Central Questions of Anonymization: A Case Study of Secondary Use of Qualitative Data

  • Denise Thomson University of Alberta
  • Lana Bzdel University of Alberta
  • Karen Golden-Biddle University of Alberta
  • Trish Reay University of Alberta
  • Carole A. Estabrooks University of Alberta
Keywords: ethical practice, collaborative research, confidentiality, privacy


Anonymization—the removal of identifying information from data—is one way of preparing data for secondary use. This process has not received much attention from scholars, but close examination shows that it is full of methodological, ethical and theoretical tensions. Qualitative research focuses on how people live and act in very particular, situated contexts. Removing identifying information also, inevitably, removes contextual information that has potential value to the researcher. We propose to present a case study of working with anonymized data on the research project, Knowledge Utilization and Policy Implementation, a five-year program funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. This project involves the secondary use of qualitative data sets from multiple separate research projects across Canada. Based on this case study, we provide useful recommendations that address some of the central questions of anonymization and consider the strengths and weaknesses of the anonymization process. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0501297


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Author Biographies

Denise Thomson, University of Alberta
Denise THOMSON recently completed a Master of Business Administration degree with the Health Organization Studies research group at the University of Alberta School of Business. She is now the Program Administrator for the Child Health Field of the Cochrane Collaboration, an international not-for-profit organization providing up-to-date information about the effects of health care. She holds a MA and a BA in History from the University of Alberta.
Lana Bzdel, University of Alberta
Lana BZDEL is the Research and Content Coordinator for the Health Organization Studies research group at the University of Alberta School of Business. Lana's interest in the anonymization of qualitative data stems from her involvement with the Knowledge Utilization and Policy Implementation (KUPI) research initiative—a multi-disciplinary, collaborative research program investigating the linkage between knowledge use and policy implementation in health organizations. Lana BZDEL holds a Master's degree in Library and Information Studies and a Bachelor's degree from the University of Alberta.
Karen Golden-Biddle, University of Alberta
Karen GOLDEN-BIDDLE is Professor, Department of Strategic Management and Organization, and Director of Health Organization Studies at the University of Alberta School of Business. She is a co-investigator on the Knowledge Utilization and Policy Implementation (KUPI) research program discussed in this paper, and the Principal Investigator on a multi-year qualitative research program studying organizational change in Alberta's health care system. Her main research interests are in the areas of knowledge making in science, and organizational change, specifically how organizational change is implemented and sustained over time, and how cultural systems shape change.
Trish Reay, University of Alberta
Trish REAY is Assistant Professor, Department of Strategic Management and Organization at the University of Alberta School of Business, and a co-investigator on the Organizational Change in Health Care program of research. In addition to teaching both undergraduate and MBA students in the School of Business, she is also a core faculty member of SEARCH Alberta. This program is supported by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, and is a unique educational program for health care professionals who want to deliver services based on an Evidence Based Decision-Making approach.
Carole A. Estabrooks, University of Alberta
Carole A. ESTABROOKS is Professor, Faculty of Nursing, at the University of Alberta. She is the Principal Investigator on the CIHR funded Knowledge Utilization and Policy Implementation (KUPI) research program. As well, Dr. ESTABROOKS is Principal Investigator of the Knowledge Utilization Studies Program (KUSP), and Academic Co-Director of the national training Centre for Knowledge Transfer. She holds appointments as an Adjunct Scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), and a Research Affiliate at the Alberta Centre for Active Living, University of Alberta.
Procedures for Archiving Qualitative Data: Confidentiality and Technical Issues

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