Confidentiality vs Anonymity

Confidentiality vs Anonymity

When conducting research and collecting data (particularly through survey tools), researchers often claim that the research will be conducted anonymously or confidentially.

There are distinct differences between the two terms and the researcher should be clear about their claim. The difference between the two claims can be very important for the participant, their protection, and their willingness to participate in the project.


Claiming that a project or data collection is anonymous means two things:

1. The project does not collect any unique identifiers of individual subjects (e.g., name, address, Email address, SS#, phone number, etc.)
2. The project does not collect any identifiers that combined would allow an individual to be identified. For example, age alone is not a unique identifier, but the combination of demographics like age, gender, major, living learning community participation, honors program participation, number of semesters at Roanoke could allow a participate to be identified.

If data is in any way identifiable or can be connected to the participant (directly or indirectly, even if only by the researchers), the data collection process cannot make the claim of being anonymous.


Claiming that information collected will be kept confidential means that only the investigator(s) or co-investigator(s) will ever be able to identify the responses of individual subjects. This means that data will never be reported in a way that allows an individual respondent's identity to be known or tied to their responses.
This clarification of terms does not mean that no unique identifiers should ever be collected. Rather, this clarification of terms is designed to provide a greater level of precision when communicating with research participants. It is important to understand the claims that you are making regarding their responses. In general, participants are at greater risk when their responses can be tied to their identity. Typically, it is best to collect only the data that is necessary to complete the research objective.

This resource was developed in part using material from:

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. (2016). Protecting Confidentiality & Anonymity. Retrieved from
The City University of New York. (2012). Anonymity vs Confidentiality. Retrieved from
Texas A&M University. (2012). Consent information. Retrieved from