Research Methods: Considering Ethics in your research

Eira Patterson | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Achieving anonymity and confidentiality in practice

Two aspects need to be considered relating to anonymising research data:

  1. Protecting the identify of participants in the research: this is of particular significance when disclosure research data may have a negative impact on the participant
  2. Ensuring that locations in which the research were carried out are not identified and cannot be inferred (as much as possible) from the data presented

Devise clear guidelines on expectations for confidentiality for anyone who has access to the data e.g. another member of the research team or the person transcribing the data such as:

  • not disclosing to any other persons what an individual has said during an interview, and in particular things that could reveal the identity of participants;
  • keeping the identity of participants in the research confidential at all stages of the research.

If you intend to involve someone else in the transcription of interview data, it is good practice to:

  • have a formal agreement with this person relating to your expectations with regard to confidentiality;
  • anonymise the recordings of the interviews by giving pseudonyms prior to providing the person transcribing the data with access to the files.
  • inform the participant of your plans to involve someone else in the transcription of the interview and ask permission for this to take place.

If there is something that a participant says that is particularly controversial or sensitive you may consider editing the sound file and removing those sections of interview prior to the transcriber accessing it. This can be done easily if you record using Audacity and you can keep a copy of the original and transcribe these sections yourself. If participants are unhappy with the involvement of another person in transcribing their interview you need to transcribe the data yourself. Also it is important to have a clear decision making process where consideration is given to whether it is appropriate to include certain sensitive information in the research data.

Some researchers have raised the possibility of enabling participants to choose or at least comment on their own pseudonyms (Wiles, Crow, Heath and Charles, 2006). Related to this issue is the possibility that some participants might want their own names to be used in any publications. This could raise a whole series of ethical considerations in itself, even for what at first appears to be data that does not raise any sensitive issues and possibly best avoided. An alternative is the option of attributing a letter or number to individuals, but it does depersonalise the research to some extent.

Also you need to think about what you would do if something is revealed during the data collection phase that indicates the participant needs external help. During interviews in particular, there are instances where evidence of abuse may come to light. In the case of vulnerable adults researchers should seek the participant’s permission to report this abuse to an appropriate person, who should be chosen depending on the circumstances revealed. This matter becomes more complex if the participant refuses permission and in this case expert advice should be sought. However where the person making the disclosure is a child, local safeguarding procedures must be followed.