It’s a new year and a fresh start to research in 2018. New researchers are beginning their IRB protocols and it is important for them to know the difference between four key terms associated with data collection: Anonymous,Confidential, De-identified, and Identifiable.

Below are some examples of these key terms. Data in the following examples is used generally and can include numeric data (e.g., surveys) and qualitative materials (e.g., interview transcripts and field notes).

  • Anonymous – Anonymous data is collected in a manner where the identity of the subject cannot be determined by anyone at any time; not even the researcher. There are no links between the data and the individual person. Anonymous data is stripped of personally identifiable information (e.g., no names, student numbers, etc.). For example, online surveys (e.g., Qualtrics) are typically conducted anonymously (when the IP address is not stored).
  • Confidential – Confidential data does not mean the data is anonymous. For example, surveys collected in a face-to-face environment are typically labeled as confidential. Subjects may only participate in a research study when assured that the information they share will remain protected from disclosure outside of the research setting. The researcher agrees to collect, store, and share research data in a way that the information obtained about the research participant is protected and not improperly disclosed.
  • De-identified – All identifiers have been removed from the data set even though identifiers may still exist in a separate file. For example, the data set is de-identified and the master list containing names and de-identified codes are stored in a different location not easily accessible to the researcher or any other person. De-identification prevents a person’s identity from being connected with their responses.
  • Identifiable – This type of data includes personal identifiers and links associated with the data set. Identifiers include any information used to distinguish one person from another (e.g., personally identifiable information). These identifiers could be sensitive (e.g., medical information) or non-sensitive (e.g., public records or websites). Be careful about what identifiable information you collect from your research subjects.

As a researcher, clearly define the goals and objectives for your data collection. Be sure you understand the operational definitions and methodology for your data collection plan. Protect your participants and ensure you have a plan for how to collect, store, and analyze your data.