Illegal and Illicit Behavior

It is important to understand the distinction between illegal and illicit activities as a researcher. Illegal activities are, of course, those that are forbidden by law. Illicit activities are considered improper or socially forbidden; they may or may not be illegal but they go against social norms and values. Illicit behavior may actually be unethical, such as cheating on an exam, but it may also simply be behavior that a society disapproves of for (for example) religious reasons that is not inherently unethical, such as homosexuality in some parts of the US and other countries.

While some illegal and illicit activities are harmless, others are inherently harmful, such as the use of certain drugs or engaging in some kinds of crime. If you plan to study illicit behavior, you should be prepared to explain to the IRB any ways in which the research itself could increase either the probability or the magnitude of harm to research participants, as well as any risk of harm that you yourself could face as the researcher. You should also be prepared to explain to the IRB any ways in which the illicit nature of the activities being studied impact the informed consent process or have implications for other key areas of IRB concern (vulnerable populations, deception, confidentiality, privacy). You also may need to pay additional attention to data security issues to protect your participants.

In general, if you are a student researcher, you should not be researching illegal activities for the following reasons:

  • You may get caught up in situations that you cannot anticipate that could put you in danger of physical or emotional harm.
  • You may get caught up in situations that you cannot anticipate that could put your participants at risk of arrest or legal penalties, or of other kinds of harm.
  • You could put yourself at risk of arrest and a possible prison sentence.
  • You could put Colorado College’s reputation at risk.

Researchers have no legal guarantee of confidentiality when they study illegal behavior. If a researcher collects information about illegal activities, the police may subpoena the researcher’s data. A researcher who refuses to comply with such a subpoena may face contempt of court and jail time. (For this reason, a researcher who anticipates that they may collect information about illegal activities as part of a broader study should inform participants about whether the researcher will or will not comply with subpoenas for identifying information. In such cases, the researcher may request that participants do not reveal any illegal activity.)

There are two kinds of mandatory reporting of which academic researchers studying certain kinds of illegal and illicit activities should be aware: Title IX-related reporting (related to alleged sexual violence) and other kinds of mandatory reporting based on federal or state laws or institutional policies. If a researcher’s role at Colorado College makes them a mandatory reporter, they may not be able to carry out their research while guaranteeing participants confidentiality. When a mandatory reporter fails to make a report, they may face fines and penalties, civil liability, and consequences related to violating institutional policies.

Federal information about Title IX can be found here.

Colorado information about Title IX can be found here.

Colorado College information about Title IX can be found here.

A useful Wikipedia article on mandatory reporting in the US can be found here; it includes helpful links at the bottom.

Colorado College information about other mandatory reporting can be found here.

Report an issue - Last updated: 12/12/2022