Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Terrorism Charges Against Grad Student Raise Questions"

Science has a story about a student, Scott DeMuth, and his girl friend who have run into serious legal troubles, in part by refusing to testify as to what was learned during a social science research project concerning animal rights protests in which informants had been told their responses would be confidential.
The petition for DeMuth cites portions of the code of ethics of the American Sociological Association (ASA) that deal with confidentiality between researchers and subjects.
I am no legal expert, but as I understand the law the right to refuse to testify is quite limited. One has the right not to incriminate oneself guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and there are rights not to testify granted to spouses, clergy, physicians, psychiatrists and reporters for reasons of public policy.

It would seem to me that a scientific society does is not a legitimate source of a right not to testify, although the ASA might certainly lobby for such a right to be granted to legitimate social science researchers. The right would have to come from legislation.

If in fact the researchers do not have a legal right to refuse to testify, then either they should not guarantee confidentiality or they should prepare to go to jail to protect the guarantee that they have made. One hopes that the ASA tells young researchers that this is in fact their bill of options.

I can easily create scenarios in which the public interest would be advanced by allowing researchers to guarantee confidentiality to their research subjects. On the other hand, I see no reason why all researchers should be granted the right not to testify about interviews or observations on all matters always. Indeed, it seems to me that there should be some kind of review of a project protocol before a researcher was allowed to guarantee confidentiality to subjects. Moreover, I see a difference between a researchers being told about some past law breaking and actually observing a criminal act.

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