Sensitive information in social research

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    My question is: if someone, who is fully informed about what you are doing tells you something both useful and ‘fresh’ then says ‘but that’s off record’ would it be wrong to use it? How could I use it? My final report will be read by a number of people, quite possibly including this person. If I just included the statement with a little context and didn’t refer to name/organisation/location etc would that work? although the statement itself my lead people at least to the organisation, and the research is in a fairly small area, in which people know who I’ve been talking to…


    Never faced something like this but good luck in your quest.

    Luke Smith

    After the fact I don’t think it would be appropriate to use that piece of information. The fact that while being interviewed they specifically noted that piece of information as ‘off the record’ would indicate to me that they may have good reason to want that kept out of public view. For example, they may have felt that the information was specific enough that it could be used to identify them.

    Depending on the subject being discussed, and level of rapport with the respondent, you could potentially have asked them their reason for taking their statement off the record.


    Good point, although my relationship with the person is ongoing, so next time we talk I could ask further about that area of the topic and see what emerges there. We’ll see what happens I guess.

    Diana Buja

    I would say not to use it – but as Mridula suggests, to discuss the issue in a little more detail (to find out what are the reasons). Personally, if asked not to use information, I never use it – but do probe in more depth around the issue if the reasons are not clear and if it appears to be an important area/fact for follow-up.


    Hi all, just joined this group so apologies for the delay in my response. I wonder whether it is ethically appropriate to revisit this when you next speak to the interviewee; it could be argued that you are using your relationship with the person to coerce. In this way, the interviewee may feel obliged to let you use the quotation even though they have already expressed thier desire to keep it “off the record”. Just a thought. Fiona

    Lexine Hansen

    Good point Fiona! Doing participant observation, I am often told things in my capacity as a “friend” that people don’t want me divulging. The line between researcher and pal is often a murky one.

    I would agree, that off the record means ABSOLUTELY OFF THE RECORD–but that also means, you can ask others about the general subject rather than the specific quote. For example, I was told by an informant that (names changed) “Hildy runs the association because her husband is the mayor–but you didn’t hear that from me, I shouldn’t have told you.” My study was about how the association manged a project, so this was interesting information that I hadn’t thought to ask about. Using this quote though, out of the question. So in later interviews and discussions with other informants I began to ask “how do people get positions of power in this association?” That gave me plenty of data I could use. This is like “background” for reporters. You can’t mention it, but it gives you a lead to follow up with others so long as you protect your source.


    I’d agree with all disagreement of using it but what if I’m researching freedom in authoritarian systems ?


    Hi all,
    I am for the approach put forward by Lexine. Off the record is OFF THE RECORD, that’s part of the game. There are sensitive issues which respondents disclose to us just because we are researchers, otherwise they would hold their tongue. The ‘off the record’ should be rephrased and discussed with other respondents, thus leaving the first informant on the safe side, and gaining more insight based on the ‘off the record’.
    Success to all,
    Jean Providence


    Hi Jad,
    You have got a challenging point! But the question is whether you would put your respondent at risk or not. That’s why he/she revealed it to you ‘off the record’. Maybe, while researching freedom of expression in such systems, the ‘off the record’ would be more than one, thus having more of the same issue. In like manner, I think you would be able to build an intepretation model that encompasses all the ‘off the record’ without putting at risk any of the respondents.
    Jean Providence


    If your question about using any “off-the-record” information is in the context of a fully informed consent, then it would be unethical to use information that is shared with you with and expectation of privacy. Nothing you could do after-the-fact to make it anonymous negates your obligation to respect the original request for confidentiality. You could have, at the time of the revelation, expanded and revised your informed consent with this informant. But, obviously, the comments were off-the -record for a reason. You do not say whether you know that reason.


    If the ethical consideraiton is difficult for you, think selfishly, and pragmatically, about the consequences of revealing this “fresh’ information. Will the consequences for you be that you will have contaminated any future opportunity to use this informant or this setting for future research? Will knowledge of the fact that you violated a confidence spread and destroy other research opportunities. Is that the reputaiton you want, just for one “fresh” observation?



    Similar to a clergy, doctor or lawyer, you should protect your respondent, at all costs. Before begining an interview, in general, a participant is promised that nothing that can identify her/him will be used. Therefore, if the participant wants to retract a statement(s), you, as the researcher, need to re-assure her/him that the statement will not be used. If the interview is recorded, if at all possible, delete that portion (whether taped or hand-written). If recorded and not deleted, you should, instructs the transcriber to ignore that portion of the interview. It is your responsibility to ensure that this is done!  Accordingly, you should take the responsibility to review the transcription yourself. Better still, you transcribe the interview yourself, making sure that this part is deleted, and, why not let the participant review the transcription or your notes.

     In short, as a researcher it is important to maintain trust and credibility, not just for yourself but for all researchers. This is even more important in a small area (such as an island or tribal area/village) where it is highly likely that people, now and in the future, will know exactly who you are talking about. Something that might appear innocent today could have a serious negative impact down the road.


    I am in total agreement with  Jean Providence

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