by Chelsea Lee and Jeff
In this post you will learn
how to present data gathered during surveys or interviews with research
participants that you conducted as part of your research. You may be surprised
to learn that although you can discuss your interview and survey data in a paper, you should not cite them. Here’s why.
Retrievability Versus Confidentiality
In APA Style, all sources
must provide retrievable data. Because one purpose of references is to lead the reader to the source, both the reference entry and the in-text citation begin
with the name of the author. But rules for the ethical reporting of human
research data prohibit researchers from revealing “confidential, personally
identifiable information concerning their patients, . . . research
participants, or other recipients of their services” (APA Publication Manual [PM]; 6th ed., § 1.11, p. 16; APA Ethics Code, Standard 4.07). In
other words, you must prevent the
reader from identifying the source of information.
In this clash of
principles, which one should triumph? The value of protecting participants’ confidentiality must always win out. “Subject privacy . . . should never be
sacrificed for clinical or scientific accuracy” (PM § 1.11)—not even for APA Style.
Strategies for the
Discussion of Research Participant Data
Although you don’t cite data you gathered from research participants, you can discuss them, provided that you preserve
the confidentiality you guaranteed the participants when they consented to
participate in your study (see PM § 1.11). In practical terms, this means
that “neither the subject nor third parties (e.g., family members, employers)
are identifiable” (PM, p. 17) from the information presented.
Strategies for the ethical
use of data from research participants include the following:
- referring to participants
by identifiers other than their names, such as
- their roles (e.g., participant, doctor, patient),
- pseudonyms or nicknames,
- descriptive phrases,
- case numbers, or
- letters of the alphabet;
- altering certain
participant characteristics in your discussion of the participants (e.g., make
the characteristics more general, such as saying “European” instead of
- leaving out unimportant
identifying details about the participant;
- adding extraneous material
to obscure case details; and
- combining the statements of
several participants into a “composite” participant.
Choose the strategy that
makes sense given the degree of confidentiality of information you must
maintain and what details are important to relate to the reader. Keep in mind
that in employing these strategies it is essential that you not “change
variables that would lead the reader to draw false conclusions related to the
phenomena being described” (PM, p. 17).
Examples of How to Discuss Research Participant Data
Here are a few examples of how participant
data might be presented in the text. The most appropriate presentation will depend on context.
- One respondent stated she
had never experienced a level of destruction similar to that caused by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
- “Madge,” a 45-year-old Red
Cross social worker, was in Sichuan province when the earthquake struck. “It
was unlike anything else I have experienced,” she said.
- MJ, a European social
worker, said the earthquake was “unlike anything else I have experienced.”
- A non-Chinese social worker
said the 2008 Sichuan earthquake “exceeded levels of devastation I have ever seen before.”
- Case 24 was injured in the
- Participant M said she had
never experienced anything like the earthquake or its level of devastation.
- Several employees of a
humanitarian aid organization said that they were emotionally distressed by the
devastation the earthquake left behind.
Data can also be presented in a table or figure provided these same standards are abided by.
Going on the Record
If the research participant is willing to go "on the record," or include his or her name in the paper, use a personal communication citation (see PM § 6.20). In that case, you should write up
the material you intend to use, present it to the participant, and get his or her written permission before including it (see PM § 1.11). In
your paper, the information might be presented as follows:
Johnson (personal communication, May 16, 2008), a Red Cross social worker who
assisted in the Sichuan earthquake recovery efforts, stated that “the earthquake exceeded
levels of devastation I have ever seen before.”
The issues surrounding
participant privacy in research reporting are complex and exceed what can be
presented in this post. For further reading, consult the APA Publication Manual (6th ed., § 1.11) as well
as the APA Ethics Code.