Anonymity and Research Ethics

This article by Anne Grinyer explores the use of pseudonyms in social research, focusing on a study of how families are affected by a cancer diagnosis. In accordance with standard research ethics, family members in the study were given pseudonyms to protect their identities:

But as the research progressed we began to question whether some respondents might prefer to be referred to in publications by their own names… How would they feel if they had been allocated a random pseudonym and what would be the effect of seeing their lost son or daughter referred to by another’s name?

The researchers decided to ask the family members how they wanted to be identified. To their surprise, very few people chose to use pseudonyms. One participant who chose to use a pseudonym later regretted it:

Looking back I was very disappointed not to see Stephen’s and my name in print. Even though my words were there, I felt as though I had somehow lost ownership of them and had betrayed Stephen’s memory.

(The participant’s change of heart came up before the research team published a book, so she did eventually get to see her words with her real name.)

The standard assumption enforced by research review boards is that protecting participants from harm means ensuring their anonymity. But people can be harmed by the use of pseudonyms too.

Would it be better to let participants decide how they want to be identified?

When do we feel that we own our stories? When do we feel silenced, or that our stories have been taken away from us?

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3 thoughts on “Anonymity and Research Ethics

  1. And then there’s the whole issue with increasingly available data resources that complicate identification and consent… People can be identified without revealing a real name, and people are making "personal" data available in spaces that can’t be easily divided between public or private.

  2. This is really spot on. I recently published something where I very "kindly" (or at least that’s what I thought) removed a person’s name from the article and instead wrote: a person from such-and-such a group said this…I thought I was being kind because he had said (what I thought was) a dumb thing and I was pretty obviously against his position in the article. But when he read it, he was really mad and said that I had failed to attribute him. Then I realised that it was me who was dumb. I should have asked.

  3. Yeah, in a way that makes me think that maybe blanket anonymity should be used for research that’s gonna be referenced in multiple publications. Like if you had to negotiate naming for each publication with each person who would be referenced, could get pretty messy. But if you didn’t do that, named participants could be upset about portrayals in some publications; could inhibit publication of some stuff?

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