I have collected a lot of data in the form of audio recorded interviews. My supervisor is asking if they can listen to them, however, I feel this goes against the consent stipulated to the participants under the data protection section. As such, I feel uncomfortable letting other people listen to it under ethical grounds.

Can a university or its staff demand to listen to private data collected which the participants understood would only be heard by myself for transcription purposes?

  • 5
    Has your design been approved by an IRB or equivalent?
    – Buffy
    Jun 12, 2019 at 12:32
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    The answer to this question depends upon the laws of your country or other jurisdiction (e.g., state), your universities policies, and your specific IRB approval. Jun 12, 2019 at 12:53
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    As other people have stated, this depends on laws, policies, and IRBs, and of course, what the consent form states. No, any random part of the university or its staff can't demand to listen to it, however, it would not be odd for the project supervisor to listen to recordings recorded in her group. The consent form usually states the relevant staff may access private data as necessary/appropriate (what would happen if you left, could no one access the data?). Jun 12, 2019 at 17:36
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    Can you add the section of the consent form you feel means only you may listen to the recordings? Jun 12, 2019 at 17:38
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    I would find it ethically questionable if recordings of interviews were only ever reviewed, or even available to be reviewed, by a single person. That screams unreliable and untrustworthy findings. I have never heard of a consent form or IRB that specified such an odd requirement, so you would have to have a compelling reason as to why other members of a research team, especially a supervisor, should not be given access to research work product.
    – BrianH
    Jun 12, 2019 at 19:09

1 Answer 1


Ordinarily, when research involving human subjects is conducted, it needs to go through an ethics clearance with the university, and that should involve stipulation of which staff members will have access to the data, and what protections are imposed on the data. Usually the scope of this access would be broad enough to allow access for anyone on the research team (researcher, supervisor, relevant administrators, etc.), so long as they comply with the relevant data protections and only access the data for legitimate purposes. These matters really should have been stipulated clearly in the ethics application for the research, and it is an oversight if they were not. (You should think about this for next time.)

You mention your concern that giving access to your supervisor goes beyond the consent stipulated to the participants under the data protection section of your project, but you have not stated the content of that section, or the parties to that document. (If you can elaborate on the specifics, they may help.) Usually a data-agreement for research will be made between the research participants and the university, rather than being an agreement between the participants and the specific researcher. Members of the public who consent to participate in research through a university usually expect that they are giving consent to the institution to record and access their data, rather than giving consent to specific researchers. They will therefore expect that various professionals in the university will have access to their data, for the purposes of conducting or supervising the research, and the university will ensure that access is only done for a proper purpose.

Now, obviously, if your data agreement has a section that stipulates an access restriction, then you should obey that restriction. However, in the absence of any clear stipulation that access is restricted to specific researchers, the more natural interpretation would be that the university has consent to record and access the data, and this would usually be expected to extend to a supervisor with a duty to supervise the research of a student researcher.

As to whether your supervisor can "demand" access to the data, if the research agreement with the participants is between them and the university, then your supervisor can probably legitimately demand access, and the university will almost certainly grant him access. If you are a PhD student at the university, and this person is your graduate supervisor, then your supervisor has a duty to supervise your research. In any case, if you are not sure of the access rules here, just send an inquiry back to the ethics board that approved your application, and ask for their guidance.

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