by Chelsea Lee and Jeff Hume-Pratuch
In this post you will learn how to present data gathered during surveys or interviews with research participants that you conducted as part of your research. You may be surprised to learn that although you can discuss your interview and survey data in a paper, you should not cite them. Here’s why.
Retrievability Versus Confidentiality
In APA Style, all sources must provide retrievable data. Because one purpose of references is to lead the reader to the source, both the reference entry and the in-text citation begin with the name of the author. But rules for the ethical reporting of human research data prohibit researchers from revealing “confidential, personally identifiable information concerning their patients, . . . research participants, or other recipients of their services” (APA Publication Manual [PM]; 6th ed., § 1.11, p. 16; APA Ethics Code, Standard 4.07). In other words, you must prevent the reader from identifying the source of information.
In this clash of principles, which one should triumph? The value of protecting participants’ confidentiality must always win out. “Subject privacy . . . should never be sacrificed for clinical or scientific accuracy” (PM § 1.11)—not even for APA Style.
Strategies for the Discussion of Research Participant Data
Although you don’t cite data you gathered from research participants, you can discuss them, provided that you preserve the confidentiality you guaranteed the participants when they consented to participate in your study (see PM § 1.11). In practical terms, this means that “neither the subject nor third parties (e.g., family members, employers) are identifiable” (PM, p. 17) from the information presented.
Strategies for the ethical use of data from research participants include the following:
- referring to participants by identifiers other than their names, such as
- their roles (e.g., participant, doctor, patient),
- pseudonyms or nicknames,
- descriptive phrases,
- case numbers, or
- letters of the alphabet;
- altering certain participant characteristics in your discussion of the participants (e.g., make the characteristics more general, such as saying “European” instead of “French”);
- leaving out unimportant identifying details about the participant;
- adding extraneous material to obscure case details; and
- combining the statements of several participants into a “composite” participant.
Choose the strategy that makes sense given the degree of confidentiality of information you must maintain and what details are important to relate to the reader. Keep in mind that in employing these strategies it is essential that you not “change variables that would lead the reader to draw false conclusions related to the phenomena being described” (PM,p. 17).
Examples of How to Discuss Research Participant Data
Here are a few examples of how participant data might be presented in the text. The most appropriate presentation will depend on context.
- One respondent stated she had never experienced a level of destruction similar to that caused by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
- “Madge,” a 45-year-old Red Cross social worker, was in Sichuan province when the earthquake struck. “It was unlike anything else I have experienced,” she said.
- MJ, a European social worker, said the earthquake was “unlike anything else I have experienced.”
- A non-Chinese social worker said the 2008 Sichuan earthquake “exceeded levels of devastation I have ever seen before.”
- Case 24 was injured in the earthquake.
- Participant M said she had never experienced anything like the earthquake or its level of devastation.
- Several employees of a humanitarian aid organization said that they were emotionally distressed by the devastation the earthquake left behind.
Data can also be presented in a table or figure provided these same standards are abided by.
Going on the Record
If the research participant is willing to go "on the record," or include his or her name in the paper, use a personal communication citation (see PM § 6.20). In that case, you should write up the material you intend to use, present it to the participant, and get his or her written permission before including it (see PM § 1.11). In your paper, the information might be presented as follows:
- M. Johnson (personal communication, May 16, 2008), a Red Cross social worker who assisted in the Sichuan earthquake recovery efforts, stated that “the earthquake exceeded levels of devastation I have ever seen before.”
The issues surrounding participant privacy in research reporting are complex and exceed what can be presented in this post. For further reading, consult the APA Publication Manual (6th ed., § 1.11) as well as the APA Ethics Code.
By Jeff Hume-Pratuch
Dear APA Style Experts,
I’m doing a paper for a psychology class that requires our opinion on “the most powerful influences on your view of the world.” I want to cite a conversation I had with my grandmother, but I don't know how to put this information on the reference page. Please advise.
All in the Family
We devote a lot of time on the APA Style blog to different ways of formatting references, both in text and in the reference list, but have you ever thought about what qualifies as a reference?
The purpose of the reference list is to “acknowledge the work of previous scholars and provide a reliable way to locate it” (APA Publication Manual, 6th ed., p. 37). Let’s break this statement down and apply it to the question at hand.
Acknowledge the Work of Others
If someone else’s ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work, you need to credit the source in text and in the reference list. This applies whether you are directly quoting or paraphrasing the work in question. If you are building on work that you yourself have previously published, you need to cite that as well. This enables your readers to follow the idea back to its source.
Placing a source in your reference list also implies that you have personally read it. If you read Smith & Hawkshaw’s (2008) opinion of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but not Conan Doyle’s work itself, don’t put the latter in the list. What you have there is a secondary source (p. 178).
In addition, you should consider the context in which you are writing. In most cases, your source should have some scholarly relevance. For a personal reflection paper, it is appropriate to quote one’s grandmother; for a dissertation on child development, not so much (unless one’s grandmother happens to be Anna Freud).
Provide a Reliable Path to the Source
Part of the purpose of a reference is to lead your reader back to the sources you used. For a book or journal article, this path is pretty straightforward, but for some sources we need to dig deeper. Ask yourself, “How would someone else get here?”
In some cases—like a private conversation—the answer is, “They can’t.” No one else is privy to that conversation with your grandmother. The wisdom she passed on to you is not recoverable by other researchers, so it does not go in the reference list.
This kind of source (private letters and e-mail, personal conversations, phone calls, etc.) is called a personal communication (p. 179). Cite it in text only, give initials as well as the surname of the person involved, and give as precise a date as possible:
My grandmother’s advice was, “Never pass up a chance to eat, sit down, or use a clean restroom” (S. Dean, personal communication, May 14, 1980).
The same approach would apply to notes you took during a lecture, or class handouts that are not posted elsewhere (e.g., the instructor’s website), or a spontaneous piece of street theater.
What About Research Interviews?
One exception to this guideline applies to participants that you interview in your own research. These interviews are qualitative data; they’re part of the research on which you are reporting and do not constitute the work of others. They should never be individually cited or treated as personal communications in APA Style, because this could compromise confidentiality. Researchers are prohibited by the APA Ethics Code from disclosing personally identifying information about research participants (pp. 17—18). Depending on the circumstances, such information could include the date of the interview as well as surname and initials.
How then should you handle the need to quote from participant interviews? Some authors quote participants without distinguishing them at all, like this: “Indeed, a comment by one of our participants illustrates some of these complex issues: [quote follows without other attribution].”
Others identify participants by demographic or other data: “At my age I think we know who we are and what we are. (Female participant, 69 years of age).” You can also identify participants with letters (Participant A, Participant B), nicknames (Sonny, Tracey), or by role (Doctor, Patient).
As you write your paper, remember to cite previously published work that influenced you, that you have actually read, and that other researchers can recover. That will make your reference list both useful and complete.