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I have an assignment for a psychology class that is "requiring" me to contact dozens of family members to find out their traits and what health conditions they may have. Truth is, I don't have the best relationship with many of my family members.

My question:

Can my professor require, at the penalty of point loss, that I actually contact my family members? Or can I provide obviously fake data?


edit: I wanted to clarify. When I said "obviously fake data", I meant to convey that I would actually inform my instructor that the data was false before turning in the assignment.

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    Have you asked your professor? I'd try explaining the situation before trying anything confrontational (such as insisting that this is not allowable or refusing to participate). I expect that discussing it will lead to a quick and satisfactory resolution. It would be really weird if your professor insisted that you had to contact these family members, regardless of your relationship with them. If that somehow does turn out to be the case, then you could complain more forcefully about unfairness or take it up with the university administration, but I'd be shocked if it came to that. – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 4 '15 at 23:37
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    Your e-mail may go over better if you make it clear that you are not trying to get out of doing work. For example, you could ask whether there's an alternate assignment you could do instead. – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 4 '15 at 23:41
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    Dan: This is a good case for an in-person appointment. And I agree with @AnonymousM that you should definitely try first. On the other hand, I am not necessarily as optimistic: the way you describe the requirement it sounds of dubious appropriateness across the board. I am not on bad terms with any of my family members but for all but my very closest ones asking information about their health conditions seems invasive. So to me even making the assignment does not show the best judgment on the behalf of your instructor. – Pete L. Clark Oct 4 '15 at 23:41
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    @onixabox I've completed the assignment, but I will hand it in only after I speak with the instructor and letter her know up-front that i am providing false data. I'm curious about the legality of requiring students to disclose personal health related informations, especially considering that some family members may decline to offer up such information. To me this is sensitive and private data. But like you said, I should probably make everything clear before handing my assignment in. – Dan Beaulieu Oct 5 '15 at 2:46
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    Given that this is a psychology class, the real assignment may have been to see how many of you would object to an invasive question... – keshlam Oct 5 '15 at 3:29
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Can my professor require, at the penalty of point loss, that I actually contact my family members?

No, because for all the professor knows, you might be an orphan without any living family members.

However, I suspect the request is meant in less literal a way than what you are taking it for. You should clarify this with your professor.

The issue is that the professor probably wants to create such an assignment that involves a number of subjects, without overburdening any third parties, while at the same time avoiding that everyone asks their classmates and all answers to the assignment are based upon essentially the same sample.

Some examples of similar suggestions to students that I find completely normal:

  • "Have your girlfriend/boyfriend proofread your thesis before submitting it."
  • "Ask your parents to use your prototype before running the study."

None of these means that you really need to ask these specific people, or that you shouldn't ask anyone else. They are just a way to express that you should find someone that probably only you are in touch with (so these other persons do not have to spend days for answering the requests of dozens of students), someone who might possibly have a different background (which, depending on the task, might be desirable), and at the same time someone who you can reasonably ask for such a favour without coming across as too demanding.

In these examples, the exemplary nature of the mentioned roles is usually understood; at least, I have yet to see a student who would truly respond to the first (w.l.o.g.) request: "Ok. But I can't have my thesis proofread because I don't have a girlfriend/boyfriend." Of course, it's just an example of a single person who might or might not exist or be available.

The request by your professor, in contrast, to ask "dozens of family members", seems a bit extreme in comparison, but as a bottom line, you should still try to find out whether it wasn't just an example.

Or can I provide obviously fake data?

This, in contrast, might be counterproductive. You already wrote you were going to inform your professor if you do so, but better do this earlier than later. In most situations that I can think of, using an arbitrary group of real people as a sample for something is a closer match to one's real family members than making up that data.

The issue I'm seeing become apparent when considering the possible pedagogical goals of the assignment:

  • The professor wants to point out a phenomenon that typically appears in data from real people. In this case, fake data will probably not exhibit the respective traits and thus will be worthless in this respect.
  • The professor wants you to get the experience of interviewing real people. Obviously, this experience is not gained from producing artificial data.

In contrast, the following education achievement that you might be reaching is probably not aimed for:

  • The professor wants you to practice ways to create a realistic set of artificial data. If that were the task, the assignment would have asked you to generate artificial data right away.

Therefore, my two suggestions are:

  • Asking another group of people rather than your family members should be accepted by the professor. You may want to ask the professor, even though personally, I might even do so without commenting on it.
  • Producing fake data, even when known to the professor, might be counterproductive to the goals of the assignment, and therefore should definitely first be discussed.
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    It might be needed that the interviewed people be related to each other, if it is about finding/confirming genetical causes for something. – Paŭlo Ebermann Oct 5 '15 at 12:21
  • Thank you for the insightful response. Answers like these are what I was looking for. I'll accept an answer based on the community's response and based on what makes sense to me in the near future. – Dan Beaulieu Oct 5 '15 at 13:40
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    Not only to the goals of the assignment but to the goals of education - science is not something where we should ever be presenting data under false pretenses. If we lose confidence in the validity of our observations, we lose everything. – corsiKa Oct 5 '15 at 15:34
  • I think the community has spoken, I've selected this as the answer based on your clear reasoning and community support. Thank you for your answer and I will definitely take it under advisement moving forward. – Dan Beaulieu Oct 5 '15 at 18:22
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This assignment shouldn't even exist. If people's health were to be surveyed, the data should be gathered by a health professional in an anonymous manner. End of story.

You would be well within your rights to object to the professor about the content of the assignment (can't you interview about something non-personal, instead?), or failing that, to the university's ethics board.

Is the primary objective of the assignment related to the interrogation of your family members, or the analysis of the results? In the former case, the professor should chose a different topic (i.e. politics, climate change), and in the latter it would seem reasonable to just provide the same (made-up) data to everyone. Making up your own data doesn't seem like it will solve anything - certainly not for the rest of the class, who likely also have some objections to this (have you spoken with others?)

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    I fail to see how someone's political opinions are necessarily less subject to privacy concerns than their health. If we want to go this way and assume the interrogation is not meant to be voluntary for anyone surveyed, anyway. – O. R. Mapper Oct 5 '15 at 8:52
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    @O.R.Mapper agreed, everyone should still be asked if they want to talk about X. The point is that asking about politics is much less invasive (and generally not a taboo topic of conversation). I'd never instigate a conversation with Aunt Milda about her health, unless she broke her leg and I'm asking how it's feeling now that she's off crutches. However, even though our opinions differ we can happily argue about politics for 2 hours. – Moriarty Oct 5 '15 at 9:28
  • @O.R.Mapper many people publicly advertise their political opinions and who do they vote for (bumper stickers, banners, badges...); but very few would advertise "I had the flu last week". – Davidmh Oct 5 '15 at 12:25
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    If assignments like this didn't exist, then how would people become professionals? The answer by @O.R.Mapper explains what the professor probably means. Practical assignments like this are a great way to learn from real data, rather than a fabricated story by a professor. – Shadow Oct 7 '15 at 1:55
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    @shadow my answer assumes that the assignment is literally what the question here is asking for (that is, that the OP is "required" to contact many family members and ask them how healthy they are). I agree with O.R.Mapper that it is a perfectly good assignment to ask you to find non-specific volunteers. – Moriarty Oct 7 '15 at 14:35
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On one hand, falsifying data is unethical period. Do not do this.

However, your professor, ethically and legally, should not require this assignment. This is gathering non-anonymous data. Also, depending on situation, this assignment may be discriminatory to certain students or even jeopardize their safety. Orphans and people with abusive family members come to mind.

My suggestion is to go to the professor directly, and explain the situation. Ask if you can work with another family or something similar. Either way, do not give full identifying information about the people in question. Sometimes honesty actually works.

If the professor rejects this proposed solution, and does not allow another acceptable solution, go to the university's ethics board. Make sure you have all reports in physical format, with copies made, with the school not knowing about all of the copies.

  • I agree with this answer. Some people have huge, extended families who live nearby. Others may have no known relatives, or relatives who live in a foreign country or relatives whose cultures forbids giving such details. The least the professor should have done is to invite anyone who would have practical difficulties to discuss alternatives. This is totally discriminatory. – chasly from UK Oct 6 '15 at 0:18
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    "Ask if you can work with another family" -- ask if you can work with the professor's family ;-) If the prof says "no, it would be inappropriate to collect this data from my family" you rest your case. – Steve Jessop Oct 6 '15 at 8:41
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As interesting as it may sound, such an assignment ought not to be a "requirement" per se. It would be best to explain the situation to your instructor first. A true instructor trained in psychology should find an alternative to your condition.

An alternative that may seem acceptable would be to do the assignment with a friend's family instead (edit: without being intrusive about sensitive information regarding medical histories). This friend should be not from your colleagues of the same Psychology class to avoid duplicate results. It is customary in some cultures to accept a friend's family as one's own. This would not be against your assignment since its rationale remains the same -- understanding people. But if possible, discuss this alternative with your instructor before application.

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    The alternative makes me uncomfortable, too. Medical histories are private, and I wouldn't want to share the ones of "dozens of members of my family" with a friend. (And, I assume, with the friend's professor.) This assignment screams "inappropriate" in all directions to me, and I am surprised that a trained psychologist assigned it. – Federico Poloni Oct 5 '15 at 2:16
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    I can't support this answer. The real issue is the invasive line of questioning, not the fact that it's the OP's family (though that's an issue, too). – Aza Oct 5 '15 at 5:18
  • @FedericoPoloni: Edit confirmed on sensitive data. – Ébe Isaac Oct 5 '15 at 9:35
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Dan, If you are still reading...(:-)

It seems that many are overthinking your question and hopefully you have not been totally confused. Talk with your instructor and let him know of your dilemma. Assignments like the one you mentioned are routine in psychology classes. They are designed to help you see how genetics and family history affect people. Grandpa was an alcoholic, Dad and Uncle Jim are alcoholics, then you are at a higher risk than if there are no alcoholics in the family. Same with mental illness and many other physical illnesses.

And by the way it's HIPAA not HIPPA and it is not geared towards individuals but professionals who have access to medical records.

Don't be afraid of the assignment and have fun with it!

  • What does genetic susceptibility to disease have to do with psychology? – David Richerby Oct 6 '15 at 20:01
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    From a counseling perspective, genetic susceptibility can be extremely important. Genetics, physical traits, diseases, etc. all play a part in who a person is and all of those things interact with the persons environment. How we behave and think is greatly influenced by genetic factors. Knowing that you are predisposed to alcoholism per se can be helpful in determining who you approach alcohol or other. Tons of great literature out there if you are interested in finding out more. – megachuck Oct 7 '15 at 0:10
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No. And if the people being queried are identifiable, you may even be looking at a HIPPA violation for passing medical information on to unauthorized people.

Agree with Keshlam that the real assignment might be to see who will refuse to perform the assignment; although I'd be having big issues with any lecturer who tries that one on, given the personal aspects of the data which might be revealed.

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    It's not a HIPPA violation for a student to ask someone directly about their health data -- or to receive it. This is a common misperception. It would be a HIPPA violation to ask their doctor (or hospital) for private medical data and receive it, without permission of the patient. – RoboKaren Oct 5 '15 at 4:54
  • @RoboKaren The HIPPA violation Pete might have in mind could be the reporting to the professor. – G. Bach Oct 5 '15 at 10:47
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    That's not a HIPPA violation either. It's a common misperception, but you can't violate HIPPA if you're not a health care provider or keeper of confidential records. If you are told information by the patient outside of the context of HIPPA, then that information may be confidential and you may be in ethical breach of confidentiality and trust (and maybe your IRB rules) but you aren't in violation of HIPPA. – RoboKaren Oct 5 '15 at 12:43

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