What is in a Name?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare

Today, in our Developmental Psychology Seminar Series, we had a really intriguing talk from Caroline Way, a PhD student in the School of Education at Oxford Brookes University. The talk was on imaginary friendships, which is itself fascinating as a research area. Perhaps equally fascinating, and what I would like to focus on here, is an aspect of her research process that has sparked debate for her surrounding best practice.

The debate is thus. Whenever you act as a participant in Psychology research, you can expect that your data will remain confidential, or more likely, anonymous. The BPS says that:

Participants in psychological research have a right to expect that information they provide will be treated confidentially and, if published, will not be identifiable as theirs.

BPS (2010)

There is an onus on researchers to actively protect the anonymity of participants. However, Caroline collects narrative accounts from adults, of their memories of imaginary friends (do feel free to email her if you would like information on providing a story for her). She has been asked by participants that they are named in her research reports. The dilemma is what to do with this: would aligning a participant’s name with their data be ethically defensible?

For me, this had always been a no-brainer. Some children have been indignant when I’ve told them that their names won’t be on my research reports: they’ve contributed to it, after all. They’re pleased with their work. I explain to them that the information they give is personal to them, and I  keep things anonymous so that they can be  honest with me. And, of course, revealing children’s names or school names in research reports would be opening up a child protection problem, so there is no way it could happen.

Soren Laurenson is Lola's imaginary friend

Soren Laurenson is Lola’s imaginary friend

It may be argued that adults don’t need that same protection. Why shouldn’t they own the story of their imaginary friend? There don’t seem to be any corresponding guidelines from the BPS on this, and research on this issue is sparse. I found one paper, Grinyer (2002), discussing this issue, revealing that participants didn’t feel comfortable seeing their data presented attached to a pseudonym, and preferred that  their own names were used.  Walford (2005) further argues that naming participants in research is sometimes desirable – because it makes the research process more transparent – if names are going to be attached to data then participants (with the “right of reply” to that data)  are less likely to risk (or stand for) misrepresentation of what they have said. If one is trying to tell someone’s story, as in a narrative account, there does seem to be a case for giving participants’ real names: or at least , for giving participants the choice of name versus pseudonym.

Surrounding the use of narrative accounts, particularly in Psychology, however, is the notion that “the plural of anecdote is not data”.  In other words, simply (and only) collecting stories is not the same thing as collecting data, because data are bits of (more) objective information, that may be abstracted and related to theory (the process known as science). Vainio (2012) argues that anonymity is an integral part of qualitative research, for the abstraction of data into categories, and for relating it to other research. She also argues that anonymity enables the researcher to interpret the data irrespective of the participants’ wishes, which in turn enhances the quality of that piece of research. In sum, Vainio (2012) suggests that anonymity is the route to objectivity and to sound research.

To conclude, whether one allows the naming of participants seems to be more than an ethical issue. And while it is important to protect vulnerable participants, and to respect their right to confidentiality, in line with ethical guidelines, when participants request naming, the position (for adults, at least) changes. The debate then seems to become about how objective we can be, how we deal with the propensity for misrepresentation of participants’ data, and ultimately, about what (and whose) story we are trying to tell.

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