No ring of confidence

November 7, 2003

No researcher should be betrayed in the way Exeter betrayed me, insists Russel Ogden

I interviewed more than 100 people in four countries during my PhD studies at Exeter University from 1995-98. Because many of my interviewees had had direct involvement in acts of euthanasia and assisted suicide, they were promised absolute confidentiality. This was necessary because aiding suicide is punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment in the UK; committing euthanasia carries a life sentence.

Such research is important. The data I was collecting could help inform society's debate on the issues, develop realistic policies and allow for empirically sound judicial reasoning when euthanasia cases are prosecuted.

My research participants had to know that I would not inform on them. They were told that in 1994 I had lawfully resisted a subpoena in Canada. If it were to happen again, I told them that Exeter University had provided a written assurance that it would "support and sustain" me in protecting their identities.

I did not know, however, that days after the promise was made, the university would be "giving the clear impression" that it was not prepared to recognise the obligation of confidentiality. This left me and my research participants without effective support. Seven years later, the lord chancellor has ruled that my PhD could not be completed because of Exeter's "negligence" and its refusal to keep the promise.

This is what my battle with Exeter was about. Last week the university apologised through The THES for "inconveniencing" my PhD studies. I do not know who made the apology, but no communication has been addressed to me personally.

Regardless, the apology is morally bankrupt. From start to finish, and at several layers of management, Exeter behaved as if it had little or no moral commitment to free inquiry. It did all it could to crush dissent and resistance. I was scorned and ridiculed. My only two allies on the campus were intimidated - one lost his research fellowship after he supported me at a meeting. When Exeter's senate committee of academic inquiry judged that there were "inadequacies" and "incompetence", the administration appears to have tried to get the committee to change its decision.

Exeter says it has changed. It says it now has a policy to prevent "problems" with protecting confidentiality. The sad truth is that the policy prevents researchers from extending guarantees of absolute confidentiality. This amounts to a guarantee that re-search such as mine cannot clear the ethics committee, in effect stopping it from being done.

The policy change is really a ban on research into illegal behaviour.

How does that benefit society? Where is Exeter's commitment to its own charter to foster research and the advancement of knowledge? Rather than fix the problem, Exeter has compounded it.

The university has paid the £63,000 compensation for its negligence, as ordered by the visitor. It probably paid double that, from public funds, to defend itself and generate five years' worth of turgid fudge, now piled 3ft high in legal binders. As for the lord chancellor's department, does it really think that the award is a realistic valuation of a PhD?

All Exeter ever had to do was to keep the promise it made about protecting research participants and provide the level and quality of supervision required according to its own policy. That wouldn't have cost much. One would think that a university visitor could have at least realised that. In effect, Exeter has cheaply bought a visitor-authorised right to prohibit sociological inquiry into illegal behaviour.

It seems to me that the university has learnt nothing. In 1995, when I arrived, the vice-chancellor's "Strategy for the Next Decade" declared Exeter a "beacon for good postgraduate students". Make that a warning beacon.

Russel Ogden is teaching criminology and sociology at Kwantlen University College in Canada. KUC has pledged to set aside funds to defend his promises of confidentiality for the research he is currently undertaking.

Related story
Exeter student wins £63,000

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