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German Data Forum (RatSWD) calls for securing the confidentiality of research data

For empirical social and economic research, the confiscation of research data represents an unacceptable threat to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of research, and is in contradiction to central, ethical research principles. The German Data Forum (RatSWD) therefore calls for the establishment of a legal basis to ensure the confidentiality of research data. This is in response to a pending case in which research data was confiscated from a forensic psychologist by Bavarian investigative authorities in 2020.

In its current statement [available in German], the German Data Forum (RatSWD) calls on federal and state legislators to take legal measures to ensure the confidentiality of research, and the protection of research data generated in the process. In the case of qualitative interview studies and ethnographic field research (not only, but especially), the acquisition of high-quality research data requires a considerable amount of personally vouched trust. If the government or other non-research bodies take possession of research data generated in this way, and use it for unintended purposes, then the trust between researchers and participants is undermined. This results in such research becoming significantly restricted, or even impossible to access, especially in vulnerable milieus. Yet, research is particularly important in such politically sensitive areas, so that political and legal practices can rely on scientific findings.

The German Data Forum (RatSWD) therefore proposes to include a purpose limitation clause for research data in the Federal Data Protection Act, and the corresponding regulation in the state data protection laws. It also advocates for the further examination of legislative approaches, in order to ensure confidential treatment of research data, e.g. by amending criminal law and criminal procedure law.

The stance of the German Data Forum (RatSWD) comes after the search of the office of a forensic psychologist in Erlangen by the Bavarian investigative authorities in January 2020. A copy of an interview recording with a prison inmate and a list of other participants in an interview study on the causes of radicalisation were confiscated. A constitutional complaint by the university professor against this action is currently pending at the Federal Constitutional Court.

The German Data Forum (RatSWD) advises the federal government and the governments in the federal states on expanding and improving the research data infrastructure for the empirical social, behavioural and economic sciences since 2004. The German Data Forum (RatSWD) is made up of ten elected representatives from the social, behavioural, and economic disciplines who work together with ten representatives from key data producers.

The German Data Forum (RatSWD) is part of the Consortium for Social, Behavioural, Educational, and Economic sciences (KonsortSWD) in the National Research Data Infrastructure (NFDI). It acts as an institutionalised forum for dialogue between science and data producers, as well as developing recommendations and opinions. It is committed to supporting an infrastructure that enables sciences to have broad, flexible, and secure data access. These data are provided by state, science-based, and private-sector actors. The German Data Forum (RatSWD) has currently accredited 38 research data centres (as of December 2020), and encourages their cooperation.