Using pseudonyms – what’s in a name?
Given that confidentiality and anonymity are paramount in the research work we do, pseudonyms in qualitative research are an important consideration, and I’m often asked about these at my NVivo training courses. The points below aren’t intended to be an exhaustive list of considerations, but hopefully will be a starting point for you in terms of things to think about before your next qualitative project.When should you start using pseudonyms? Do you transcribe your data with them or wait until you start writing up? The answer to this will partly depend on what you’ve told your ethics committee – if you indicated that data would be anonymised during analysis, then you should definitely incorporate pseudonyms at the transcription stage. If you haven’t indicated that you’ll do this, then it’s your call whether to anonymise from the outset. My personal preference is to wait until I’m at the writing up stage to start using pseudonyms. I use actual names throughout (I find I can remember my participants’ stories better that way) and once I’ve finished writing, I do a ‘Find & Replace’ in my word processor to ensure that all participant names have been changed to pseudonyms. If you’re taking the same approach as me, do ensure that any data containing identifying information such as names is stored securely, and if you’d like extra security, don’t forget that you can password protect files in both Microsoft Word and NVivo.
Names or numbers? This will largely depend on personal preference. I personally think using names makes your data more reflective of “real life” – despite my background as a quantitative researcher, I feel that identifiers such as ‘Interviewee 1’ are too impersonal. Having said that, I think it also depends on the audience who will be reading your writing – the use of numerical identifiers can sometimes make for easier reading, and may be more appropriate for your audience.
What names do I choose? If you’ve chosen to use names as identifiers, the next question becomes how will you choose them? One nice strategy is to ask participants to choose their own pseudonyms – it can be a great way to build rapport at the beginning of an interview or focus group. If you’re interested in using this strategy, there are some interesting comments about it in an article by Ruth Allen and Janine Wiles (2016). If your study doesn’t lend itself to that approach, there’s a very novel suggestion for selecting alternative names on the following blog: Picking pseudonyms for your research participants.
When do I decide? When it comes to research, a little bit of up-front planning goes a long way. Make a decision at the outset of your project regarding the previous questions, and stick to that decision throughout. Changing your mind about a participant’s pseudonym, or deciding to switch from names to numbers when you’re halfway through analysis is messy – it will cost you time, and may result in unnecessary errors.
There are many other issues associated with the use of pseudonyms, particularly in relation to writing, where the risk of participant identification is highest. If your data is from a small community for example, even the utmost care in selecting a pseudonym may not prevent a participant being identified. Such issues are beyond a brief blog post such as this one, but needless to say that extreme care should be taken when considering the use of pseudonyms.
If you have an interest in issues relating to qualitative research, such as when and where pseudonyms should be used, you might like to join us at our Qualitative Data Analysis Masterclass. We’ll be discussing issues such as this, and much more!