Qualitative research: pseudonyms or no pseudonyms?

27 Mar

As I prepared my focus group and interview transcripts for entering onto NVivo, ready to being my data analysis, it occurred just how many participants I had (82 in total – members of the public, healthcare professionals and media professionals). I started to think about how my participants would be represented in my thesis. Obviously to maintain the principle of beneficence, they had to remain anonymous. The use of pseudonyms is as we know recommended, but I wondered if this was a unified strategy or if anyone had other thoughts. So I posed this question on twitter to explore further:Picture1

Some interesting discussions followed and some issues arose that I hadn’t previously considered.

There was a general consensus from the responses (PhD students, researchers and a PhD supervisor) that using pseudonyms was a good idea as it allowed participants to feel like real people.  Consequently, it helped researchers portray their story effectively and maintain that human element.  This of course is key in qualitative research.

However, there were some important considerations raised.  Not everyone used pseudonyms and someone felt that codes were easier for the reader to track and relate to, whereas names could perhaps be easily forgotten.  Others stated that it was important to use both – the pseudonym for the human element, but also codes to differentiate between groups of people.

namesSo how do people choose their pseudonyms? Suggestions included using a random baby name generator from the internet or Google the most common baby names which related to their date of birth (I can see why allocating a ‘Chantelle’ to an 80 year old lady probably wouldn’t be the best choice!). Someone also suggested choosing similar sounding names to their own. I know others have asked their participants to choose their pseudonym, but this can be challenging if the same name is chosen by a number of participants. I also wonder what the implications of this are if that participant is able to identify him or herself in the research findings?

So the outcome of this twitter conversation in relation to my study is that I am using pseudonyms, in addition to codes (which is also what one of my supervisors did). This is because I really want to keep the human element, but as I am analysing my public, healthcare professional and media professional data together and will be reporting my findings in one chapter, it is imperative that the groups are differentiated.

Another critical aspect that needs to be considered is that even when using pseudonyms, participants can still be identifiable, especially if they are from small communities. This is something that I need to be mindful of as some of my participants live in a small community which had experienced a traumatic event and some are journalists working for specific newspapers. Just because I have given them different names, I need to ensure that no one can be personally identifiable (or connected with a professional organisation)  in any way.

A special thank you to @strictlykaren , @Acrobat13, @merry30, @SarahLaneCawte, @gtombs, @Paully232000, @AbigailLocke, @VickiMcDermott and @CET47 for their insightful twitter comments and feedback 🙂


11 Responses to “Qualitative research: pseudonyms or no pseudonyms?”

  1. mzsura March 27, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    I tend to just use a name generator or list of top names when assigning pseudonyms in my qual research. I like the human element in it but you are right, it’s difficult when an 80yr old ends up with the name chantelle!

    • Emma Burnett March 28, 2013 at 10:08 am #

      Thanks for this, it’s very helpful – I feel the same about the human element and I did have a chuckle thinking about the probably inappropriate names I could have used!

  2. Dr Jens J. Hansen April 2, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    There are a few other considerations which might be worthwhile keeping in mind. First, the real identity might well be retained until the research has been completed. Changing Toni, a woman who lived on a half-million acre farm in the back of beyond, into Betty was never really going to alter the poignancy and utter reality of my interactions with Toni. Even today, twenty years after the event, she is still Toni – not Betty. With apologies to apologies to Will Shakespeare – or whatever his alter-ego name or pseudonym might actually be, Toni was, in effect, but one member of the play from wherein the innermost thoughts, the conscience of rural and remote telecommunications users became captured.

    Second, it is, in my view, folly to accord pseudonyms where anonymity remains at risk because of the status of the participant to whom the pseudonym has been bestowed, Just think about it: an informant given the name of Stuart described in a piece of research how he did not really know what to do when a secret service agent (probably named George) told Stuart that planes had flown into buildings in New York.

    If the purpose of a pseudonym is to protect anonymity, then by all means use them, but do, if it’s at all possible, preserve the integrity of the ‘informant’ by maintaining their true identity for as long as possible. And where an informant’s status makes it impossible to bestow anonymity, avoid potential charades simply because it seems ethically sensible to create a mantle of false nomenclature. Better to embargo your work or gain approval to be open about identities.

    • Emma Burnett April 3, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

      Thank you for your very insightful comments. These again are other possiblities which were not considered (also not regularly discussed in the literature) and are certainly perspectives which serves to reinforce the complexity of such an issue.

  3. HectorGA May 11, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    thanks for doing this, keep bloging and good luck 🙂

  4. Liz Thackray (@lizith) May 27, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    Just wondering if you have come across Wendy Hollway’s work? Not so much about anonymity but about humaness and how, in much qualitative research out desire to be ‘scientific’ reduces people to at best 2-d caricatures rather than the person we are actually giving voice to. Guess this is a bit like what Jens says about Toni (above), but may be worth thinking about (even if not in thesis). I know I tussled with anonymity quite a bit in my draft and the ethics section of my thesis discusses recognisability. In the end I ditched the codes on supervisor’s advice, but it is messy!

    • Emma Burnett May 28, 2013 at 8:15 am #

      Thank you for this Liz. I haven’t come across Hollway’s work, but I will definitely explore that avenue. Good to hear of your experience and what you ended up doing 🙂

  5. Postgraduate Student August 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    I’m trying to come up with pseudonyms for organizations’ names? any ideas? all i can think of is Greek letters, but I feel like that’s what everyone does!

    • Emma Burnett August 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

      What type of organisations do you have? Healthcare? Are there many of them?


  1. Qualitative data analysis: data condensation (aka reduction) | Emma's blog - July 12, 2013

    […] each of them a pseudonym and a code to differentiate public, healthcare and media professionals (a blog post about this here). This process took quite a bit of time, but if not done thoroughly, I can see how this could have […]

  2. Qualitative data analysis: data condensation (aka reduction) | Diagram Network - September 2, 2013

    […] each of them a pseudonym and a code to differentiate public, healthcare and media professionals (a blog post about this here). This process took quite a bit of time, but if not done thoroughly, I can see how this could have […]

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