Duty of secrecy
Researchers face issues relating to duty of secrecy in two different contexts. First, these issues will arise when information has to be obtained from sources that are themselves subject to a duty of secrecy. In such cases, it concerns the researcher's access to data that are administered by professions such as health personnel, teachers and child welfare officers. Second, the duty of secrecy is about researchers' duty to preserve secrecy about certain information received from research subjects. It is largely the problems that can arise in this latter situation that are considered here.
Published in 2015. Last updated in 2023.
The duty of secrecy of researchers is thus very much concerned with the relationship between researcher and research subject. Trust is a central aspect of this relationship. The duty of secrecy can moreover be linked to four research ethics principles, which will be examined in more depth below: respect, avoidance of harm, favourable outcomes and fairness. These principles also present certain hurdles for the duty of secrecy and indicate its limitations.
The duty of secrecy also applies to interpersonal relationships. Research on or involving people entails entering into relationships of various kinds with others. Depending on the plan and method, these relationships may be extremely limited and abstract, or they may be close and experienced as very personal. It is normal in all cases for researchers to build up their research subjects' trust in them. This trust may take different forms. For example, it is often a matter of believing that useful results will emerge from the research, that as a research subject, one will not suffer any repercussions as a result of the research activities, and that one will be fully and truthfully informed about the project. In other words, trust between researcher and research subject is an essential dimension of all research on humans. This is crucial, not only for research subjects, but also for researchers. In most cases, for example, researchers base themselves on trust that their subjects are reliable in their reporting.
One aspect of this trust that is crucial in many research contexts is the subjects' trust that the researcher will not disseminate information that it has been agreed should not go any further. This would apply to more or less sensitive information about the individual. So-called personal data are details that may serve to identify an individual. Researchers must normally be very wary about publishing or disseminating their results in such a way that individuals can be identified. The promises or agreements that have been made, the sort of data concerned in the individual case and the consequences it may have if this information is made known are all relevant in an ethical assessment. One might think that the answer is always simple: If there is any reason for doubt, do not spread the information further. But it is not always that simple. One challenge that researchers may encounter is that they receive unsolicited information. Sometimes, for example, a researcher may learn that a person is living under unacceptably dangerous or unworthy conditions, or that serious criminal activities are to take place.
The duty of secrecy may ensue from a law (for example section 13 e of the Public Administration Act or section 21 of the Health Personnel Act), or may be self-imposed, as a rule in the form of a promise to the research subject. The duty applies to information over and above that which can be regarded as generally known, and not least to sensitive personal data.
The fact that one is subject to a duty of secrecy implies exercising caution with regard to storing and processing acquired data, but it may also mean that a researcher must protect the material more actively against undesired disclosure. Research subjects, for their part, have a right to have information they provide treated with confidentiality. The problems associated with duty of secrecy are exacerbated when the research topic is sensitive or the subject groups are vulnerable.
Respect for the individual research subject and their autonomy is an important reason why the duty of secrecy should be observed. Autonomy, understood as the capacity to take considered decisions about one's own life, entails maintaining a certain amount of control over what happens with the information one provides. When obtaining informed consent from research subjects, it will often be appropriate to provide information about the researcher's duty of secrecy and, if relevant, also the boundaries of this duty. By promising secrecy, the researcher has at the same time given the participant an expectation of what it is reasonable to expect of the researcher's behaviour. In this sense, too, the duty of secrecy is one aspect of the researcher's responsibility to the individual. As a general rule, the duty of secrecy applies until it is explicitly waived by the subject.
The individual research subject also has a right to a private life, and hence a right to shield themselves against undesired disclosure of sensitive information about themselves.
Avoidance of harm
The duty of secrecy is also accompanied by a duty for the researchers to avoid harm to those who take part in research. As a rule, the dissemination of personal and sensitive data will be experienced as offensive by a person who has supplied information in return for a promise of secrecy. Although the law sets certain standards, it is essential to take into account that what is actually perceived as sensitive information varies from person to person and from one culture to the next, so that information that the researcher does not automatically think of as sensitive, many nonetheless be perceived as such by the subjects. Dissemination of sensitive information can also have serious and harmful consequences for research subjects. This is true first and foremost if the subjects disclose criminal or other reprehensible activity, and therefore risk prosecution or other sanctions. The dissemination of sensitive information may also harm groups of individuals, for example by contributing to the stigmatisation of vulnerable groups.
But silence in encounters with persons who speak of violence and persecution may also be perceived as tacit acceptance of what has happened, and thus add a further burden to the subject. For some research participants, the researcher's passing on of the information may in itself represent a way out of an untenable situation. The matter of the researcher's duty of notification comes in here. From a legal point of view, this duty applies if the researcher becomes aware of serious punishable actions that have been committed or very probably will be committed (section 196 of the Norwegian General Civil Penal Code). The researcher also has a duty to provide information. Section 13-2 of the Child Protection Act means that researchers who receive information or suspicions of neglect or abuse of children must report it to the child welfare services. But it may also be correct for the researcher to take account of the subject, or others who may be harmed through the withholding of information, to a greater extent than that dictated by the legal obligation of secrecy.
Observing the duty of secrecy may also be important to ensure that research can be conducted on controversial topics and within closed communities. Such research may, for example, reveal the causes of criminal activities and be crucial to the development of good and effective countermeasures. Not least, it may benefit individuals and groups who take part in the research by placing a focus on the living conditions of vulnerable groups and helping to improve their situation.
Fairness as a research ethics principle deals among many other things with the distribution of benefits and costs associated with the research, and securing a representative sample of subjects. The duty of secrecy can ensure recruitment of subjects and representativity from groups or communities that would not otherwise have taken part in research. If subjects are not quite certain that the researcher will preserve secrecy about information supplied under a promise of secrecy, the subjects might provide incomplete or incorrect information, or refuse to supply information at all.
At the same time, it is essential that a researcher who is planning research on controversial topics and within closed communities has thought carefully about the bounds on the duty of secrecy. Researchers have a legal duty to give notification of and prevent punishable offences or the consequences thereof, and this duty outweighs the duty of secrecy (section 196 of the General Civil Penal Code). The legal aspect of the duty of prevention has been made more stringent in recent years, and can apply to previous and ongoing in addition to future actions, if the consequences of an action can be prevented.
This text has been largely taken from the introduction to the book Forskeres taushetsplikt og meldeplikt [Norwegian text] which can be downloaded free of charge.
This article has been translated from Norwegian by Beverley Wahl, Akasie språktjenester AS.