When researchers use surveys to collect data from individuals, they often say that the survey will be conducted confidentially or anonymously. These two terms are often confused by individuals, but the distinction between them is important.
Collecting Data Confidentially
When data is collected confidentially, researchers are able to identify individual subjects and their specific responses. Typically researchers will assign a number or some code to each individual so that they’re able to be identified.
Once survey data is collected, there are several ways to ensure that it is protected and remains confidential including:
- Using physical safeguards to protect the data such as locked cabinets, secluded interview rooms, private offices, password-protected data centers, etc.
- Allowing as few individuals as possible to be able to access the data to prevent the possibility that anyone leaks the information on accident.
- Using computer passwords, anti-virus software, firewalls, and encryption to ensure that any digitally-stored data cannot be accessed by anyone without permission.
When the findings of a survey are reported, the total data should be aggregated together so that the responses of any particular individual cannot be known. For example, a study may say that “40% of individuals said they felt confident in their negotiation skills” rather than saying something like “individuals with the last names of Smith, Anderson, Miller, and Hovak said they felt confident in their negotiation skills.”
All statistics and figures shared in the findings of a study should be stated at the group level, not the individual level.
Collecting Data Anonymously
When data is collected anonymously, researchers are not able to identify individual subjects and their specific responses. That is, only the individuals themselves know they participated in the study and only they know their specific responses.
When data is collected in this manner, individuals are de-identified and there are no codes assigned to individuals so it’s impossible to link any specific responses to certain individuals.
This means that no information about specific individuals is collected such as address, name, phone number, social security number, or any other information that would make it possible to tie an individual to their survey responses.
Confidentiality vs. Anonymity
It’s important to note that a research study cannot collect data both confidentially and anonymously.
For example, if researchers invite individuals to answer survey questions in a private room in person, then obviously the data won’t be anonymous since the researchers know which individuals provided which responses. In this case, they must ensure that the survey data is confidentially collected and stored.
On the other hand, if individuals complete a survey online anonymously, there’s no need to store the data confidentially because there are no unique identifying characteristics that could tie survey responses to specific individuals. In this case, researchers simply need to ensure that when they share the data that it’s aggregated and reported at the group level.
For data that is collected through online surveys, researchers also need to make sure that it’s not possible to identify the specific IP Address that survey responses came from, otherwise it will be possible to identify which individuals at specific IP addresses provided which responses. This would violate the anonymity of the individuals.
The Importance of Informing Individuals
Whether data is collected confidentially or anonymously, it’s important that researchers inform the individuals in the study on how the data will be collected, stored, and shared before they let the individuals provide survey responses. In either case, it’s important that the individuals know that their responses will be private.