FSD Bulletin

Issue 15 (3/2004)
8.2.2005

ISSN 1795-5262

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FSD Bulletin is the electronic newsletter of the Finnish Social Science Data Archive. The Bulletin provides information and news related to the data archive and social science research.


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Finnish Social Science Data Archive
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Good Practice for European Comparative Research

Arja Kuula 8.2.2005

In May, NESSIE (Network of Economic & Social Science Infrastructures in Europe) held a roundtable Data Protection and Data Access Regulations and Guidelines. Lawyers and representatives of data archives and research institutions gathered in Bergen, Norway, to debate how to apply the Data Protection Directive of the EU in research. The roundtable was hosted by the Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD).

NESSIE coordinator Marcia Taylor said in her opening address that the network aims at establishing good scientific practice for comparative research in Europe.

Respondent trust

Participants were not worried about the existence of research data containing personal data, as people are often quite willing to give personal information for research purposes.

A UK study revealed that what British people most fear is that their personal data would fall into the hands of marketing professionals. On the other hand, people also think that data collected for one research purpose could be used more extensively for other scientific purposes.

However, researchers should not misuse the prevailing trust. It is always worthwhile to think twice whether a particular research project really needs personal data from respondents. Explicit consent given by research subjects was felt to be the best starting point for data collection.

The main concern expressed by roundtable participants was whether research subjects were given sufficient information on how the collected data were going to be used and preserved. Another concern was that data security practices of universities and research institutes are often haphazard, varying from department to department. At worst, varying from project to project.

Different interpretations across Europe

The Data Protection Directive states that prior to processing any personal data, explicit consent must be obtained from research subjects. On the other hand, the directive allows the processing of personal data for scientific purposes if certain safeguards are provided. Countries have different interpretations of what this might mean.

In Finland, personal data collected by the authorities may be used - within certain limits - with the permission of the authorities. On the other hand, combining register data with personal data from a mail survey, for example, always requires explicit consent given by the subject.

In Denmark, it is possible to combine personal data from different sources for scientific purposes, even if the research subject has not been informed, as long as blood or tissue sample data are not included.

Norway seems to have the strictest data protection legislation and implementation in Europe. Research projects are officially reviewed beforehand in terms of how well the planned data protection measures comply with legislation and ethical guidelines. Theses are no exception, the same procedure applies. Use of sensitive data, even for scientific purposes, is strictly controlled. In an ambiguous situation, Norwegians tend to emphasise data confidentiality and the original purpose of data collection more than scientific needs.

Seeking European consensus

Despite some differences of interpretation, participants were unanimous in regarding informed consent as the key issue. Secondary use potential of a dataset is often directly linked to what research subjects have been informed of the processing of data, data collection purpose and data protection measures. Researchers often feel that data protection requirements impose restrictions and barriers on research. However, most disadvantages could be avoided if informed consent were taken into account in the planning stage of a research project.

Participants would like to see a more uniform European interpretation of the exceptions allowed by the directive for scientific research. Even though it is not probable that the directive will be rewritten in the near future, clearer definitions of explicit consent and defined purpose of use would be useful. What constitutes explicit consent? What are the minimum requirements for a consent to be explicit? How big a modification is allowed in the purpose of use without it being defined as changed?

Strict regulations in Norway do not seem to have acted as barriers to social science research. Participants concluded that data protection measures are important for researchers' own legal protection and for keeping the trust presently displayed by research subjects.