Maintaining Confidentiality (Part 1) -->

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Maintaining Confidentiality (Part 1)

A key component of ethical research for many social science studies is maintaining the confidentiality of participants.  This confidentiality means not identifying individual participants and usually also not identifying the study site (e.g., a school, a company, or some other institution) or community partners, depending on what information you agreed to protect in your research plan submitted to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for approval. This post points out a few places in your capstone study where you should be careful not to identify your study site inadvertently.

Maintaining Confidentiality: Part I

Dedication and acknowledgements

You may want to thank your participants and study site for allowing you to conduct your research. If so, remember to refer to them only in general terms rather than naming them as individuals or organizations.

Evidence of the problem at the local level

For EdD Doctoral Studies in particular, you may find yourself inadvertently citing statistics and other material from your study site to provide necessary evidence for your problem. For other capstone studies, you may face a similar issue when you need to explain the need for your research at your study site. The second post in this series on maintaining confidentiality will focus more on recommended strategies for writing about the site without revealing its identity.

Setting and participants

When you describe your setting, the study site, you may find yourself providing information such as region, state, school district, statistics, or other features of the site that inadvertently reveals your study site. For example, if you note that your study site is the only elementary school in a particular county and then name that county, you have effectively pointed out which school you are studying. Only provide relevant details of the setting and participants to avoid this problem.


Students provide a wide range of materials in their appendices, and sometimes that material includes identifying information (in letterheads, signatures, and other content). In general, do not include any letters or other information that you have already submitted to the IRB for research approval. That material is on file with the IRB office and is generally confidential material such as research agreements from study sites. If you must include something that has identifying information such as names, addresses, and other contact information, redact that information.

Stay tuned for another post in 2 weeks with more recommendations on how to write about your study site without revealing its identity. You might also take a look at the post at the APA Style Blog, “Let’s Talk About Research Participants,” which provides some guidance on writing about individual participants without revealing their identities.

Paul Lai

Dissertation Editor and Web Content Coordinator Paul Lai joined the editing team in 2011 and recently expanded his role into web content coordination for the Writing Center.


  1. How should a pseudonym be typed as it appears throughout the paper. In italics? With quotation marks? Or, once the pseudonym has been introduced, and the reason for using it explained, can normal text be used in all text following?

    1. Thanks for this interesting question. In this case, we would recommend that you use a measure of consistency in your work. APA doesn't have a specific guideline, as far as we can tell, about how to format pseudonyms. Therefore, our best advice would be to strive for consistency throughout your project.

      On the other hand, in doing research for your question, it doesn't look like APA recommends the use of pseudonyms. In looking at the APA Manual (6th ed.), section 1.11 provides four recommendations for "disguis[ing] some aspects of the case material... (a) altering specific characteristics, (b) limiting the description of specific characteristics, (c) obfuscating case detail by adding extraneous material, and (d) using composites" (p. 17).

      Perhaps pseudonyms fits into one of these categories, that's up to you to decide in conjunction with your advisers, chairs, committees, editors, etc. However you interpret this guideline, I do your best to achieve consistency in how you refer to your (anonymous) research participants.

      Thanks again for the question. Good luck with your writing and revising!

  2. How do you redact information in your dissertation references that may reveal the participants/organization?

    1. Great question! Thanks for posting.

      We actually do not want to include any references (and subsequent citations) that reveal an organization, nor do we want to create citations or references using a pseudonym, as citations and references need to lead to actual sources. So, we do not want any fictitious or masked names in citations or references.

      Because you are not providing a reference to a legitimate and retrievable source, you do not need to mask the information, nor should you include a citation or a reference. Instead, describe in the sentence where you retrieved the information but without using the actual name of an organization or person.

      Example: “According to the principal of the school participating in this study, teachers receive annual training on…” Or, “According to an internal report from the organization under study, xx% of employees…”

      Then, do not create a reference or citation that includes fake or masked information, or a pseudonym. There is simply no reference in the References. As a researcher, you have indicated where the information came from in the sentence, providing legitimacy for the information, but are not naming the actual organization or providing a direct route to locating the information because of confidentiality.

      For more information, please consult these helpful resources:

      Here are our Form and Style FAQs on Confidentiality

      Here are Walden's guidelines on IRB's Guidance on Masking Partner Organizations page.

  3. How do I get/access a copy of the confidentiality agreement? Thanks...

    1. Hi Tim! Thanks for commenting on the blog. I'm not sure what you're asking here, but you can find
      answers to common questions ( regarding confidentiality in Walden scholarship ( on our website. I hope these links are helpful!