• How To Track People Anonymously Across Multiple Studies

    Image of Zul'Aman Dragonhawk boss fight
    Image: Elsheindra and Team Pink tackle the Dragonhawk Boss in Zul’Aman back in 2008. As a healer, Elsheindra has to make difficult decisions about who will live and who will die, in her role as main healer.  Being a researcher and maintaining anonymity is, I’ve discovered, a lot easier.

    Back in April, I posted my first preliminary study to look at motivation, community formation, and learning in World of Warcraft.  When I was crafting my ethics approval for that study and future studies, I was very concerned with maintaining the privacy of the individuals participating.  The first survey was designed specifically to not require any personally identifiable information, although participants did have the option of giving an e-mail address if they wanted to participate in future studies or if they did not mind being contacted for any follow-up questions.

    A problem arises, however, in following participants across multiple studies.  This is somewhat related to longitudinal studies where repeated observations are collected over long periods of time from the same participants.  The purpose of such studies is to help distinguish actual effects from short-term causes.  However, longitudinal studies aren’t the only time researchers may want to track participants across time and across multiple studies.  That would also be useful to help me build a more complex, detailed picture of participants, even though I intend to be asking different questions in different surveys.

    While looking at other projects investigating World of Warcraft and motivation, I came across Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project, his old research project, and PlayOn, his new research project investigating social dimensions of virtual worlds.  I was quite surprised that, in at least one of his previous studies, he invited people to identify themselves by their e-mail addresses so that they could be tracked across his multiple studies.  Although I like Nick Yee’s work, I thought this approach was ethically incorrect.  The question is: how do you do it in a way that does not compromise the participants’ anonymity or their rights to privacy?

    I got an answer to this recently from an unexpected place: the virtual common room of associate lecturers at The Open University where the topic was anonymous feedback from students being used potentially as a performance measurement mechanism.  Many of the lecturers felt that anonymous data collection wasn’t reliable.  Fellow IDEAs Lab alumna  Diane Brewster chipped in to say that a large quantity of research data is collected anonymously.  I got in touch with her via Twitter and she gave me the following tip: ask participants to identify themselves using a combination of specific letters from their month of birth and digits from their mobile telephone number.

    Depending on the size of your participant pool, there might be some duplication.  However, if you choose your identifier tokens well, you can minimize that and still retain the desired anonymity.  Great tip, Diane.  Thanks a lot.  I will be putting this idea to use in my future survey work.