Ethics update: Thinking about names

This morning I sent off the response to the issues put to me as part of the ethics review process. While I have heard a lot of ethics horror stories, I certainly have nothing to contribute to these tales. Most of the issues they picked up were fair enough: the subtle distinction between two of my survey questions is rather subtle, there was a typo and also one check-box that I somehow missed, and my ‘aims and justifications’ was lacking in references to the literature.

The one issue raised that lead to a bit of debate between my supervisor and me yesterday was whether or not participants’ names should be collected on the written consent forms. I think we live in between two different mindsets when it comes to names. Unless you have a private listing I can still look up the phone book using your surname and find your home address and phone number. It is interesting that you cannot search the online phone book for a street address to find a name, but as the information is there if you had the time you could. Although they have made the logistics of it harder, you can still look up the electoral rolls in Australia.

You would think a signature is more private than your name. Some people have signatures that are easier to read than others. Does this mean that people with easier to read signatures deserve less privacy? How am I going to work out who I have or have not gotten written consent from if I forget at the time to make a note in my interview notes? What are the logistics of dealing with somebody who wants to retract consent if I do not know which form is theirs? I am not a handwriting expert, but would I just ask them for a copy of their signature and go through my forms to find it?

We ended up settling on having the name as an optional field on the consent form. I think having it listed on the form means that people are more likely to ask me about whether or not it matters if they give me their name. I would rather be challenged in, and negotiate through, conversation about what personal details I am going to use and for what purposes, rather than mislead people. After all, there is nothing ‘blind’ about my study and while I will not be using names in my thesis or providing my field notes to other people, the full social identity of people I encounter will play into my thinking about, and analysis of, the data I collect.


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