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Quebec ruling reaffirms research data confidentiality

The Superior Court of Quebec has reversed its decision to compel researcher Marie-Ève Maillé to disclose her confidential research data.

By PASCALE CASTONGUAY | JUN 07 2017

The Superior Court of Quebec has ruled in favour of researcher Marie-Ève Maillé, who will not be required to disclose the confidential research data she collected in 2010. In the ruling handed down on May 31, 2017, Justice Marc St-Pierre retracted his previous decision dated February 13, 2016, which compelled the Université du Québec à Montréal researcher to share her raw data with Éoliennes de l’Érable, a company behind a wind power project in Quebec.

Maillé did not hide her relief that the judge had ruled in her favour. “I knew that my cause was just, but it’s reassuring to see that the justice system also recognizes the need to protect the confidentiality of research data,” she said. Despite this victory, the researcher voiced her disappointment that she was unable to enlighten the judge with elements of her research. In her view, “our duty as researchers is to share, outside of academic circles, the knowledge that we help produce.”

Dr. Maillé. Photo courtesy of Dr. Maillé.

In 2010, when Maillé was a PhD student, she interviewed 93 residents of the Arthabaska region east of Montréal. Her research focused on social cohesion among residents of two towns divided by an environmental conflict over the large wind farm run by Éoliennes de l’Érable. Maillé published the findings of her study and completed her PhD in 2012. That same year, a group of residents launched a class action lawsuit against the wind energy company over inconveniences caused by the wind farm’s construction and operation.

In 2015, the group asked Maillé to testify as an expert witness. Thinking that she would merely have to read a few excerpts from her thesis, she agreed. In October 2015, she learned that the Superior Court judge wanted her to provide the defence with all of her study findings. Having promised confidentiality to the 93 participants, she asked the judge to reverse his decision about disclosing the data. When her request was denied, she withdrew her name from the witness list.

Despite having withdrawn from the case, she was ordered in March 2016 to provide the raw data from her study. In June 2016, she filed another request that the judge review his decision. This led to the hearing in May, where Maillé was given a chance to speak, which in turn opened the door for UQAM, the Fonds de recherche du Québec and the Canadian Association of University Teachers to state their positions on the importance of protecting the confidentiality of research data.

Reactions from the scientific community

The Quebec research community was pleased with the outcome of Maillé’s case. “Researchers are legally and ethically obligated to protect participant confidentiality,” Rémi Quirion, chief scientist of Quebec, explained in a press release. “Before agreeing to participate in research projects, citizens need to feel that they are doing so in confidence. If that trust is broken, research quality and participation levels could be compromised. The decision reaffirms the importance of protecting participant identities in the best interests of science.”

The Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université shares his opinion. “Forcing Ms. Maillé to reveal her sources would have had disastrous consequences for researchers across the board, who would be hard pressed to recruit volunteers to participate in their research,” said FQPPU president Jean‑Marie Lafortune, who expressed satisfaction with the court’s decision.

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