Framework of Rules of Ethics of Criminological Research. In the light of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

Since the implementation of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016, creating a framework of rules of ethics of criminological research has become more important than ever. Christina Tatsi, lawyer and PhD in Criminology from Panteion University, reviews a new book on this subject recently published by her University, Framework of Rules of Ethics of Criminological Research. In the light of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

Key concepts of data protection

The book is prefaced by reputable scientists with special knowledge and experience in this field, such as Calliope Spinellis, Emeritus Professor of Criminology at the Law School of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA), Maria Kranidioti, Assistant Professor of Criminology at the Law School of NKUA and Evangelia (Lillian) Mitrou, Professor at the Aegean University in the Department of Information and Communication Systems Engineering, who present important concerns and ethical issues that arise in criminological research.

The authors start by setting out the institutional development of data protection from the first attempts to secure the right to privacy to the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (2016/679/EU-GDPR).

They explain the key concepts defined in Article 4 of the GDPR such as “personal data”, “processing”, “pseudonymis ation”, and “consent”. They also outline general principles that researchers must bear in mind when conducting their research, such as “general rules on the security of the research”, “principle of legality, objectivity and transparency”, “the proportionality principle”, “confidentiality assurance”, “informed consent”, and principles applicable to minors, detainees, addictive substance users, etc.

Rules that researchers must abide by

The authors detail the rules that researchers must abide by when conducting their work, notably being professional, bound by their activities and enhancing the overall progress of the group. They must also uphold values of equality and respect.

One of the most important ethical obligations for researchers is the protection of intellectual property, which requires to properly reference their sources and references, including all authors.

Reference is also made to the violation of the research’s integrity. According to the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, failure to observe good research practices, such as the construction of research results, the falsification or alteration of research material, and plagiarism, constitute a violation of professional duties. Scientific experts must therefore ensure that all ethical rules and the provisions of the legislation in force are complied with when the research is carried out. Conflicts of interest may arise, which may affect various aspects of a study. In this case, the researcher should be aware that any conflict of interest may negatively affect the research and also confirm that there is no conflict of interest regarding himself/ herself at the time of undertaking his/ her duties. At the same time, the research team has to manage this conflict.

Researching with real-life persons

The book’s third chapter, entitled ‘Ethical issues in research involving natural persons’, addresses information and consent, confidentiality and financial consideration.

The information and consent (informed consent) of the participants is an essential precondition for any scientific research that involves people as subjects. Participation in criminological research must be voluntary and the participants must give their consent once they have been thoroughly informed and have fully understood the scope of the research.    

The question ofensuring confidentiality includes the concepts of anonymity and confidentiality. The researcher shall maintain confidentiality and protect the participant’s interests even when he or she does not understand the risk posed by the disclosure of his or her data. The principle of anonymity does not concern the researcher who collects the data, but rather any third party, while confidentiality concerns everyone.

Lastly, reference is made to financial compensation. The practice of providing financial compensation to participants as an incentive to participate in the research may alter their freedom of will and should therefore be avoided.   

Research with vulnerable subjects

Another aspect examined by the book is what the authors call “Special research cases”, in particular research concerning minors, prisoners, users of addictive substances, victims of domestic violence, mentally ill patients and victims of human trafficking. When conducting such research, specific ethical issues may arise because of the particular characteristics of the groups mentioned. In these cases, greater attention is required concerning the disclosure of any personal data. Also, failing to understand the scale and results of the research can have multiple adverse effects on the lives of the individuals concerned compared to other segments of the population. Thus, except for the general principles which are applied to each survey, when it comes to conducting research on vulnerable groups of people and in particular cases, more specific approaches are required that must always be in compliance with legislation.

Processing personal data

The book includes a chapter on the processing of personal data, as well as on the rights of data subjects such as the right to rectification, to erasure (right to be forgotten) and to the restriction of processing. In addition, extensive reference is made to the conditions of third party access to the participants’ personal data. This section of the book also sets out the measures to be taken by the controller and the processor regarding the security, privacy and anonymity of the research participants.

The last chapter of the book deals with the “Security of individuals and data”. There is extensive reference to the measures that researchers and participants must take and to the rules that must be followed while they are conducting the research, storing and securing the collected data. The possibility of damage (both physical and mental) should be prevented, and all necessary protection measures should be taken with respect to the dignity and rights of the participants. Meanwhile, data should be collected for specific purposes and processed in a way that guarantees its security. Reference is also made to the Data Protection Officer.

Various appendices and references    

The book concludes with various appendices about the licensing process of research projects and the role of Research Ethics Committees. A number of forms are available to obtain authorisation to conduct research, as posted on the websites of the Panteion University, the National Centre of Social Research, the Democritus University of Thrace and the University of Crete. Lastly, a bibliography lists relevant legislative and ethical texts concerning the conduct of research.

> Framework of Rules of Ethics of Criminological Research. In the light of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), co-authored by Professor Christina Zarafonitou and Dr. Ioanna  Tsigkanou in collaboration with the project team of PhD candidates Elli Anitsi, Katerina Kalafati-Michailaki, Penelope Kollia, Elena Syrmali and Christina Tatsi (who was also the project team's co-ordinator). Published by Dionikos Publications as part of the series “Criminological Studies” by the Programme of Postgraduate Studies (MA) in Criminology of the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences.

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