What is the difference between anonymity and confidentiality?

Posted September 6, 2018

When describing your data collection and data management procedures for research involving human participants, you will inevitably need to discuss anonymity and confidentiality. These two concepts are especially important to consider as you apply for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, as the IRB will want to ensure that you are taking appropriate precautions to protect participants. However, many students struggle to properly differentiate anonymity and confidentiality and often use these terms interchangeably. So, what exactly is the difference between the two?

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Anonymity means that there is no way for anyone (including the researcher) to personally identify participants in the study. This means that no personally-identifying information can be collected in an anonymous study. Personally-identifying information includes, but is not limited to, names, addresses, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, government-issued ID numbers (e.g., social security numbers), photographs, and IP addresses. This also means that any study conducted face-to-face or over the phone cannot be considered anonymous; this rules out virtually all qualitative research that involves interviews.

Online surveys are the most common method of anonymous data collection, but this does not mean that all online survey research is anonymous. For instance, if the researcher knows the e-mail addresses or IP addresses of the individuals who participated in the survey, the study cannot be considered anonymous. Sometimes IRBs will require that participants have a way to withdraw their survey responses. In these cases, collecting a personal identifier such as an e-mail address may be unavoidable. Additionally, depending on the study’s sample frame, surveys that collect several pieces of demographic information may not be truly anonymous. For example, if your sample frame included employees at a specific company, a combination of demographic information such as age, gender, ethnicity, or tenure could possibly be used to identify a participant.

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Confidentiality, on the other hand, means that the participants can be identified, but their identities are not revealed to anyone outside of the study. In other words, only the researcher knows the identities of the participants, and measures are put in place to ensure that participants’ identities are not revealed to anyone else. Confidentiality is best ensured through proper data management and security. In terms of data management, participants’ personally-identifying information can be linked to their data using ID numbers (quantitative research) or pseudonyms (qualitative research); this allows personally-identifying information to be stored separately from the data. In terms of data security, researchers should follow all security measures their IRB requires, such as keeping paper and pencil data in locked file cabinets, password-protecting electronic data, and securely destroying the data after the research is completed.

Whether your study is anonymous or confidential, it is important to inform participants about what information you will collect from them and how their identities will be protected. Including this information in your informed consent form is the best way to explain the nature of the data collection and to assure participants that their privacy will be protected.

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