External Pressure to Disclose Participant Data


Depending on the topic and location of the research, researchers may anticipate or face external pressure to disclose participant data. This is distinct from moral or intrinsic reporting such as child abuse, imminent risk of harm, or professional reporting duties for communicable diseases or malpractice.


Research involving possible external pressure to disclose should have a sound scholarly rationale with clear expected benefits. It should follow institutional review procedures, such as funding body and thesis committee review, departmental approvals for grant applications and protocols, Research Ethics Board (REB) review, and safety in field research. Research team members, REBs and other officials should ensure their understanding of project issues are current. Researchers must do the following.

  1. Design research to minimize risks of external pressure to disclose. It is helpful to include these details in the protocol.
    • Identify foreseeable risks of external pressure to disclose participant data; consider the context of the risk for participants
    • Describe possible external pressures to disclose, risks of disclosure, measures to reduce those risks, and planned responses to disclosure pressure, in the protocol and participant consent process
    • Collect as little personally identifiable data as possible, code and de-link or destroy identifiers, such as names, contact information or interview recordings as soon as possible
    • Consider what information is necessary to answer the research questions, and to the extent possible minimize collection of information likely to be subject to external pressure to disclose
    • Implement robust ‘cradle-to-grave' data security.
  2. Plan responses to external disclosure pressure. Disclose fully to participants and research team.
    • Plan actions if confronted with a subpoena, court order, extralegal pressure, intimidation, etc.
    • Disclose risks and planned responses in the participant consent process and to researchers. For example, indicate if you intend to disclose participant data, or resist a subpoena, intimidation, etc.
    • Identify resources to resist disclosure—for example, legal counsel, institutional support, consular contacts—where possible and appropriate
    • Educate all members of the research team and work with REBs and institution officials to ensure up-to-date understanding of relevant policy, ethics guidelines and law necessary to resist disclosure as appropriate
  3. Respond to external pressure to disclose according to your plan.
    • Be prepared to respond to reasonably foreseeable pressures to disclose
    • Consult as promptly as possible with participants, research team, REB and institution regarding efforts to resist.
    • Disclose changes or deviation from the plan immediately to participants and the REB.

VPRI Contact


Dean Sharpe

Research Ethics Manager, Social Sciences, Humanities & Education
Research Oversight & Compliance Office (ROCO)
(416) 978-5585