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Responsible use of information: Responsible use of data

Managing data

Research data can be a survey, a transcript of an interview, a spreadsheet, pictures, sound fragments and so forth. So it is clear you will come across research data during your studies. When you use the data of others it is important to reference them correctly: learn more about this in the module Citing Data. Also respect the provider of the data: the data may be shared with you under specific circumstances so do not forward this data without consent.

If you collect your own data, it is wise to consider data management planning. Data management refers to all aspects of creating, housing, delivering, maintaining, archiving and preserving data. It is one of the essential components of responsible conduct of research. The basis of good data management is to document and secure your research data during your studies. Document data in your logbook; pay attention to: names of variables, codebooks, software, file formats, filenames, folder structure and versioning. Store your data securely at SURFdrive. Watch the video The what, why and how of data management planning (5:30) from RDN (Research Data Netherlands) for more information.

Protecting respondents

Responsible use of data is particularly important when the data involves people. The ethical norm is that you, the researcher, do not harm your research subjects in any way or better still, that people who participate in the research benefit from the research (Mertens 2007:27). Ideally, you work with research subjects towards improving their situation or solving their problem. Two main elements of this consideration are:

  • Protecting the identity of respondents
    Protecting the identity of respondents is a matter of courtesy, safety, fairness and respect. National or international privacy legislation may determine what you are allowed to make public. More restrictive are conditions where adverse political circumstances force the researcher to take a more protective stance. The researcher has to ensure that information gained from respondents does not reach unauthorized persons, or cannot be derived from published data (as in categories with small numbers). Find more information on how to do this in the modules Anonymize data and How to safely use personal data.
  • Not to endanger the safety, health, or status of respondents
    When you have a fair understanding of the research topic, the proposed research and the context in which the research takes place you are in a better position to predict possible harmful effects which you want to avoid. You need to make a fair balance between the research interest and the possible risks for your respondents. In medical research a risk assessment is important and also the risks of withholding treatment (to a control group) have to be considered carefully. If there are indications that a treatment is successful, you may have to discontinue a carefully designed group comparison and start treating the control group. Sociological or anthropological surveys and participatory observation will require you to do a preparatory study before you can assess the impact of participatory observation.

Also consider how your own gender, social background, cultural values, etc. influence the safety, health or status of respondents by association, presence and interventions.

Another principle involved in research ethics is informed consent: getting permission from research subjects before you start your data collection, indicating that they understand and agree with your activities and its impact on them.

An example template form can be found under the related links on your right. Informed consent however involves more than a simple form and may require feedback and consultation from research subjects at various stages. Informed consent also implies respecting the respondent’s right to autonomy: being free to say “no” without consequences. Informed consent from children requires the consent of parents. Dealing with those who have been displaced requires extra care and empathy for emotional, psychological or physical trauma.

In medical research care should be taken that respondents may not fully comprehend the implications of complex procedures. It may also be unclear what the outcome of a medical test will mean in practical terms for a healthy respondent or ill patient. A researcher needs to manage the expectations for (experimental) treatment as research interests and treatment aspects get intertwined.

In social research and anthropology, researchers have to consider a social structure of which respondents are members. Interaction may take place through community representatives who have their own interests in the proposed research. This may complicate informing respondents of the purpose of the research. When respondents are dependent on community leaders they do not trust, the researcher has to anticipate mistrust and miscommunication problems. Finally, when the research involves working with translators, the researcher needs to be sensitive that the information as understood by the respondents may not correspond with the intended message as a result of cultural or linguistic differences.

Research data management and open data initiatives enable and promote re-use of primary data by different researchers, or generations of researchers. Data sharing allows other researchers to match, compare and analyze the data set. The advantage of data sharing is that academic research can be replicated more easily, verified by other researchers or matched with other research results.

Before sharing data, determine how the identity of respondents will be protected and whether identity can be linked directly to answers given by individuals. To separate the identity of the respondents from the answers given (at the earliest moment) you can keep a numbered list of respondents separate from numbered questionnaires and not include this in the data sharing environment. It should also be clear who gets access to which part of the shared data, for which purpose.

When a sponsor is involved, it should be clear who owns and has access to (certain parts of) the data. Sponsor ownership of the data may conflict with your independence as researcher and/or with the responsibilities towards respondents. Consider your rights to access and share data and the needs of your respondents before you sign a contract with a sponsor.


In the exercise File naming you will see several examples of file names. Answer the questions to assess how appropriate they are.

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