FSD Bulletin

Issue 25 (3/2008)

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.


Finnish Social Science Data Archive
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Researchers Fear in Vain

Archiving Data Does Not Betray Research Participants' Trust

Sanni Haverinen

Researchers often have reservations about data archiving because they believe it to be unethical. They also fear that they would somehow betray the research participants' trust by archiving their data. According to the available research results and the FSD's experiences, research participants do not usually share these notions.

Especially as regards qualitative interviews, researchers often consider the research relationship to be very special in nature. The researchers who express reservations about reusing the interviews have justified their doubts by stating that the discussions between the interviewees and the interviewer have been confidential and that the interviewees could not control the feelings evoked by the interview. There have even been claims that interviewees do not understand much about scientific research (see for example Mauthner et al. 1998, Parry & Mauthner 2004, and Richardson & Godfrey 2003).

Interview under control

Fortunately, it seems that research participants do understand quite a lot despite the fears of some researchers. A working group of the British National Centre for Social Research published a report studying research participants' views on interview situations. The report is based on dozens of literary works and over 50 in-depth interviews with adults who had recently participated in research.

The results showed that even though interviews evoked strong emotions, the interviewees were able to control interview situations - they had strategies to withhold information if they felt that some questions or topics were too intrusive or inappropriate. The interviewees felt they were able to refuse to answer a question if they wanted to and emphasised the voluntary nature of participating in research. However, it was seldom that the interviewees explicitly refused to answer the interviewers' questions. Instead, they often withheld some information, gave misinformation, avoided the details by replying vaguely, or expressed their discomfort in one way or another (Graham et al. 2007, Graham et al. 2006).

Greatest harm is getting bored

The results discussed above certainly show that research participants are not at the mercy of researchers, but can actively control the interview situation. Of course, it may sometimes be reasonable to consider whether a sensitive interview has somehow been harmful to interviewees. However, the only harm is typically that some interviewees have considered the interview situation boring.

According to the FSD's experiences, interviewees do not usually see any barriers to archiving and reusing the interview data. The data archive has re-contacted the respondents of four separate studies afterwards to ask their consent for archiving the research data. The studies charted for instance the equality between men and women in working life and the lives of women living in rural areas. Only four interviewees or diary writers out of 169 did not accept the idea of archiving.

Research participants want to influence

On the contrary, the research participants were often appalled by the idea that the data containing identifiers should be destroyed after the original research was completed, in case the participants had not been informed about the preservation of the data for future reuse. Research participants have originally wanted to be part of the research because they have considered the subject important and wanted, for instance, to increase public awareness about an issue which is meaningful to them. Therefore, archiving only promotes the original wishes of research participants. In addition, the participants consider the matter from a financial point of view: data collected with public funding should be used as efficiently as possible.

It seems that research participants see data archiving in a fairly positive light in practice, even though researchers may sometimes fear betraying the participants' trust. Participants may consider the researcher reliable and emphatic, but they still see him/her more as a representative of the scientific community than as a private person who they could share their secrets with. They also trust that the researcher is a professional and do not consider it likely that he/she would misuse the data.

Confidentiality should thereby not mean that the data collector is the only one who will see the data. This definition would actually be very questionable: how could we know that the conclusions drawn by the researcher are well-grounded, if no one will ever be able to see the original data. Therefore, a better definition of confidentiality would include all the purposes of use that have been agreed upon.