Survey Anonymity and Confidentiality

In the next few weeks I will open course evaluations for the summer 2014 academic term. This course evaluation is no different from any I have conducted during my time at USAO, but I thought it would be a good idea to talk about an important feature that their routine nature might obscure.

Plenty of people confuse the ideas of anonymity and confidentiality when they are applied to surveys and other forms of data collection. The differences between these concepts can be subtle, but understanding how your personal identity is tied in with your responses is important, not just during your time as a USAO student, but also when you enter the workforce as a professional.

After the Storm

Image by Daniel Pool

Anonymous Surveys

At its most basic, an anonymous survey requires no personally identifying information. You will not be asked to provide your name or any other data point that could identify you as an individual (like your social security number, or student ID). Further, an anonymous survey includes no feature or mechanism enabling a researcher to associate your response with your identity. In short, when you respond to an anonymous survey, nobody will have the ability to identify what answers you provided. Very few surveys you complete will be anonymous- this is not limited to USAO surveys, but many employee surveys as well.  During your time at USAO, I will make sure to let you know when a survey is anonymous, though I cannot imagine when I would use one of these instruments.

Confidential Surveys

By contrast, a confidential survey protects the identity of respondents. Individual responses can be tracked, but that information is seldom disclosed to anyone but a select few. A confidential survey is the type that students, staff and faculty at USAO (and at most other organizations) will be asked to complete. In a confidential survey someone has the capacity to track your individual response. At USAO that person is usually me or a member of my staff (pretty much only Daniel Pool). In other organizations, the person or organization asking you to complete the confidential survey has the capacity to identify your individual response, but has pledged in some manner to protect that information from disclosure.

Using confidential surveys allows me to link your responses in one survey to your responses in other surveys to see how they relate to each other. Additionally, I could link your survey responses to your student records to see how your responses relate to academic outcomes, or other important phenomenon. I should point out that I am almost never interested in how any specific individual responds (though I am sure you are a wonderful and interesting human being), rather I am interested in how survey respondents with key values for certain variables (like satisfaction, or participation in key events) link up with other collections of data. In fact, by the time I begin to work with the data you provide, I have already stripped your name off the record. Even with the capability to know how you responded, I usually don’t bother to check how any individual responded- that information simply does not shed any light into the analyses I perform.

Your information is confidential in the sense that I never publish or share your individual response with anyone. My reports and analyses consist of data aggregations, never individual responses. Unless you specifically ask me to reveal your responses, I will be the only person with the capability to figure out how you completed a survey.

Confidentiality Limitations

In the interest of full disclosure, I will mention the few circumstances when I will share individual responses with someone else. I have the obligation to turn over potentially identifying data to designated officials when ordered to do so by a court of law. I have personally never been involved in a situation like this, but it is always a possibility. Second, I may be compelled to release confidential information by on officer of this university or one of its stakeholders. Again, I have never experienced this type of order, nor can I imagine when this would be advantageous to anyone, but it could happen. Additionally, I may be compelled to identify a survey respondent if the information they provide gives me a reasonable expectation of harm to an individual. Finally, many USAO courses are small in size and this can pose a threat to your confidentiality. Keep these in mind when you complete any survey.

I mention all this because the success of any data collection activity depends on trust. You have to trust that I will not mislead you about how your information will be used and that your confidentiality will be protected whenever possible. I know that talking about these issues will dissuade some people from responding and I am fine with that. I would much rather have fewer responses than have to mislead anyone for more. Having said this, I ask that you seriously consider completing our surveys. The information you provide is critical to helping USAO provide the best educational experience possible for our students. I reiterate my pledge to protect the confidentiality of your information to the best of my ability and hope you will keep helping us with your survey responses.

If any of my readers have any questions about this topic, please let me know. I will be more than happy to discuss this further.

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