Monthly Archives: May 2015

Can I really share that? Working with sensitive and confidential data

In my work as Research Data Management Librarian I often meet researchers who are concerned with the difficulties of sharing confidential or sensitive data. In this post I’m going to go through a few tips and point to some resources which I hope will help anyone working with this kind of data.

Plan ahead

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Even sensitive and confidential data can be shared ethically and legally if researchers pay attention, from the beginning of the research, to three important aspects:

  • when gaining valid consent, include provision for data sharing
  • where needed, protect people’s identities by anonymising data
  • consider controlling access to data

Gaining valid consent

You are probably already used to obtaining valid consent for people to participate in research and for use of the information collected but you should (where possible) also obtain consent for any future uses of data. At a minimum, consent forms shouldn’t preclude data sharing, such as by promising to destroy data unnecessarily.

With this is mind, before collecting data you should always:

  • inform participants how research data will be stored, preserved and used in the long term
  • inform participants how confidentiality will be maintained, e.g. anonymisation
  • obtain valid consent, either written or verbal for data sharing

The following short video, prepared by the University of Edinburgh for their excellent online MANTRA training course details the experiences of one University of Edinburgh researcher obtaining consent for data sharing (also available on Youtube)

Protecting identities

Anonymity Thomas Hawk CC-BY-NC 2.0

Anonymity by Thomas Hawk (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Anonymisation can be time-consuming and costly, particularly for qualitative textual data. This is especially true if anonymisation is not planned early in the research or left until the end of the project. Planning ahead will ensure that you are aware of the costs and time involved in anonymisation, and you may be able to include these costs in your bid for external funding.

I am often asked is  whether it is possible to ethically share audio-visual research data. While digital manipulation of this type of data is possible, it is labour-intensive, expensive and will often result in damage to the value of the research data. In most cases, the best way to share this type of data is to obtain consent from research participants to share the data unaltered, with additional access controls if necessary.

Another method of avoiding disclosure of sensitive, confidential or personal data without having to carry out costly anonymisation procedures, is to simply not collect it – so think carefully about how you word your interviews and surveys and which data you really need.

Regulating access

Sometimes the best way to safeguard sensitive and confidential data is by controlling access. While some data may not be suitable for public access, you might still want to allow access for educational or research purposes.

Ways of restricting access include:

  • requiring a registration process to apply for access
  • placing data under embargo for a given period of time
  • providing access to approved researchers only
  • providing secure access to data through enabling remote analysis of data but excluding the ability to download
  • providing on-site access only

What next?

The following resources may be of use to anyone working, or planning to work with sensitive, confidential or personal research data.

A platform for our research

The ORO Report for Quarter 3 2014/15 is available here: ORO 2015 Q3 Report

Key headlines are:

  • 562 deposits
  • 38% of deposits were Open Access 
  • 323,908 downloads of OU research publications
  • 122,421 unique site visitors
  • ORO was ranked 6th of 149 UK Repositories in latest Ranking Web of Repositories list (January 2015)

The report shows the benefit ORO provides as a platform for OU research.

Training opportunity: Research Data Management

Early Bird Seminar: Getting to Grips with Research Data Management
Wednesday 3rd June 2015: 9.30-11.00
Research Meeting Room, Library 2nd Floor
data word clood

 Whether you’re conducting interviews, collecting samples, creating software or analyzing texts, your research data is a valuable asset which should be managed properly and made publicly available alongside your other research outputs wherever possible.  This session will give an introduction to the basics of research data management: what it is, why it’s important and ways that you can embed research data management into your everyday working practice.

 This session is open to anyone who collects/creates/works with research data (academics, researchers, research students).

 Please enrol directly by using the Staff Learning Management System (LMS)  (Please note: LMS does not work well with Chrome).  Select ‘Search and register for scheduled learning events and waiting lists’, highlight ‘IET classes’, Look for code: IET/RC/EBS, Date: 03/06/15

If you are a part-time research student, please contact

April Downloads

Top ORO Downloads in April can be found below:

2015-04-Monthly Downloads

PDF is here 2015-04-Monthly Downloads

March counts (which I forgot to post last month!) are here 2015-03-Monthly Downloads.

What these counts indicate to me is the value that ORO provides to particular faculties (FBL, FELS & IET). These faculties aren’t served by an established subject repository like arxiv or repec.  So I’m thinking it’s researchers in these faculties that have the most to gain from an Institutional Repository like ORO.