What are the ethical considerations of using a victim of a violent crime's name in my research?

I understand confidentiality is not an issue as the individual is deceased. Moreover, their death was a high-profile legal case, so it's already a public issue. So while I may be "allowed" to use their name - I am more concerned about what is most respectful of their family/friends. (I think contacting them to ask would be inappropriate).

Would it be better to simply say "the deceased" or "the victim"? What if the details of the case study make it abundantly clear to whom I am referring?


To clarify, the case is high profile enough to have a Wikipedia page and have been reported in all major news outlets. None of my data is not already in the public domain.

  • 5
    What does the ethics committee in your University say? – Dmitry Savostyanov Mar 19 '19 at 16:48
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    Why is it necessary? – Azor Ahai -- he him Mar 19 '19 at 17:16
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    Also, to point out, I've seen many papers authored at a single university that say things like "subjects were undergraduates at a large Midwestern university" even though it's blindingly obvious which school it is. (I write the name of my university ...) – Azor Ahai -- he him Mar 19 '19 at 17:16
  • @AzorAhai That might be under IRB regulation, silly as it might seem, so take care. – Bryan Krause Mar 19 '19 at 18:37
  • @BryanKrause I mean, yeah, we follow IRB rules haha. I'm sure it's just that the IRBs are different in different universities (or maybe the journal requires it). – Azor Ahai -- he him Mar 19 '19 at 18:43

Actually, confidentially is still an issue, in general, for someone who is deceased. Their family needs consideration as does their general reputation. I would guess that your IRB won't permit you to name names. Different rules apply for public figures generally, however. You can name John Kennedy, for example. The rules might also be a bit more relaxed for victims of extremely public crimes (your example), such as the victims of the unabomber, since some of those names are already clearly part of the public record. In other cases, it might actually be necessary to obscure some details in the service of confidentiality. But just because the crime is known widely, don't assume that the names of victims are.

But you would not be wise to do this without explicit permission from your IRB or equivalent research ethics office.

If you conclude from this answer that the situation can be murky, I think it is. Check before you jump and be a bit more conservative than you think is absolutely required. Make sure that the name is, in some way, essential to include.

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Journalists I have spoken to have emphasized the importance of communicating in private, with ample lead time prior to publication, with multiple people with relevant personal and professional experience. For instance, if it was a suicide, you might want to run a question like this by both professionals in areas related to suicide, and families of people who have committed suicide.

Maybe this is an approach your IRB is already taking, but I see no harm in doing some investigation of your own. If nothing else, it might inform your communication with your IRB.

No "rule of thumb" will cover all situations, and the number of overlapping considerations can make it pretty complex. Communicate with people who have experience and expertise that will make them likely to think of things you might miss.

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