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What is meant by anonymity and confidentiality for research participants?

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Quick Answer

Two ways of protecting the privacy of research participants are: confidentiality, which means that the participants' identities are known only to the researcher and remain unknown to the public, and anonymity, which means that the participants' identities remain unknown to both the researchers and the public. The issue of protecting research participants' privacy has attained a greater degree of relevancy as a larger number of research studies are conducted in the areas of psychology, sociology and economics. Because of the increased activity in sensitive behavioral research, a lack of anonymity or confidentiality can lead to participants' embarrassment or stigmatization.

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Full Answer

Confidentiality eliminates the risk of publicly connecting a research participant to sensitive information that could affect their dignity, social status, or in some cases, their employment. In order to ensure confidentiality, a researcher may remove all identifying information from the study results or identify participants only by codes, pseudonyms or generalizations. Although certain rights have been granted by the courts to lawyers and physicians regarding identities, researchers and their colleagues with whom they share study results do not have these special disclosure privileges.

Anonymity provides research participants with a better guarantee of privacy than confidentiality. It can also help ensure that the researchers will be collecting the most honest and realistic opinion or experience data from the study's participants.

In certain types of research studies, such as those in which the collected data may implicate a participant's involvement in an illegal activity, the researchers can be required to provide certificates of confidentiality. These are issued by the National Institutes of Health and stipulate that the researchers will refuse to release any identity information in any legal proceedings taking place at the local, state or federal level.

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