Social Research and Confidentiality Research Paper

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1. Definitions

The word privacy here refers to the state of the individual, including individuals’ right to control information about them at times. Confidentiality refers to the state of information, that is, information in an individual’s record may not be disclosed without the individual’s consent except under certain conditions. Security here refers to the state of physical or electronic records, especially protection against unauthorized access to the record.

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2. An Ethical And Legal Context

People may provide information in social surveys, randomized field trials, and in other studies. Their doing so may be voluntary. Or it may be mandatory, that is, required by law.

Generally, the researcher is under an explicit ethical obligation to assure the privacy of the individual, the confidentiality of information generated on the individual, and the security of the record. These obligations may be reflected in professional codes of ethics. The obligations may be verified through government regulations and review processes that foster assurance of privacy, such as Institutional Review Boards in the United States. Or, the obligation may be verified in law. Statutes that govern the activity of census bureau interviewers and statisticians in countries, such as Sweden, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, are plain on this account and include penalties for failure to meet the obligation.

3. Assessing Privacy In Surveys And Randomized Field Trials

The social scientist’s statutes must be met in a variety of ways at each stage in the process of a study. At the study’s design stage, for instance, one minimizes the information that is asked of a respondent and minimizes the intrusiveness of questions, that is, one restricts questions so as to meet the study’s object. One also minimizes the number of people who are engaged in a study. This is determined partly by technical concerns such as the level of statistical precision or statistical power that is needed.

Under many codes of ethics and certain broad legal regulations, individuals to whom questions are put must be told whether their participation in the research is voluntary. People usually must be told the purpose of the research, and the disposition and functions of the data that they provide. Usually, they are assured that the information they provide will remain confidential, that is, the assurance is that information will be used only for research purposes and that the information they provide will not be disclosed with their identity attached to anyone else.

Under certain circumstances, the information provided by individuals can be assured of confidentiality even in the face of government or private threat. In the United States, for example, researchers who are involved in studies on alcohol and substance abuse, and criminological research can receive a certificate of confidentiality. The rules are such that researchers are prohibited under penalty of law from disclosing identifiable microrecords, and are legally immune from any obligation to provide microrecords to law enforcement agencies.

More generally, statues that govern statistical agencies in the United States and other countries require that the agencies refrain from disclosing records on individuals to other people, that is, the statutes say that records on identifiable individuals cannot be appropriated legally by anyone else, including the courts, legislatures, and law enforcement agencies.

The researcher is under an ordinary obligation to cooperate with courts and other government agencies in providing information. This obligation becomes problematic if the researcher made promises of confidentiality and then, when confronted with a government demand, discovers that the promise has no legal standing. Keeping track of such episodes and their frequency is important. Shield laws that assure that the social scientist cannot be compelled to disclose information about identifiable individuals who have agreed to participate in the research are then important.

4. Privacy And Researchers’ Use Of Statistical Data Bases

Producing high quality data in social research can be costly irrespective of the benefits of the information. To the extent that the same data set can be put to work frequently to benefit the public, the cost effectiveness ratio decreases.

For instance, good scholars undertook multiple reanalysis of data from the statewide class size randomized trial in Tennessee. These analyses informed policy debates about reducing the size of classrooms in 20 states of the United States.

Making local, regional, or national data available to statisticians, however, may put one ethical standard against another: public interest in the results of statistical analysis versus the possibility that records will be used for nonresearch purposes.

Learning how to make individual records available for statistical analysis in ways that do not compromise the privacy of the individuals who are the source of the record information is not easy. Since the 1970s, serious research on this topic has been done by federal statistical agencies in many different countries. Virtually all such agencies concern themselves with surveys rather than active randomized trials on the effects of social programs. Nonetheless, the lessons from the survey research community are applicable to people who attempt to mount evaluations of program effects, such as randomized field trials.

The approaches that have been developed to assure researchers’ access to existing data sets without com- promising privacy concerns can be classified into two categories. The first involves simple procedures that focus on assuring that records cannot be used for learning about an individual. The second involves legal arrangements, including statutes, regulations, and contractual agreements.

Consider, first, the approaches to making data available and protecting individual privacy. Typically, the data custodian who releases a file for the public’s use deletes the direct and clear identifiers from data files, that is, the addresses and other unique information about individuals are deleted. Further, because individual records are often detailed and external collateral information is available, sophisticated statistical approaches may be used to eliminate the possibility of deductive disclosure. Such approaches include deletion of certain variables from the file, eliminating certain microrecords that allow disclosure on small samples of particular individuals, reducing the precision of entry by making the reporting categories crude, introducing controlled random perturbation, controlled random swapping, and other techniques. These technical approaches fall under the rubric of statistical disclosure limitation technology. Advances in this technology by statisticians in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, Israel, and Luxemburg are given in Fienberg and Willenborg (1998).

Data enclaves are organizations created to (a) permit intensive sophisticated analyses by people other than the original data custodian, and (b) protect the confidentiality of micro records with the same rules that govern the original custodian. At the University of California at Los Angeles and at Berkeley, for instance, enclaves have been established that permit university-based researchers to analyze data that would be accessible ordinarily only to federal civil servants. The rules that govern the data’s use, including security procedures and the threat of criminal and civil sanctions, apply to the enclave’s researcher as it does to civil servants.

A variant on the enclave idea involves licensing agreements. A specific example of this arrangement, developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, is a license granted to particular individuals to analyze specific data sets that would not otherwise be accessible on privacy grounds. The justifications for such privilege must be made. The licensing agreement includes requirements for security of the microrecords, sanctions and rules or disclosure, and so on.

5. Privacy And The Use Of State Data Bases

In the United States, each state of the 50 states has laws governing third party access to certain administrative record systems and administrative data bases. The state laws differ appreciably in their provisions for permitting a researcher (and certain others) to access individually identifiable microrecords. The administrative records that are laws and regulations also differ across systems within schools, hospitals, child welfare and adult welfare agencies, crime and justice agencies, runaway shelters, and others.

There exists no national compendium for identifying which administrative record systems are legally open to legitimate researchers and which systems are closed to them. A compendium for each country and for each political jurisdiction and agency within each country is important as a way of understanding how privacy of individuals and confidentiality of microrecords can be assured in a research context.

Despite the absence of a national, regional, and local compendium, there exist useful compendiums that have been constructed for special purposes. They identify the State and its laws on particular record systems and summarize access rules for certain individuals including perhaps researchers (see, for instance, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Research 1995 on missing children and the relevant databases and the National Criminal Justice Information and Statistics Service (1978, 1988, 1992) on criminal history information. Among federal agencies in the United States, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has been consistent in preparing and updating related information. It has produced eight reports since 1972; more recent reports supplant earlier ones. They all focus on state laws regarding criminal history record information.

In the BJS (1992) compendium, each state’s laws are cited, the full text of laws being given in a national repository that is itself accessible to researchers. The compendium outlines information about each state law on 28 dimensions. One such dimension is whether the particular law contains ‘provision for and regulation of’ access to criminal justice information by outside researchers (BJS 1992, p. 12).

The compendium identifies 29 states that have laws or regulations that permit research access and the relevant statute or regulation. No analysis is provided. But researchers can obtain full text documents for the statutes and regulations from the criminal justice clearinghouse.

6. Privacy And Record Linkage

Linking records from different databases in the interest of research presents privacy problems. The rules governing one data custodian, such as a census bureau, may differ from the rules of another statistical agency such as an education statistics or a labor statistics bureau. Such rules differ across agencies for a less centralized government such as the United States. They may not differ across agencies for a more centralized government such as Canada, Sweden, or Japan. The matter is very complex and generalizations are hard to make.

Certainly, the case for linkage has to be made. Identifying the discernable benefits to society of a linkage and the absence of discernable costs to individual privacy is important. This can be done through example and systematic study. An early example of an effort to discover the benefits and costs of linkage for administrative purposes, not research purposes, is given in USGAO (1986a, 1986b). The bottom line was that certain administrative linkages are not worth the effort. Recent examples, more to the point for social scientists, are given in the work of the National Research Council (1999).


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