Confidentiality of Doctoral Theses
In the UK theses are treated as documents in confidence until the examination processes are complete. It has always been common practice for theses to be made available as reference materials in the University Library and noted in the British library. In recent years theses have been available publically via online repositories, raising the issue of confidentiality.
University regulations include the requirement to submit an e-thesis as part of the conferment process that will be openly accessible on WIRE (Wolverhampton Intellectual Repository and E-Theses). WIRE is an open access online collection of research outputs by members of the University of Wolverhampton. For more information view the WIRE website http://www.wlv.ac.uk/lib/research/wire.aspx
What are the benefits of putting your thesis online?
• Personal reward – knowing your research is being read
• E‐theses submission will make a hidden body of knowledge accessible
• Increased visibility as a researcher
• Gain new skills for the digital age
• Global accessibility – representing the scholarship produced at the University of Wolverhampton
What are the key issues arising from e‐theses?
• Confidentiality – including sensitive personal information, obtained under a promise of confidentiality, may be allowed for examination purposes but not for open access.
• Commercially sensitive material – agreements with sponsors or a patent pending, may prohibit research being made openly available for a certain period of time.
• Pre‐publication – publishers may advise against making a thesis available electronically prior to publication.
• Third party copyright material ‐ material by other authors, such as; long quotes, images, photographs, tables and maps from published or unpublished works. Traditionally accepted in a thesis for examination purposes, but may require permission from the rights holder for e‐theses submission.
A confidentiality period should be thought of as a temporary ‘embargo’ – always limited in time and for a specific purpose but research should be available once the process is complete. The candidate should provide an explicit justification for any such confidentiality period. An Application for Restricted Access of a Research Degree Thesis may be made on the following grounds:
- to enable a patent application to be lodged, or
- to protect material that is sensitive commercially or personally, or due to its relation to questions of national security.
Approval must be sought and granted no later than the time at which examination arrangements are approved. The normal maximum period of confidentiality is two years. Where an application for confidentiality has been granted, the thesis will be retained by the University on restricted access and will only be made available to those directly involved with the project.
Points to note:
- Confidentiality should not be used as an alternative to legitimate ways of anonymising data to protect participants.
- Sensitive material can be removed to an appendix and embargoed separately so that the main body of research is still available publicly
- Students should be following good practice in these areas (regardless of electronic access).
- Research is inappropriate if none of it can be made publicly available or not available at all
- Issues relating to potential harm to individuals or the author should be considered as part of the research design and the ethical approval process.
Dealing with Confidentiality
When conducting your research, you may receive assistance or information from funding agencies and companies who may require certain restrictions on the publication of that information or of the research results or information produced in the project.
All obligations which affect your thesis and its publication should be written down as part of the correspondence and agreements between you and those parties. Some entities are unused to dealing with the academic environment and may ask for restrictions which are unreasonable.
Practical steps can be taken to minimise any inconvenience which may be suffered as a result of confidentiality restrictions. Examples include:
- If a company requires you to get its consent before publishing your thesis, you should if possible send draft chapters to your company contact as those chapters are produced. This means that there should not be a significant delay at the end of the writing-up period while you wait for consent. In addition, keeping the company informed may assist you in your dealings with the company in relation to funding, employment and deadlines. Company contacts are frequently busy and quick approval of your whole thesis is often not realistic.
- Consider whether it is really necessary to actually include certain confidential information in your thesis.
- Alternatively, the data or confidential information may be presented in such a way that its confidential nature is still preserved. Specifics like names can sometimes have general labels substituted for them, without diminishing the value of the illustration that they may provide. Examples include research into the internal management of a company being publishable because the company is not identified.
- Confidential information may be separated off into a schedule or an appendix, so that the thesis may be examined in confidence but shall not be published with the schedule or appendix on it.
Making Data Available
Many research funders now encourage, or require, their award holders to share their data. Sharing your data can be highly beneficial, it:
- Enables your data to be used in new, and possibly unexpected, ways
- Allows other researchers to cite your data so you gain credit
- Can lead to new collaborations with users of your data
- Avoids unnecessary and potentially costly re-collection of existing data
- Encourages research by providing a new resource for the academic community
There are a number of Data Services available where you can deposit your data and share it with the academic community. You can also use these Data Services in turn to find, identify and cite research datasets in your own work.
See RCUK Common Principles on Data Policy for more information
Guides and information on sharing, finding and using data
If your dataset includes personal information about living individuals you will need to ensure that your sharing complies with the requirements of the Data Protection Act. Check whether participants were made aware before they participated in your project (via your participant information sheet or consent form, where relevant) that they may be identifiable in your dataset and that they were informed that you were going to be sharing your dataset.
By fully anonymising your dataset (so that individuals cannot be identified even if your dataset is combined with other information in the public domain) you can remove the dataset from the requirements of the Data Protection Act. For guidance on anonymisation, see the Information Commissioner's Office's Anonymisation Code of Practice.
Guides to help you find and use data from others are available from the UK Data Service.