Okay – so what is going on at the University of Queensland? Not only are they threatening to sue a blogger, they’re threatening to sue if he publishes the letter threatening to sue. The letter is available online hosted on US servers.
UQ withheld only data that could identify research participants who took part in the research on condition of anonymity. Such conditions are not uncommon in academic research, and any breach of confidentiality could deter people from participating in valuable research in the future.
That is a stock standard approach to doing that sort of research – information that can be used to identify specific respondents is usually suppressed when data has been collected under the promise of anonymity. UQ is entirely correct in trying to ensure that its obligation (moral and, more importantly legal) to maintain the anonymity of survey respondents is met.
Having said that, however, UQ has a very serious problem on its hands. It looks to me that the University has lost control over important and confidential information. From UQ Policies and Procedures:
6.1 The University will make commercially reasonable efforts to protect Primary Materials and Research Data against theft, misuse, damage or loss. Researchers must take reasonable steps to keep Primary Materials and Research Data secure. Research Data must be held in appropriate facilities and adequately recorded in a register or index of research metadata to enable access to be managed as required.
That’s fair enough. Then from their own Ethics Application form:
The answers to questions 9a and 9b are particularly important. From the UQ letter:
Confidential information was maintained on a non-UQ server? Located in the United States? What is the answer to question 9b in the Ethics Application?
I suspect that there has been a very serious breach of UQ operating procedures around data management and maintenance of privacy. We shouldn’t be focussing so much on the lawyers letter to a blogger, but rather on what is going on inside UQ.
The other thing that interested me is the claim that the confidential information (that I agree should remain confidential) is copyright. Really? I would have thought more like trade secret. The obligation with trade secrecy, of course, is to keep your secrets secret.
The important thing is this: This is not a cover up. UQ is acting reasonably to protect the identity of
survey respondents research participants. They have both a moral and legal obligation to do so. The real story here is the privacy breach that has occurred at UQ. Tough questions need to be asked and answered.