Researchers need more clarity on data act

January 14, 2000

The Data Protection Act could ban certain types of research in the social sciences.

Research involving processing sensitive personal data could be halted. For example, if researchers wanted to follow what happened to repeat offenders when they came out of the prison system, they would be dealing with data that was both personal and sensitive. "The current exemptions as they stand would not appear to cover this kind of research," said Andrew Charlesworth at the University of Hull.

This is despite the fact that such studies tend to be done under the scrutiny of ethics committees and with the consent of the subjects. "Some lobbying of the secretary of state may yet be required," Mr Charlesworth added.

Other problems could crop up in surveys where researchers have not sought the express permission of respondents to use the resulting data. "You may find yourself in the situation that unless you have the specific consent of all those in the survey, you may not hold the data," said Mr Charlesworth.

But personal data collected only for research purposes, including historical and statistical research, will continue to receive certain exemptions. In particular, research subjects will not be entitled to see records about them if the findings of the research do not identify individuals.

In collaboration with Jane Williams of the University of Bristol, Mr Charlesworth is organising a series of seminars in the coming months to identify areas of conflict between higher education and the Data Protection Act.

"There is still scope for clarification. It would be nice to have certaincategories of research exempt from the Act. Such an argument comes over more powerfully when spoken by the voice of the higher education sector rather than individual institutions," he said.

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