maher, L (2008). Indigenous Resiliency Project Participatory Action Research Component: A report on the Research Training and Development Workshop, Townsville, February 2008. National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW. ISBN: 978 0 7334 2647 6.

See that bit at the end, that’s my first ISBN. I can’t recall where I got the notion from, and I wonder now at my presumptuousness. I don’t think it was standard practice in my research centre to get ISBNs for research reports. But I had just come out of a horrid job that I’d stayed put in to get publications (it didn’t really work). I was in a new job and determined to get as much on my CV as I could. The first output was a report on a training workshop. I was thoroughly engrossed…

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Regulations have improved since thalidomide but drug scares are still possible

Wendy Lipworth, University of Sydney

The thalidomide tragedy, which resulted in thousands of deaths and disabilities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, changed medicine forever. One of its outcomes was the establishment of more robust mechanisms for the regulation of medicines and medical devices.

Regulatory bodies – including the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States and the Medicines and Health care products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the United Kingdom – now decide which products pharmaceutical and medical device companies can market. They also monitor the safety of medicines and devices once they are on the market.

There is no doubt that the tightening of regulation has prevented countless deaths and disabilities, and saved many lives. But regulation cannot always protect us from harm and events disturbingly similar to the thalidomide tragedy continue to occur. Let’s look at two recent examples.

Vioxx pain drugs

In the 1990s, a new class of anti-inflammatory medicines emerged – the “COX 2 inhibitors”. These pain drugs were touted as being less likely to cause gastric ulceration than existing treatments.

One of these, rofecoxib (Vioxx), manufactured by Merck, was later withdrawn from the market, when it emerged that it increased the risk of myocardial infarction (heart attacks).

Vioxx increased the risk of heart attacks.
Reuters/Mike Segar

It emerged that the company had deliberately misinterpreted and concealed some of the information it had about these risks, thus delaying the withdrawal of Vioxx from the market.

Questions were also raised about conflicts of interest – on the part of academic researchers who collaborated with Merck in running trials of Vioxx, members of the data safety monitoring board whose job it was to monitor trials of Vioxx, and members of FDA committees who assessed Vioxx.

A number of class action lawsuits have followed, including one in Australia in 2010, which ruled against Merck. This decision was subsequently reversed, but this was because the judges decided it was not possible to causally link the particular claimant’s heart attack to his use of Vioxx.

Merck has subsequently come to a settlement agreement with Australian patients.

DePuy hip replacements

Yet another class action lawsuit concluded in Australia this June. The action was brought against DePuy International Ltd and Johnson & Johnson Medical Pty Ltd, which were accused of being negligent in their design, manufacture and supply of a particular kind of hip implant.

The story leading up to this will sound familiar: a promising new medical device – the DePuy ASR hip implant – was developed and marketed in the mid-2000s. The company claimed these implants would would reduce friction and wear, and improve patients’ mobility.

DuPuy was accused of not properly testing the product.
terekhov igor/Shutterstock

Complication rates soon proved to be much higher than expected. Around 2,000 of the 5,500 Australians who received the device have required, or are expected to require, revision surgery.

The device was finally withdrawn in Australia in 2009 and worldwide in 2010.

The company has subsequently been accused of not testing the implant adequately, and of knowing – and denying – that its device did not meet manufacturing specifications.

As with the Vioxx case, concerns have been raised about possible conflicts of interest on the part of some of the surgeons who recommended the implant to their patients, and the regulators who evaluated it.

Is there more to come?

These two eerily similar events raise the question: can we do anything to reduce the likelihood of similar occurrences in future?

There is certainly scope to tighten our governance of the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, and the behaviour of those who interact with them. We can also make our regulation of new medicines – and devices and surveillance of existing products – more robust.

There are, however, several important limits to our capacity to prevent harms from medicines and medical devices – all of which help to explain why history keeps repeating itself.

First, pharmaceutical and medical device companies are commercial entities which invest billions of dollars in developing new medicines and devices. Tight regulations are in place and outright fraud is fortunately very rare.

The commercial imperative is, however, powerful. As a result, there is always the possibility that studies of new medicines and devices will be designed, and their results interpreted and disseminated, in a manner that overstates their benefits, and underplays their risks.

Conflicts of interests may affect the reporting of scientific data.

Second, most patients who are injured by medicines and medical devices sustain these injuries in the course of routine medical or surgical therapy – either because of unpredictable adverse events, such as allergic reactions to antibiotics, or because of unintended medical errors.

The adage that “all medicines are poisons” is, unfortunately, true, and we need to accept that even the best physicians and surgeons are only human and will inevitably make mistakes.

Third, we need to balance our desire for innovation and access to new technologies against our desire for safety and control. While there is definitely room to improve regulation and surveillance, we don’t want our clinicians and regulators to be so risk-averse that health technologies cannot make it onto the market or survive once they get there.

Finally, while we might like to think that academic researchers, clinicians and regulators are committed solely to their the pursuit of knowledge, patients and the general public, the reality is they all need to earn money, and attract funding for their work. This inevitably creates a situation in which their “primary commitments” compete or conflict with other loyalties or with self-interest.

We need to accept that “conflicts of interest” are part and parcel of all social roles. Therefore, there will never be a group of people whose only commitment is to protect patients.

When this sobering fact of human nature is combined with the dangers of the commercial imperative, the inevitability of unpredictable side-effects and medical errors, and the need to balance our desires for safety against our desire for innovation, the future looks uncertain.

The best we can hope for is that our systems of checks and balances will continue to be refined so that the “thalidomides of the future” will be caught and addressed as early as possible.

Stay tuned for other instalments in the thalidomide series this week.

The Conversation

Wendy Lipworth, Senior Research Fellow, Bioethics, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

It’s time for the government to stop shooting the messenger

Sydney Health Law

The constant attacks on Professor Gillian Triggs represent attacks on the human rights and civil liberties that Australians value. Since 1986, the Human Rights Commission has been the watchdog for human rights for Australia.  The President and her Commissioners are necessarily independent of government and have a duty to fearlessly advocate for human rights protections and to criticise laws and policies that undermine the rights and freedoms Australians enjoy.

The current barrage of orchestrated attacks on Triggs is supposedly on the basis that her comments are politically motivated. Of course they are. Human rights lie at the core of our political system: they require government to protect their population and provide a political environment in which they can flourish. If human rights weren’t political they would make no sense at all.  The problem for the government is that it wants to ignore human rights yet remain immune from criticism.


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