When performing research, there are certain expectations that a researcher must follow to protect their subjects. We will explore a few of the different ways that a subject's responses are kept from being used against them.
Right to Protection
Psychologists often study things of a deeply personal nature, and in this world of everything being interconnected on the Internet, it is now easier than ever to violate what was considered private and safe just a few years ago. We see this in Section 4 of the Ethics Code, Privacy and Confidentiality. In addition to the Ethics Code, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, has specific guidelines for holding onto files and information. Since you are subject to both, I'll just roll them together. Remember, these were put in place to protect subjects from harm that might occur by slipshod or unethical practices.
Privacy is the protection of personal information provided to the psychologist that cannot be released unless established criteria are met. An example of common criteria to release information is that the safety of the individual or another is in jeopardy, meaning the person is suicidal or homicidal, and the psychologist is required to alert authorities. Another criterion that would allow information to be released is the removal of all identifying information.
In research, we often collect detailed information about people. It is not uncommon to ask questions about a person's education, ethnicity, annual income, and sexuality. It is not uncommon to ask questions on more embarrassing subjects. For example, there is a great deal of research on pornography viewing habits, sexual partners, and suicidal patterns. A person who took part in these studies would not like that information to be public if it means that others will be able to see how they answered.
Confidentiality is a psychologist's primary obligation and means they must take reasonable precautions to protect confidential information obtained through or stored in any medium. Anything signed or noted on by the participants must be kept locked and secured. This often means retained files are kept in a locked filing cabinet or a password protected file on a separate drive for up to seven years after the study is concluded.
A psychological researcher is required to maintain a person's privacy, and that person's responses and information must be kept confidential. It is required that responses are held for years afterward in case someone needs to go back and check the responses. The responses need to be held confidential and not left out for anyone to view, even if you don't think anyone might look at them. Can you imagine answering embarrassing questions about your sexual history and then the researcher leaving your responses on his or her desk for the secretary, passing researchers, and the cleaning lady to see? This is why confidentiality must be maintained.
Anonymity is similar to privacy and is defined as the protection of an individual subject's identity. The heart of privacy and confidentiality is that the answers a participant gives are made anonymously. People will often be more truthful when they don't think they will be judged by how they respond, and that is what researchers really want to study.
As an example, let's say you hold some not-so-normal views and were interviewed by a researcher. This researcher was unethical and didn't make your form anonymous. Now, he and everyone who gets a hold of his research know who you are and what you think. In the world of death threats for movies and assaults over petty things, would you be willing to provide honest answers if you knew that they could be traced back to you?
People who volunteer to participate in psychological research should come with certain expectations. They can expect privacy, or the protection of personal information provided to the psychologist that cannot be released unless established criteria are met. Their responses should be confidential, which means researchers will take reasonable precautions to protect confidential information obtained through or stored in any medium. Lastly, their responses should be anonymous, which is the protection of an individual subject's identity.
After this lesson, you will be able to:
- Identify where to find rules and regulations regarding privacy and confidentiality
- Explain the importance of maintaining privacy, confidentiality and anonymity in psychological research