Maintaining Confidentiality (Part 2) -->

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Maintaining Confidentiality (Part 2)

In MaintainingConfidentiality (Part 1), I listed a few different places in a capstone study where you should be careful not to reveal the identity of your study site or participants, especially inadvertently through citations and documentation of the research process. This post offers some recommendations for actually writing about your study site or community partner without compromising confidentiality (particularly in introductions and discussions of the setting and participants).

Maintaining Confidentiality: Part II

As the APA Style Blog noted in the post “Let’sTalk About Research Participants,” there is a tension between retrievability and confidentiality when it comes to writing a research study. Retrievability refers to the need to provide citations for any material that you use as background research so that readers of your study can retrieve those documents. Confidentiality refers to the need to protect the privacy of participants, especially by not revealing identities or any identifying characteristics. The APA Style Blog’s post offers helpful tips on how to mask the identities of individual participants. Some general principles for writing about participants are: (a) avoid mentioning irrelevant details that may inadvertently help to identify individuals, (b) provide more general characteristics of individuals when necessary,  and (c) differentiate between participants only as necessary (since much social research is about aggregate or composite characteristics).

Here are some additional recommendations for writing about your study site (e.g., the school, company, hospital, or other institution):

Providing statistics and other data about the site: 

When necessary, provide statistics about the study site but leave out the citations and reference list entries (confidentiality always trumps retrievability). You should not cite any documents produced by the study site (e.g., white papers, newsletters, or blog posts).

Describing the setting

As with the guidelines for avoiding unnecessary details about individual participants, describe your study site only with relevant details. Usually, you only need to offer a description of the site a couple of times in your study—when you first mention the site in the introduction and then when you discuss the study site while explaining your research methods. For most references to the study site, use simple phrases such as the study site, the middle school, or the organization. Avoid using a lengthier description each time you mention the site (e.g., the large, racially-diverse, urban elementary school in the southeastern United States), which can be annoying to read three or four times on a page. Be careful that the details you provide don’t inadvertently identify the site (such as referring to “a private elementary school in Georgio County” when that county only has one private elementary school). Again, keep in mind the type of study you are conducting and the context of your research to determine how much detail you need to provide.

Using pseudonyms

Although it may be tempting to provide pseudonyms (made up names) for your study site for ease of reference in the document, consider carefully whether you need to make up a name or if you can simply refer to the study site as necessary or a generic description such as the hospital. Use a pseudonym only when your focus on the study site is significant, as when you are providing an in-depth case study rather than simply turning to a single institution for convenience. The danger of pseudonyms is that the made up name you choose may refer to an institution that actually exists. If you do use a pseudonym, be sure not to include it in your study’s title nor in the abstract. Note also that you should avoid using pseudonyms for individual participants as well unless you need to highlight the differences between the participants in your discussion and want to keep their comments and personalities distinct. In general, simply referring to Participant 1, Participant 2, and so on is preferable to avoid the possibility of pseudonyms being read as real names.

Discussing your relationship to the study site

A number of programs at Walden University encourage students to use their current place of employment or a former workplace as a study site in order to connect research to practice. If you conduct such a study, your discussions of your role as researcher and possible researcher bias are particularly important but also especially vulnerable moments for inadvertently revealing the study site. Again, keep in mind how much information you need to give in the capstone studies document. If you are studying a division of your workplace with which you have no real connection in your current job, you may not need to state that you work for the study site. If you hold a position with a very unique job title, make sure to not state the job title but instead describe it in general terms.

Redacting names

Redacting names by highlighting them in black (e.g.,               helped                get ready for work) is a last resort method of maintaining confidentiality in your document. Only redact names when you have determined there is no other way to mask them, as with writing about the site in more generic terms. In general, you should not have any redacted names in the body of your document (in the actual chapters and sections). Also do not redact any names in the in-text and parenthetical citations. Remember that the point of citations is retrievability, and if you redact names, you render the citations unuseful. Simply leave out citations for material that you cannot cite. The only places you might find redacting useful are in the appendices with documentation that you may deem necessary to include but that includes some identifying names and information.

You may also find it helpful to refer to the FAQ aboutIRB, Anonymity, and Confidentiality in Doctoral Capstone Studies for more tips on the IRB process and confidentiality.

Photograph of Paul Lai and dog

Before coming to Walden, Dissertation Editor and Web Content Coordinator Paul Lai taught college English, worked in academic publishing, and edited scholarly journal issues and literary magazines.


  1. This post is very helpful. I have just finished a draft of my final study and the post has given me pause to consider certain elements and if they should be changed.

    1. Great to hear that you found this helpful! There are so many things to consider when working on academic documents.

  2. Hello Paul, I'm doing a quantitative study on three public schools in an island. They are the only three public school and I have used pseudonym for them.

    Is it okay to mention the name of the island if I'm using aggregate data for each school?
    Based on you post, are you saying I should delete citations/references that identify the schools/islands?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to clear this up! From what it sounds like, there are only three schools on the island - which means if you name the island, someone could reasonably guess the three schools you are writing about, even if they have been given pseudonyms.

      Based on that information, I would also avoid naming the island. An editor in the Writing Center also recommends, "Instead, refer to it by a general descriptor (e.g., "a Caribbean island...") that makes it more difficult to identify the specific site. Some rounding of the data (e.g., "about 50,000 students" versus "51,234") can be used to further anonymize it, in line with the the four strategies listed on APA, p. 17 for disguising cases:
      -altering specific characteristics
      -limiting the description of specific characteristics
      -obfuscating case detail by adding extraneous material
      -using composites" (B. Considine, personal communication, March 14, 2016).

      I agree with all of the above, as well. There is so much to consider when it comes to this topic. (Speaking of... So you may find it helpful to go over this with your instructor or with one of us in the Writing Center :)

      Melissa Sharpe ~ Walden Writing Instructor

  3. Thanks for sharing :) we regularly face this question as the institution has become very hot on confidentiality recently. Just to add that if you background black-out words it's important not to have the actual word behind the blackout or it's very easy to reveal - highlighting with a mouse will do that. So, we suggested simply replacing the name with the word 'anonymous' would be fine.

    1. Very interesting point, Mike. It's amazing how fast technology changes the game when it comes to APA writing and research. We'll do our best to keep up, as long as you keep reading and sharing your wisdom.