Let’s talk about anonymisation

Photo credit: Kate McCarthy (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Photo credit: Kate McCarthy (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Today’s Tale from the field is about anonymisation. Contrary to other items in the researcher’s toolkit, such as scale development or thematic analysis, this is an often neglected point that, for some graduate students, only becomes an issue at the point of publication/reporting.

I have been reflecting about this topic lately, given that visual data I am collecting for this project need to be anonymised and shared back with the students who produced them, to ensure there is nothing else they want removed.

Some time ago an information management colleague told me about the ‘horror stories’ he had heard, involving researchers ‘just’ saving their data in pen drives. While this does not constitute appropriate data handling, it also entails obvious vulnerability, especially if those data have not been properly anonymised. More recently I read this paper, which made me think about the multi-layered decisions regarding anonymisation that need to be done for sensitive, fine-textured qualitative research. While the complexities of such decisions are larger than what this blog post can cover, I thought I would share some resources that I have found useful in this regard.

  1. The UK Anonymisation Network, which has just released its free-access Anonymisation Decision-Making Framework book. Through UKAN I have also learnt about NCRM-produced videos outlining this framework.
  2. The UK Data Archive has a page summarising anonymisaton guidelines for both qualitative and quantitative data, as part of overall data management procedures.
  3. This guide to data protection with a focus on anonymisation, by Christopher Graham, Information Commissioner.

Feel free to share other useful resources in the comments.


Jacqueline Priego is a research fellow at BU’s Centre for Excellence in Learning, having previously curated the research blog Favelas@LSE. She has worked in social research for over nine years, specialising in qualitative and mixed-methods. Jacqueline is a CAQDAS trainer and consultant with particular interest in participatory and creative methods. She tweets @jacqpriego


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