Responsible historical research and data protection

24.8.2018

Ethical considerations should cover the entire research process from choice of topic and material to the privacy of research subjects and the reporting method.

As a discipline, historical research is divided strictly in two when it comes to data protection issues as the dead do not have any kind of data protection, even under the new legislation. Basically, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) adopted in Finland in May 2018 does not apply to the personal data of people who are deceased. The legislation aims to guarantee the protection of privacy for people during their lifetime, and for a period after their death determined separately.

Irrespective of the regulations in force, a history researcher must ultimately consider, weigh up and justify for themselves the choices they make regarding the data protection of the people they are researching. The Finnish legislation defines the health, social security benefits, crimes, religion, political opinions and sexual orientation of living research subjects as being particularly sensitive data. However, there is no need to ask living people for a research permit if the research data is found in public or published sources or in material stored in public archives. Nevertheless, the publication of findings in particularly sensitive research topics requires the anonymisation of any personal data that is less than 100 years old.

A history researcher must ultimately consider, weigh up and justify for themselves the choices they make regarding the data protection of the people they are researching.

The legal starting point for historical research changes if the topic in which the researcher is interested dates to the nineteenth century or earlier. The Finnish Personal Data Act states that no confidentiality provisions need to be applied in such cases. Many people who work with historical documents are of the opinion that as a rule the right to privacy ceases on a person’s death. This is based on the fact that the deceased can no longer feel that their privacy has been infringed even if extremely sensitive data about them is revealed.

The researcher does not need to maintain silence on difficult topics

Most Finnish archives allow free use of documents but the relationship between protecting privacy and the free availability of documents sometimes creates ethical challenges, however. Recent solutions to the ethical dilemmas faced by history researchers are offered in Historiantutkimuksen etiikka (the ethics of historical research, Gaudeamus 2017) edited by Satu Lidman, Anu Koskivirta and Jari Eilola. The book considers how anonymisation may protect the memory of research subjects from details that may damage their reputation. On the other hand, naming a person who lived on the margins of society may be just as much of an ethical act as it also gives a voice to people whose voice has not been heard by researchers before.

The message of the book is that a history researcher does not need to maintain silence on difficult topics. The writers of the articles in the book present the most important ethical tools of history researchers as being research with a variety of voices, care about placing the research topic and people’s lives in context, and placing past phenomena in the time and culture of their own period.

The rights of the dead, the obligations of the living

The question of the identification of the deceased particularly arises when the legislation says nothing about it at all. Researchers inspired by “new histories” have started to research the everyday and personal lives of ordinary people. While they were alive, these people would have had no idea that they would become named individuals under the searchlight of history unlike public figures such as people in power.

Dutch historian Antoon De Baets, who has considered the human value of the dead, has stated that the historian’s professional duty is to ensure that “the dead do not die twice, as the most important human right of the dead is to be treated with dignity”. Although the dead no longer have the same needs, rights or obligations as the living, the living have responsibilities towards the dead. Above all, the living should respect the past humanity of the dead.

In public debate, ethical issues are often associated with plagiarism and research misconduct. However, ethical considerations should cover the entire research process from choice of topic and material to the privacy of research subjects and the reporting method. The ethical challenges, especially for historical research further in the past, concern the choice of material and its display, naming the research subjects and the way the research is written up. People who lived in earlier centuries also deserve to be treated with respect if their lives are used as material in scholarly research.

Kirsi Vainio-Korhonen is Professor of Finnish History at the University of Turku


Further information:

De Baets, Antoon (2009). Responsible History. Berghahn Books: New York, Oxford.
Eilola, Jari (2017). Kohti tulevaisuuden etiikkaa. In Satu Lidman, Anu Koskivirta & Jari Eilola (eds.), Historiantutkimuksen etiikka. Gaudeamus: Helsinki.
Frigren, Pirita (2017). Tirkistelyä vai ymmärryksen lisäämistä? Historiantutkija arkaluontoisista asioista kirjoittamassa. In Satu Lidman, Anu Koskivirta & Jari Eilola (eds.), Historiantutkimuksen etiikka. Gaudeamus: Helsinki.
Hodson, Sara S. (2004). In Secret Kept, In Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities. American Archivist 67, Fall/Winter 2004.
Kaartinen, Marjo (2018). Arkaluontoisia asioita tutkimassa. Kirja-arvio teoksesta Satu Lidman, Anu Koskivirta & Jari Eilola (eds.), Historiantutkimuksen etiikka. Gaudeamus 2017. Historiallinen Aikakauskirja 1/2018.
Kaartinen, Marjo (2005). Eettinen käänne – hyvä ja oikea historia? Marjo Kaartinen & Anu Korhonen, Historian kirjoittamisesta. Kirja-Aurora: Turku.
Kokko, Marja (2017). Henkilötietojen suoja-aika esimerkkinä historiantutkimuksen tutkimuseettisistä kysymyksistä. In Satu Lidman, Anu Koskivirta & Jari Eilola (eds.), Historiantutkimuksen etiikka. Gaudeamus: Helsinki.
Koskivirta, Anu & Lidman, Satu (2017). Historioitsija eettisten valintojen äärellä. In Satu Lidman, Anu Koskivirta & Jari Eilola (eds.), Historiantutkimuksen etiikka. Gaudeamus: Helsinki.
Kuula, Arja (2011). Tutkimusetiikka. Aineistojen hankinta, käyttö ja säilytys. Vastapaino: Tampere.
Finnish National Board on Research Integrity. Ethical principles of research in the humanities and social and behavioural sciences and proposals for ethical review. Helsinki 2009.
Vainio-Korhonen, Kirsi (2017). Vastuullinen historia. In Satu Lidman, Anu Koskivirta & Jari Eilola (eds.), Historiantutkimuksen etiikka. Gaudeamus: Helsinki.
Voutilainen, Tomi (2018). Henkilötietojen säilytys henkilörekisterissä ja arkistointi – KHO 2017:34. Lakimies 1/2018.