“Science and Subpoenas:” Researchers Concerned about Participant Confidentiality

In Arizona, a battle is brewing over whether universities can withhold raw research data from discovery in a court proceeding in an effort to protect the confidentiality of research participants. Researchers are concerned that disclosing the names of study participants will provide a chilling effect on researchers’ ability to conduct future research, especially in light of the confidentiality agreements that were provided to those who participated in the study.

As reported in Inside Higher Ed, researchers involved in the Civil Rights Project at UCLA published research findings that were critical of Arizona rules that separated those learning English from other students for four hours per day. Researchers found that the approach did not close education gaps, and these researchers were to serve as expert witnesses in a court case on the policy. Arizona’s state superintendent of education sought the raw data for the study, and the University of Arizona released the names of school districts to partially comply, but did not provide personally identifiable information regarding individuals who participated. The researchers state that the University of Arizona’s Institutional Review Board approved the research protocol which included agreements to protect the confidentiality of the teachers, schools, and districts in the study.

In an excellent Op Ed in the August 18, 2010, edition of Inside Higher Ed, Felice Levine, Executive Director of the American Educational Research Association, points out that the development of knowledge necessary to advance the public good relies on the willingness of people to participate in research and the ethical treatment of those who agree to participate. Levine argues that the research can be scrutinized without identifying the research participants.

A motion to protect confidential data and a cross-motion to compel disclosure was heard on August 18, 2010.