65. Continuing Research and Protecting Confidentiality
J.D. Brighton has studied a small community for some time using surveys
and focus groups and recently published a paper that showed there were
significant differences in perceptions of police behaviors in different
parts of the community. The local police chief did not believe the
research outcomes, so he requested the data to do his own analysis.
(Actually, he hired, Emma Gustafson, a sociologist from the local
college to re-analyze the data.) Dr. Brighton believed that if she gave
the data to the chief (or Dr. Gustafson) that she would lose access to
the parts of the community that felt the police were not fair. It would
effectively prevent her from continuing research in the
Brighton was also concerned that the police chief or the analyst could
recognize some respondents by carefully analyzing the demographic
characteristics of the respondents. The police chief wanted to
replicate the study but to fully replicate the study, it was critical
that all demographic data be available to the chief. In addition,
Brighton's Institutional Review Board approved the research on the
condition that anonymity be protected. Although there was no
information in the data set that directly identified anyone, she
believed that an intense analysis of the demographic characteristics
might make it possible to identify at least some of the research
1. Should Dr. Brighton give the data to the police
chief if she knows that it will prevent her from further research some
of the communities she studies? How can the researcher be sure that it
will prevent further access to the communities?
2. Should the researcher give the data to the police
chief if the researcher suspects the chief might be able to identify
some respondents? Why would the researcher think the chief and/or his
paid analyst would not preserve the confidentiality of the data?
3. Which principle should Dr. Brighton violate - data
sharing or the possibility of violating promises of confidentiality?
Reflect on the above questions and form your
own answers before clicking the Discussion
key to review the commentary provided with this case.
An important norm in science is that data and research procedures
should be shared so that other researchers can replicate the research
to determine if they achieve the same outcomes. It is generally agreed
that a researcher should have sole access to the data s/he gathered
until a major paper is released from the study. At that time, other
researchers should be able to use the data to see if the results can be
There are two reasons why researchers would not want to share their
data. First, the data might not be fully analyzed or there might be
need to continue the research process after the researcher does the
initial analysis. Second, the confidentiality of the research
participants might not be protected by subsequent researchers. Both are
good reasons for not sharing data. At the same time, researchers
recognize that bad procedures and personal biases can influence the
processes and analyses of research data. Therefore, if data are not
shared, then there are no checks on the outcomes.
Researchers must balance their need to protect those who provide
information to them along with the norm of data sharing in science.
Suppose, in the case described above, the chief was willing to take
positive actions to remedy the problems if he could have a "second
opinion." Should the researcher prevent the good that might come to the
communities by not sharing the data and procedures?