Sunday, February 15, 2009

So much for anonymity

I'm reading a dissertation that is a case study of one college. The author refers to this college by a pseudonym, presumably to protect its identity. However, at one point in the literature review he discusses another study that looked at eight institutions, one of which was the one he is looking at. The author of the previous study did not use pseudonyms, so in a direct quote our later author substitutes his pseudonym for the real name. Now all I have to do is go to the cited work to know exactly which college it is - although in truth enough clues are given in the case study that I could figure it out if I cared enough.

People! If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well.

I can't decide if the author just didn't think it through or if he is using the pseudonym as a reflexive tic because "that's how it's done in case studies." I've seen a lot of that. Bob Smith, who works full time at Albertson College of Idaho, titles his dissertation "A Study of Donor Intent at a Selective Private College in Idaho Without a Football Team." Then in his acknowledgments, he thanks his colleagues in the development office at Albertson. (Made up example alert!) Gee, I wonder what school he might have studied? The anonymity seems like a reflex here.

In a slightly different case, I read a book by a very esteemed researcher that used a pseudonym for its subject, and all it took was a quick Google search to find a school with those unique characteristics. Now the book was written pre-Google, but even at the time of publication it would have been simple to out it. The difficulty in this case was that the unique facts that enabled me to decode the college are essential to the argument he was presenting. Besides, the case didn't reveal anything damaging to the institution. I think he was making an educated gamble.

Many of the these attempts at anonymity seem so half-hearted, though, like putting on a funny hat and hoping nobody recognizes you. In fact, the hat just gets people's attention and causes them to wonder who you are.

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