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Certificate of Confidentiality

Unlike doctors or lawyers, researchers do not have the legal privilege of confidentiality with their study participants. Though a researcher may pledge to keep a participant’s information confidential, that information must be disclosed if a researcher receives a valid subpoena.  For research that involves sensitive information (information that could be damaging to a participant in a legal proceeding such as a custody case) or illegal behaviors, this presents an obstacle for both researchers and participants.  If researchers are unable to protect the confidentiality of their participants, the participants are less likely to participate in needed studies.  In response, Congress enacted a law allowing researchers to obtain a Certificate of Confidentiality, which permits researchers to refuse to disclose identifying information about their participants when subpoenaed by a court of law.

A Certificate of Confidentiality is not without its limitations. If a participant volunteers information beyond the scope of the study, that information could be subpoenaed. A researcher can breach confidentiality if the researcher suspects child abuse or if the participant is threatening violence against others.  

Section Topics

Applying for a Certificate of Confidentiality
Protocol and Consent Form Additions

Related Topics:

Understanding Risk in Research
Vulnerable and Risk Sensitive Populations
Protecting Confidentiality
How Do I Include a Risk Sensitive Population?

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