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Ethical Research: Maintaining Privacy, Anonymity & Confidentiality

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  • 0:07 Right to Protection
  • 0:51 Privacy
  • 1:55 Confidentiality
  • 3:03 Anonymity
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

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

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

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.

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