The Power of Names: How to Anonymize People and Places in Academic Research

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If you’re knee-deep in shaping your research into a paper or an article, there may come a time when you have to hide the name of a person, a location, or an organization to protect their identity. You know it’s ethical to conceal identifying information, so such a situation is entirely expected, yet it can still be difficult to know how to approach it.

Before you submit your draft to our expert editors and proofreaders, you’ll have to come up with pseudonyms (if you haven’t been lucky enough to obtain the preferred ones of your research subjects). You might not be too concerned with this aspect of the piece you’re working on—after all, it can’t be terribly difficult to rename things, can it? 

Actually, it can be more difficult than you think. While there aren’t necessarily any “right” names, there are certainly wrong names that you should not use. In this post, we explore the nuances of anonymizing people and places in your research and the pitfalls to avoid.

The problem with renaming at random

You look around your workplace and start renaming people and organizations indiscriminately based on what you see. You spot the wilting plant in the corner of your office and dub the university you’re talking about in your paper Ficus University. You might as well stick to plants to keep it simple, so now your research subjects are Rose, Iris, Daisy, and Herb. Your case studies are Yarrow, Heather, and Hollyhock.

Done! You pat yourself on the back and move on to the essential stuff in your work, thrilled that the process of anonymization didn’t require much mental effort. Everything is perfectly anonymized, and the names can’t be traced to the real people and organizations, so you have done your job here, right?

While it’s easy to come up with random plant names, this approach can have consequences that you might not realize until you’re in too deep, at which point you’ll start kicking yourself for not considering the implications. For one thing, if you choose names based on an obvious theme, such as plants, this pattern may confuse your readers, who could assume there is more behind the naming scheme. If your paper is wholly unrelated to plants, the confusion will be even greater.

Another risk is that if you’re dealing with a large number of case studies or research participants, randomly renaming them can get confusing quite quickly for you as well. While perhaps whimsical and obviously anonymous, the names you choose won’t offer much information about the actual data, so they won’t really matter to your readers. However, they will matter to you because you need to be able to keep all your subjects straight even after randomizing them. 

4 questions to ask yourself when anonymizing

    • What does this name add to my analysis, if anything? Would it detract from any part of the paper or possibly confuse the reader?
    • How does this name relate to my other sources, data, and case studies? Is it possible to group them by pattern without hinting at identifying information or distracting the reader?
    • What do I want my readers to feel when they see the name, if anything? Are there any stereotypes or biases it could trigger?
    • Am I overcomplicating my work or distracting my readers by using names that are either too clever or too random? 

4 things to keep in mind about names 

While anonymizing may sound simple, it’s more complicated than it seems, but there are several strategies that can help you come up with great fictitious names. Once you have given some serious thought to the questions above, you can consider the following options the next time you find yourself racking your brain for names.

  1. Keep it simple: Don’t be afraid to embrace simplicity, like going with “Subject 1,” “Subject 2,” etc. Figure out whether it’s important to give the person in question a name at all. If it is essential for the analysis and beneficial to the work, then you obviously need to find an appropriate name. Otherwise, it might be best not to overcomplicate things so as not to distract from the research. If you’re following closely a particular subject’s story, you should give them a name to enhance reader engagement. In case you’re dealing with multiple subjects in your paper, naming them will help your audience tell them apart.
  1. Don’t use real names: Make sure you don’t use the names of anyone involved in the study, including nicknames or family names, and steer clear of the real names of schools, organizations, or locations. When you anonymize, avoid the names of any subject in your study, even if you’re assigning that name to a different subject. 

You might have to do some googling to make sure you’re in the clear and verify that you aren’t accidentally plagiarizing. Essentially, the names you choose should be entirely original, nowhere to be found among your subjects or in your source materials, which can seriously whittle down your list of potential names. If you want to be certain that you haven’t unwittingly used names from your source materials, get our editing package for academics, which helps you identify and eliminate plagiarism in your writing.

  1. Keep it in context: Choose names that make people feel real, and be sure to keep them in context. The best names will usually be common ones that your readers won’t bat an eye at—Sarah, Emily, Jacob, Brandon, etc. 

This is a good place to ask yourself about stereotypes. For example, are there names that people tend to take less seriously? What assumptions might readers make when they see names like Rain, Princess, or Tusk? Perhaps certain names also have cultural implications that might not be appropriate in the given context. Always be sensitive to bias and the ways readers could perceive the names you use. 

  1. Keep it relevant: If the work calls for it, be descriptive and stay relevant to the general location, chronology, age, gender, demographics, type of academic institution, etc. If a subject’s ethnicity or gender provides important context for their data, give them a fictitious name that communicates this information to the reader. If you’re not familiar enough with names from a given culture, a quick Google search will do the trick. 

In general, you want to make sure that the names you pick do the work you want them to do. For example, Crystal Bay College might imply a small school near the ocean. Southbend Technical Institute carries much different information from, say, Ivybridge Academy of Art and Design. 

The takeaway 

You have worked hard on your research, so don’t let this be the one area where you slack off. Anonymizing people, locations, and organizations in your paper doesn’t have to take all day, but the names you use should be deliberate choices. Names convey more information than many people realize, and your readers may end up with numerous expectations based on the impression a name gives. 

Hopefully, you can use this resource as a jump-off point the next time you are faced with a naming quandary. If you’re unsure whether your chosen names are appropriate, get an editing quote from us and let our experts help you deliver impactful, original work. 

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