CBC/Radio-Canada has reported that a Quebec-based wind power developer obtained a court order to force a researcher with the University of Quebec at Montreal to reveal the names of participants in her study of the impact of a wind power development on a Quebec community. The decision is far-reaching as it indicates not only the lengths to which wind power companies will go to intimidate residents opposed to the huge power projects in their small rural communities, it also puts a “chill” on participation in research studies, if confidentiality cannot be assured.
Here is an unofficial translation of the news story, from the original French.
Law to force researcher to reveal identity of her sources
A wind firm has obtained a court order to force researcher Marie-Ève Maillé to reveal the names of participants in a study she conducted to determine the deterioration of social climate in communities where turbines were built.
by Ulysse Bergeron
This first-to-happen in judicial history worries the Canadian scientific community which feels that the procedure undertaken by Éoliennes de l’Érable wind company against professor Maillé at UQÀM/Université du Québec à Montréal could potentially harm the confidentiality of university sources, as well as casting a shadow on future participation by citizens in any Canadian research.
The company commands the researcher to reveal the names of the 93 participants who provided information in the context of her doctorate research in 2012, indicating whether they were “for or against” the wind project.
It also requires her to release on-site noise recordings as well as the names and addresses of the people interviewed.
This request is in reaction to a civil action recourse from a citizens’ group which opposes the IWTs since 2014.
These citizens from de l’Érable and Arthabaska municipalities maintain being annoyed by the fifty IWTs in operation.
In November 2015, they had asked Ms. Maillé to testify as an expert witness.
That is when Éoliennes de l’Érablière filed its request stating that “it had every right to obtain all information and pertinent documentation relatively to this reported deterioration of the social climate to be able to defend its position against the class action it was facing.”
Last January judge Marc St-Pierre declared the company was right but the researcher refused to communicate the data.
She maintains that this data specifically fall under “immunity of divulgation” by force of the agreement of confidentiality that binds her to all participants as surmised from documents deposited in court.
If the judge overrules her objection, two options remain: renege on her word of confidentiality and release the information to the companies or risk being pursued for contempt of court.
This court case sparks a particular interest in the scientific community since its impact could have far reaching implications for research as a whole.
In a formal deposition dated August 2nd Rémi Quirion, Québec’s chief science officer and main counselor to the government in related scientific matters, is on record of defending the researcher. She must “respect her ethical duty of confidentiality and protect personal data” trusted in her by participants, adding that research project “would never have gained public funding” without a binding commitment of the sort.
In addition to Quirion’s supportive position comes a similar voice of approval from Ms. Susann V. Zimmerman, president of the Secrétariat sur la conduite responsable de la recherche (???) of Canada which supervises ethics in scientific research country-wide. In a statement also dated August 2nd Ms. Zimmerman upholds a researcher’s duty to ensure confidentiality of data entrusted in his/her care.
Confidence towards research in general can be affected by “even just one case where interest of the participants is ignored” writes Ms. Zimmerman, resulting in a dimming of “people’s willingness to participate in research in Canada.”
She also reminds that people doing scientific research do not have automatic immunity and are held responsible to go beyond the bind of confidentiality in cases, for example, of ill-treatment to minors or if there is a risk of homicide or suicide.
UQAM University did not support its own researcher
Marie-Ève Maillé made repeated requests, to no avail, to many office at UQAM – ombudsman’s office, ethics committee, judicial services, vice-rector’s office – seeking help to defend herself against the company. “The establishment must bring financial support to a researcher in order to allow him/her to gain access to judicial counsel independent from the establishment to ensure that solely the interests of the researcher and the participants are taken into consideration”, as explained by director Susann W. Zimmerman.
“Any establishment not respecting any one of those guidelines puts its funding at risk” says Ms. Zimmerman.
Last March, UQAM in its last communication with the researcher – of which CBC/Radio-Canada obtained a copy – had declined all further responsibility, writing that “You are the holder to the intellectual property rights of your thesis including specifically your research data. These do not belong to the university.”
Confidentiality and public interest
In B.C. in 1994, the RCMP had tried to obtain data from a criminology master’s degree student which would have allowed identification in a study of a participant who was present in an assisted suicide. The judge sided with the student.
In 2012, two Montreal policemen tried to get information from an interview that Luka Rocco Magnota had done in 2007 with to researchers from the University of Ottawa in the context of a sociological study of people working as escorts. The judge had also ruled in favour of the students doing the research.
To establish whether public interest supersedes participants’ confidentiality in a research, a judge will generally let the decision rest on Wigmore’s test. The test’s four criteria help evaluate whether public interest is better served in respecting or breaking said confidentiality agreement. Two situations have been opportunities for reflection in these matters during the last twenty years. Although similar they did oppose researchers to the police and not to a company.
Following a call by CBC/Radio-Canada UQAM representatives have discussed the issue with Québec’s chief science officer. Jenny Desrochers now concedes that UQAM is reconsidering its position without admitting if it plans to help its researcher or not.
“Our position is that she has acted on her own, in a unilateral and voluntary manner in her decision to be an expert witness” counters Jenny Desroches, spokesperson at UQAM.
The stakes are not only ethical. They are financial.
Yet, from statements by the Secrétariat sur la conduite responsable de la recherche which oversees research in Canada “establishments must help researchers maintain their commitments of confidentiality” with regards to participants.
WCO note: The Canadian Association of University Teachers has issued a statement urging the university in this case to defend the doctoral student. “Maintaining the confidentiality of research participants is an ethical obligation,” said executive director David Robinson.