Ethics Case B: Anonymity Revisited

Mary Jones had spent three years, 1969-72, working as an applied medical anthropologist in an urban black community in the United States. In order to provide the social science communities with some data on her project, she wrote a series of articles to be published in relevant professional journals. The data included sensitive materials concerning specific epidemiological problems faced by members of the community as well as strategies and tactics used to improve health care delivery by the local community. Before submitting her articles for publication, Jones asked specific members of the community if they would read the papers for comments and criticism. Individuals from the community health center who had been part of the applied project did so and set up a meeting for discussion of the contents of the manuscripts.

The discussion began with several individuals complimenting Jones on her accurate characterization of the local situation and the sensitive way in which she addressed their health care problems and ways they chose to solve some of these. Several moments of silence passed after these initial remarks. Then an elder asked Jones why she had not given the accurate name of the community health center where much of this activity took place. Immediately, someone else asked why she had not given the accurate name of the town where the center was located. A third person asked why there were no names given for the people at the center and in the community who were involved in the project and in the “struggle to improve health care for our people.”

Jones countered with explanations regarding anthropological conventions which specified the use of pseudonyms in certain types of anthropological reporting, specifically if there was any chance that individuals or a community might be harmed. She provided some examples of instances in a nearby town where people had been harmed because the actual name of the town and the names of people there had been published in a scientific report. The participants at the meeting told her that she should use her own judgment in the final analysis, but they felt that even if she could not see that using the name of the health center might help them, at least she should name some of the people who had helped Jones and her students during their three years of work, even though Jones and her students were on the applied project to help the community.

Jones’s Dilemma: Should she defer to the community health center members’ desire that she publish the name of the health center, the town in which the health center was located, an&or the names of individuals who had asked or given permission for their names to be published (during the meeting described above)? Or, should she retain the use of pseudonyms throughout her papers?


16 thoughts on “Ethics Case B: Anonymity Revisited

  1. This case poses some questions for me. I think that Jones must have done a very good job of being a part of the community to have received such high praise and respect from the people she had worked with. It sounds as though the information in her book felt authentic to the community and thus, they wanted to be recognized. I think that I would have retained the pseudonyms because not doing so might jeopardize future work that she might want to do with other communities. Perhaps providing the names of the people who were wiling to be identified and of the health center on an acknowledgment page or in the appendix would satisfy the community member’s willingness to be identified and still retain the anonymity of the research.

  2. I find the details of this case interesting. It is encouraging to have both parties choosing to be open about whether to use their names or maintain anonymity. Much like the other anonymity cases, the approach is positive for the groups to be discussing the role of anonymity, prior to any further publishing. I agree with Jones regarding using pseudonyms if the health center and its workers could be harmed. It makes senses to play it safe. Otherwise, it would bode well to have a contract of some kind to discuss the details and potential harmful effects of using the health center names and real names of the workers. Once all participants acknowledge the contract it would make future field studies and publications easier.

  3. This case is similar to the previous anonymity case. Due to the setting, it is paramount that the ethics regulations be followed. However, I can say I do not understand how the data can be useful without knowing there “where.” I’m guessing this is information that can be generally applied to a population. Not being an anthropologist or sociologist, this deduction is important for me to determine the “right and wrong.”

    As with the villagers, the people wanted to understand why the correct names were not used. The case highlights that when the situation was explained, the participants understood the need for anonymity and Jones was asked to use her own judgement. Again, I believe that with appropriate consent, the correct name of the individual can be used. As Merriellen noted, the names could be in an acknowledgment or appendix page. If the area where this study took place is not being mentioned, how can harm come to these individuals?

  4. This case is different than that first one because it was conducted in the United States and so language probably was not an issue. I would agree with Jones and VanderNoor that pseudonyms should be used if the health center and its workers could be harmed. Even if ALL the workers at the health center were educated about the dangers of publishing the real name of the center and the names of its workers, and even if they ALL signed acknowledging these facts, I still do not think this should be done. Even if ALL participants accept the possibility of harm, it is still the responsibility of the researcher. Moreover, future workers of the center might be harmed through the publication of the name and they had no choice in the matter. In my opinion, the community should remain the same as it did before the researcher came on the scene. My sweet grandmother used to always tell me, “Jeremy, it is better to be safe than sorry.” Again, the researcher is there to study and should protect his or her participants (even from themselves). I do not think I would have a problem with her acknowledging those who had helped her, but do not like the idea of using their full names. For example, “I would like to thank J. Caldwell for his…” Does anybody have any thoughts on this?

  5. This is just like the other case. Pseudonyms are a better way to go about writing the research to keep everyone protected. Jeremy said it correctly when he stated it would be a better way even with signed acknowledgement from the health center workers. As a researcher, I feel it is my job to protect my clients but also to protect myself. But, I would acknowledge those people who were most helpful in my publication…..either in my acknowledgement or thank you page. Doing this doesn’t necessarily mean I have to say the reason for my “acknowledgement,” does it?

  6. I think the protection of the clients is much more important than the recognition of the center’s workers. Jeremy brings up a good point about this happening in the US. However, I think it is more likely readers might be able to recognize their particular health center than even the previous case, and also not only recognize themselves, but also thier neighbors and communitte members. If I read about a study of a center I attended and accounts of clients were discussed, I might not be as comfortable attending the center.
    As Jessica said, a description of the area can be provided that could give information, without stating where the center is located specifically.

    • I agree with Dena that the “protection of the clients is much more important than the recognition of the center’s workers.” Publishing the names of community members, specific locale and or facilities might seem to engender attention to the plight of the denizen in that community, but the potential harm to that enclave might far outweigh the benefits. Given the era (1969-1972), it is understandable that some community members might see power in bringing focus to the issues befalling them. It is also understandable how some in the community might want accolades given to those “who were involved in the project and in the struggle to improve health care for our (the) people.” An underwhelming part of me feels that the demands of the community should override ethical considerations and dispense with the use of pseudonyms, however, Mary acted in accordance with the ethics of her field and, therefore, acted properly under the circumstances.

      • I agree with you that publishing the names of certain individuals and facilities may harm them in the long run. It is better for the researcher to use pseudonyms to protect the individuals, but the members of that community may want to be recognized or acknowledged in some way because it is their community and they may have certain feelings towards the research gathered from there. Ultimately the use of pseudonyms is more important than recognition of certain members.

  7. Providing multiple demographic characteristics should provide sufficient information without providing the name and location of the clinic. It seems to me it would be particularly important ethically and legally to use only psuedonyms. As others have mentioned it is important to not only to think of the here and now but also the past and the future. As we have seen some research becomes much more than it was originally intended and sometimes there are particular studies, 20, 30 or even more years down the road that are still relevant because they were so influential in their field of study.

  8. I feel that the participants should be protected and pseudonyms should be used instead of the actual name of the clinic. As a researcher, I feel that it is my responsibility to take all measures necessary to protect the participants in my studies. Since the participants are wanting to include their identifying information, I think that the researcher should instead provide more demographic information about the clinic. This should be done with limitations so that the actual clinic could not be identified. However, with more demographic information provided, the findings from the research could be generalized and used to increase practices at similar clinics.

  9. At first, I am inclined to say she should keep the pseudonyms. As others have already mentioned, pseudonyms in this case will protect the community (in the present as well as potentially the future), what with the sensitive information involved. And while it could be ethical to consider gaining consent from every single person in this community, one person wishing to remain anonymous would halt that whole plan; providing the identities of some would ultimately lead to the identification of the rest. It just seems highly unlikely that Jones would be able to get consent from EVERYONE. Therefore, it’d best be safe and stick with pseudonyms.

    However, I do wonder what the agreement between Jones and this community was… In other words, it’s clear what Jones gained from her being allowed to observe and participate in the community, but what did they gain? Was there an understanding that her research would benefit them directly in some way? If so, I wonder if those benefits can only come about by publishing their true names and identities? Otherwise, what would be the incentive for these people to want their identities published? I don’t know too much about medical anthropology in general, let alone what this case was investigating. So I’d like more information in order to feel more confident in making a decision.

  10. I think that Mary Jones should just publish the names of the individuals of the community and not do anything more. Especially that she wants to protect the community from any potential issues or danger from outside factors. I think it would be a safe line to walk. However, I’m not sure how it would work since she would be using pseudonyms for everything else, like for those who do not want their real names to be published or the town. This would also depend on the number of people who actually want their names published. If the number is not a lot then she could just published those names and also stick with pseudonyms for everything else. Her going against the view of the members of the community health center may affect her future work with them if she decides to stick with pseudonyms. Jones already have their support and has a good image so it is difficult to not want to upset them. However, the members of the health center may not fully reflect the views or opinions of the town. Overall, Jones should just reveal the names of those who worked with her, given their permission, and keep it safe for the rest of the community. Doing this would show that she at least took some of their advice into consideration. After all, the members of the health center did agree that the final choice is up to her to decide.

  11. In response to the ethical dilemma, Mary Jones should discuss the ethical issues and dangers that is can bring to their community if she were to use their correct names. The elders might not understand how using their names could bring complications to them and how Mary Jones’ is obligated to make the decision. Once she talks to the elders about the risks, they could make an educational decision whether or not to use pseudonyms or the correct names. If they feel that they want her to use the correct names for the health care center and the town, she should abide by their wishes. However, when it comes to the individual’s names, she should ask each informant for their consent to use their real names. The elders shouldn’t make the decisions for the individuals. According to the individual informants, Jones’ should decide to use pseudonyms or their real names. Most people who are under anthropological study are not aware of the responsibility the researcher is when keeping the community a secret so they automatically want their real names to be used. If Jones sits down with the elders’ and discusses the implications of using their real names, it’ll encourage a informed decision and a decision that the elders’ believe is right. It all comes down to communication between the two parties to decide what is the correct route to use and how to proceed with the anonymity of the town, health center, and the people.

    • Mary Jones should keep the community, the hospital, and the members of the community under pseudonymous. A fraction of the members may want the community, hospital, and their names to be revealed; however, the duty of the ethnographer is to keep the entire community safe from discovery. If the community and hospital names are exposed it could leave members of the community who did not want to be named more vulnerable to being named. In this situation a holistic approach should be used, if 99 members want to be named and one member wants to remain anonymous it is only ethical that every member remains anonymous.

  12. Mary Jones should keep the community, the hospital, and the members of the community under pseudonymous. A fraction of the members may want the community, hospital, and their names to be revealed; however, the duty of the ethnographer is to keep the entire community safe from discovery. If the community and hospital names are exposed it could leave members of the community who did not want to be named more vulnerable to being named. In this situation a holistic approach should be used, if 99 members want to be named and one member wants to remain anonymous it is only ethical that every member remains anonymous.

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