Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Confidentiality, subject anonymity and data security

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Open/close headingConfidentiality and subject anonymity

Clearly online researchers, like onsite researchers, should aim to ensure the confidentiality of participants. However, online research adds additional issues of concern with respect to confidentiality. This concerns whether information is securely stored and if participants’ identities are protected.

Subject anonymity is an issue closely related to confidentiality. Prior to the start of the project the researcher must decide whether the subject’s identity is to be disguised, and to what degree. According to Bruckman (2002a), subject confidentiality can range from no disguise, light disguise, moderate disguise to complete disguise. In no disguise pseudonyms and real names can be used with the permission of the individual and the individual’s claim to copyright over their words is respected. In contrast, complete disguise involves no naming of groups, pseudonyms and other identifying features are changed (such as places, institutions, user names, domain names), verbatim quotes are not used if search mechanisms could link these quotes to the person in question and some false details might be introduced deliberately so that a subject might not recognize themselves. In this way someone seeking a subject’s identity would be unable to do so. Clearly the level of disguise depends on the research project, recommendations from ethical committees and the researcher’s ethical philosophical position. In some instances following these procedures might ensure more thorough protection of research participants than is available through face-to-face means (cf Johns et al. 2004, 119), particularly owing to the added anonymity of the virtual realm.

AoIR (Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (2002, 7) have produced some general guidelines on the issue of informant confidentiality, stressing that this varies with the nature of the research venue. It is suggested that generally if internet participants are understood as subjects (e.g. chat rooms, MUDs), then a greater sense of confidentiality is required. If the participants are understood as authors (weblogs, webpages, emails to large listservs) then there is less obligation to confidentiality. Indeed, authors of websites/webpages may not want subject confidentiality and not to refer to material by direct quotation and specific name would be considered infringement of copyright. Thus in order to respect individuals who share their ideas on public lists, the names of these participants should be properly attributed (cf Barnes 2004, 212). Bassett and O’Riordan (2002) explore this through a case study of an online lesbian activist site, and suggest that 'protecting' participants through subject anonymity may well work to reinforce broader social marginalization of the lesbian community.


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[Open/close heading]Data security

Issues of data security may arise when using online research methods. For example, errors may mean that email questionnaire responses are sent to the wrong address or mistakenly sent to all on a mailing list. Messages posted to a bulletin board or a chat room can be copied and distributed without the knowledge of the writer, and the content of messages easily altered. Online questionnaire software may contain bugs or viruses while guessable passwords for synchronous interviews might compromise data security. Also, despite efforts to protect anonymity of internet communication, for example though encryption, according to O'Dochartaigh (2002, 82) it is still possible for security agencies and governments to trace most forms of internet communication back to an individual. Emails may also be stored on servers for many years. Hackers may also potentially be able to access project computer files with responses, which is of particular significance if conducting studies dealing with sensitive, personal or illegal subjects.

In these cases data security can be enhanced either by the use of web-based questionnaires rather than email questionnaires, or by encouraging the respondent to complete the questionnaire on an anonymous machine in a library or internet café and then to print it off and post it to the researcher. But this is clearly not possible in the case of synchronous virtual interviews and particular care must be paid regarding confidentiality if the researcher uses this method. Encryption can ensure email messages can only be encrypted by the intended recipient but equally it may complicate a research project because all participants must use email software that shares the same encryption capability and the researcher and participants must have the technology in order to use the software. Additionally, encryption is illegal in some countries and may be viewed suspiciously by some governments. These issues may all act as a disincentive on participation levels (Mann and Stewart 2000, 43). A further general way to increase data security is to regularly back up research data and store it in the most secure location possible.

These problems with data security lead Mann and Stewart (2000, 43) to argue that although researchers can promise confidentiality in the way that they use data, they cannot promise that electronic information will not be accessed and used by others. Care should therefore be taken in making promises about confidentiality but equally researchers should be confident that if all reasonable precautions are taken to secure data, this should be sufficient in most cases.


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Open/close headingLearning activity: Confidentiality issues and online research

[?] Select the reference below to open an article from Coomber (1997) in a new window. Read this article to explore some of the nuances of the debate about confidentiality and online research.

Coomber’s (1997) research was with drug dealers. Respondents were concerned that through the research they might be traced and be subject to criminal investigation. The researcher was concerned that he might be required by law to hand over email addresses of those who had contributed to this survey to the police. In reality this did not occur and Coomber was able to protect the identity of respondents through hiding the origin of responses. Read the article and explore the ways in which the confidentiality of the respondents was ensured.


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