Researchers Balance Realism, Idealism and Risk to Sources

Article excerpt

As the legal fight over the transcripts of Boston College's Belfast Project continues, researchers on two continents are raising alarm that its outcome could silence their sources and potentially even quiet academic investigations into sensitive topics altogether.

Addressing the case in a public statement last February, the American Sociological Association, which has more than 14,000 members, warned that forced release of the transcripts "threatens the academic freedom to study difficult and controversial topics."

"In the short run, such intrusion in research seeking to understand past tragedies can harm the processes through which Northern Ireland now seeks political stability," the organization wrote Feb. 21. "And in the long run, we must weigh the potential damage to social science that can provide a firmer knowledge base for avoiding these types of conflicts in the future."

Two researchers familiar with the issues at hand highlighted similar concerns in phone interviews with NCR in October.

Marie Breen-Smyth said release of the transcripts might quiet her own work. "As a researcher, it makes me extremely worried and nervous about the possibility of continuing my own research," said Breen-Smyth, who has written several books on the Northern Irish conflict primarily based on interviews of those involved, and now serves as the chair in international politics at the University of Surrey in England.

During her research, Breen-Smyth said, she routinely offers confidentiality agreements to her sources.

"What this whole case actually sets out is that we can no longer give those guarantees," she continued. "That it's not within our power to do that. And if it's not within my power to do that as a researcher, then I must stop doing research. I can't put people in harm's way."

Such stoppage in research, Breen-Smyth said, halts attempts to understand violent conflict. …