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?