Most of us are now very findable online. It is not impossible, once you have someone’s name, to find out where they work and who they work with. Linked in, facebook, twitter, electoral rolls and so on all provide readily available information about people.
Once you know where someone works, a lot more detail comes within reach. Because of this ‘findability’ it’s almost impossible these days for someone who is a practitioner researcher or auto-ethnographer to completely disguise their location and their participants because they themselves are locatable. Teacher-researchers for instance all work at a school which can be found simply via tracking them. Schools generally have websites which often have the names of all staff as well as pictures of students doing things. They put their newsletters on line. It’s not too hard then for someone who is so-minded to pick up a teacher-practitioner thesis, get to the name of the school, identify some of the people involved in the research and possibly even find pictures and names of the staff and students who feature in the thesis as anonymised persona.
I was recently in a viva where one of the examiners did just this online detective work, as a way of raising with the practitioner–researcher the dilemma of whether it was actually possible to promise anonymity. It had taken less than five minutes for this examiner to track down the exact location of the research site and find out the identities of some of the people involved in the research. Now the examiner wasn’t doing this to be nasty or invasive, but to raise the question of how, in the kind of data-dense world in which we now live, it is actually feasible to guarantee anonymity in the way we once did.
The question of identification of course goes beyond practitioner research. We are wrestling with anonymity in one of my current research projects. Because of the specificity of what particular sites offer it won’t be too difficult to work out who some of them are. So we can either:
• name the sites with their permission – but does this mean that there is a temptation to only say ‘the good stuff’ because otherwise it could do harm to their reputations and our relationship with them (also discussed here)? And if we name the sites and programmes is it then possible to promise anonymity to the people we talk while there? Probably not.
• not give much detail about the sites and programmes – this defeats the purpose of doing population-place-conscious case studies which work from the premise that specificity matters, or
• not include the actual case studies in our public report – this means that the kinds of discussion we have about our results and the claims we make won’t be well substantiated.
We are discussing the issue of anonymity with the people involved in our research, but I cant say we’ve reached a simple solution yet.
And these are only two examples of the anonymity questions that arise because of contemporary digital practices and the traceability of data. Assuring confidentiality is tricky for exactly the same set of reasons. Digital theses – and their appendices – can be read by anyone, so research participants, but equally intimate others who were not involved in the research but curious about it, can potentially access data to work out who said what, about what, and who. This may not be a Good Thing but actually do harm.
Because of all this murkiness, there are now serious conversations going on in some parts of the academy about what it means to give consent to be a research participant, whether consent means consent always and forever, whether consent is an event or an ongoing process, and whether consent covers re-use of data. Researchers involved in digital research now routinely talk about the right to have your personal data forgotten.
Questions of anonymity, consent and confidentiality concern us all and they are crucial in the education of the next generation of researchers. I am concerned that very little of this conversation seems to make it into basic doctoral training – or perhaps it’s more a case of these issues randomly making it into courses in some locations some of the time.
I also worry that ethics committees might act conservatively in ‘grey digital areas’; it’s now a case I think of there needing to be iterative temporary ethical settlements that change as we understand the issues. These settlements need to be informed by widespread debate about what it means to be an ethical researcher now. Having hard and fast ethical rules, rooted in historical precedent, is probably not helpful and potentially difficult for all researchers. And difficulties could particularly arise for doctoral researchers who may well have spent the best part of a year planning a research project only to have it rejected because it is on, and/or in, a difficult and shifting digital terrain. Getting an ethical refusal can seriously knock the doctoral researcher off course.
These tricky issues are not going away. They will become more and more tricky the more we amass digital footprints and interlocking and enormous data bases. Yet I still hear ‘doctoral training’ conversations where the notions of anonymity and confidentiality are used as if researchers work in contexts unchanged from when I did my doctorate…