Ethics

Additional Information

TEACHING ETHICS THROUGHOUT THE CURRICULUM

Case 48. Legal Requests/Requirements for Confidential Data
from Research Field Notes

Situation

Shana Researcher was conducting a participant-observation work-study of risk behavior of teenagers in a local community where she lived. She was volunteering her time at a neighborhood social service organization, which offered social activities and support to teenagers. She had discussed the research project with the director and staff of the social service organization and had been introduced to teenagers as someone volunteering who was also conducting a study of teenagers' activities and attitudes. During her study she had kept field notes on activities and discussions with teenagers, both in one-to-one talks and as part of group discussions. Shana was careful to make sure that she individually and privately told any teenager new to the center that she was carrying out a field work study as well as serving as a volunteer. The field notes she kept recorded discussions with teenagers about sexual activity, abortion, use of illegal drugs, smoking, problems at home and social issues.

One evening a robbery of a neighborhood store occurred. The police, when investigating the robbery, learned of Shana's study. They asked her to turn over her field notes to them, since they thought they would find information about two suspects who frequented the center. Shana refused, saying that she had guaranteed confidentiality to the individuals she had spoken with. The police told Shana that there was no privilege of confidentiality for researchers (as exists for lawyers and their clients) and obtained a court order for her field notes. If she provided the field notes she would not be fulfilling her promise of confidentiality to the research participants and the notes might be used in a criminal case against some of the teenagers. If she refused, she might be found “in contempt of court” and sent to a local jail until she agreed to provide the notes to the court.

Questions

  1. What are arguments in favor of Shana refusing to turn over the field notes?
  2. What are arguments in favor of Shana providing the notes under the court order?
  3. Are there any actions that Shana could have taken at the onset of her field research to avoid this situation?

Reflect on the above questions and form your own answers before clicking the discussion key to review the commentary provided with this case.

 

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