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Research Ethics & Compliance: Guidance on Masking Partner Organizations in Walden Capstone Documents

Guidance on Masking Partner Organizations in Walden Capstone Documents

 

Naming partner organizations in Walden scholar-practitioner capstones is discouraged for a number of reasons. One is that it increases the likelihood that the researcher could be subject to pressures to withhold findings that could reflect poorly on the organization. Even if no such pressures are exerted by the organization, naming the organization in the capstone allows external perceptions that perhaps the organization influenced the framing of findings. Our rigorous scholar-practitioner model requires that researchers seek and apply both negative and positive findings (rather than just looking for and sharing evidence of successes). This pursuit of accurate findings requires honest engagement from participants, and from organization leaders, which in turn requires that they do not fear professional retaliation, negative publicity, or loss of support. Thus, masking the name of the organization is one of the best ways to obtain honest responses and engagement from participants and uphold the study’s integrity.  

 

Further, our ethical standards require that our researchers take measures to protect the identities of individual participants who provide survey or interview data for analysis, so that they are not subject to risks such as professional retaliation or perceptions of that threat. Masking the organization’s identity is one of several ways that a researcher can protect the identity of individual participants.

 

However, in some cases naming the organization is justifiable or might be unavoidable. [Such exceptions need to be approved by the Program Director and confirmed by the IRB.]

 

An exception to the organization-masking standard can be requested in the following cases:

  1. when the organization is so unique that it is impossible to describe without divulging the identity of the organization (i.e., the Wounded Warrior Program, the NFL, the VA)
  2. when the findings cannot be interpreted without disclosing contextual details such as a local law or proximity to a border, etc.
  3. when the student’s professional role makes the identity of the partner organization obvious (i.e., such as when management of dual roles is discussed in the capstone and the student’s professional role is public)
  4. when the participants are elected officials (since they are not typically offered the same privacy protections as other participants)

 

In these exceptional cases, the student may be permitted to disclose the organization name only if the final capstone is confirmed by the chair as meeting all the following criteria:

  1. the capstone withholds demographic details, participant titles/positions, location details, quotations, and all other descriptions that might render any individual participant identifiable
  2. the organization agrees in writing to being named (typically addressed in the organization’s Letter of Cooperation or Data Use Agreement before data collection but can possibly be modified by an addendum after data collection)
  3. naming the organization is consistent with the information participants were given during the informed consent process (i.e., participants were NOT told that organization/location info would be withheld; this cannot be modified after data collection)
  4. the topic and data discussed in the study don’t generate more-than-minimal risk for the participants (check with IRB if unsure)
  5. applicable when an organization has multiple locations: the researcher should not disclose which location provided the data (i.e., if the partner organization is the VA, then don’t disclose which VA location was part of the study)

Definitions relevant to Walden’s practice of masking identity of partner organizations:

 

Partner organization = Organization that provides access to data specifically for that capstone (e.g., releasing a private dataset or permitting surveys, interviews, or other original data collection from members/clients/students/patients of the organization).

 

When possible, the identity of the partner organization should be masked in a capstone. When not possible, the researcher can request an exception from the Program Director and IRB. Note that for studies that only analyze public records, there is no partner organization. For these analyses of public records, there is no problem with naming the location or entity that created the dataset because it is not functioning as a partner organization to provide data specifically for that capstone.

 

Location = The city, county, province, state, region, or country that is relevant to the study.

 

For many social science studies, it is sufficient to describe the region of the data source(s) without stating the specific location. However, for studies related to policy, government, and the like, naming the location in the capstone is relevant and appropriate as long as it isn’t so specific that it renders particular participants identifiable. In those cases, the researcher might need to withhold descriptors of participants such as titles, demographics, etc. to ensure that participants are not identifiable. (Check with the IRB if unsure.) It is important to inform participants in advance (via the informed consent process) if their location might be shared in the final study. It is not a problem to name the location in analysis of public records.

 

Target organization = When an organization’s actions or policies are the focus of the study but that organization is not involved in providing data for the study.

 

Some studies focus on the outcomes related to a particular organization’s actions or policies (typically government entities). In these cases, the name of the organization does not need to be masked unless the organization is also functioning as a partner organization to provide access to data or participants (see above). If a researcher obtains data or recruits participants via public means only, then it is acceptable to name the organization (though specific locations typically shouldn’t be named, for the sake of protecting the identities of individual participants). However, even in these cases it is sometimes a good idea to mask the name of the target organization if the topic is sensitive enough that the data collection poses more-than-minimal professional risks to participants.

 

Partner site = Refers to the specific location of the office/branch within a larger partner organization that cooperated with the study (e.g., the Atlanta VA as opposed to the VA, which is the larger partner organization).

 

The specific partner site should not be named unless an exception has been granted by the Program Director and IRB (which can apply in situations in which the organization is so unique that it is impossible to mask, and because the site doesn’t object to being named, and because naming of the site poses no more than minimal risk to participants).