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Researchers between the obligation of confidentiality and the duty of disclosure

The disclosure of criminal offences in the research process is a research ethics dilemma and harbours uncertainties for researchers. A new handout by the German Data Forum (RatSWD) now provides guidance.

When criminal offences come to light during research, it is often unclear whether researchers must conceal knowledge of criminal offences or whether they must or should disclose them. The RatSWD’s new handout deals with clarifying this question using four practical examples. These stem from research on right-wing extremism and deal with the disclosure of child abuse, an intention to commit suicide, and possible neglect of people in need of care that becomes known during a narrative interview. The handout now discusses in detail criminal law, data protection law, and other legal requirements as well as ethical guidelines based on the examples and clearly explains ways of solving the dilemma.

The legal work was commissioned by the Research Ethics Working Group and the Legal Task Force of the RatSWD, which also developed the practical examples. The handout was prepared by Prof. Dr. Dr. Eric Hilgendorf and staff from the Department of Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure Law, Legal Theory, Information Law, and Legal Informatics at the University of Würzburg.

“The examples from research practice are used to show how they can be answered from a legal perspective so that they can be applied to other cases,” says Ingrid Miethe, chair of the RatSWD’s Research Ethics WG. The chair of the RatSWD, Monika Jungbauer-Gans, also sees the new handout as extremely helpful for the social science research community: “This handout will be extremely helpful for researchers in the social and economic sciences as well as for ethics committees, since the disclosure of criminal offences entails difficult decisions that can only be made with differentiated legal knowledge.”

Suggested citation: RatSWD (Rat für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsdaten). (2023). Handreichung „Umgang mit der Kenntnisnahme von Straftaten im Rahmen der Durchführung von Forschungsvorhaben”: Erstellt von Max Tauschhuber, Dr. Paul Vogel und Prof. Dr. Dr. Eric Hilgendorf (RatSWD Output Series, 7. Berufungsperiode Nr. 1). Berlin. https://doi.org/10.17620/02671.74


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 42 research data centres, and encourages their cooperation.