Wednesday, 15 November 2017

What's in a (porn star) name, for identifying survey respondents?

In social science research, we usually want to maintain the confidentiality and anonymity of the respondents to our surveys and interviews. However, there are times when we will want to follow up with respondents at some later date, and if the first round of surveys was anonymous it is impossible to match up the first round respondents' responses with the later responses. So, I was interested to read this short 2011 article (open access) by Megan Lim, Anna Bowring, Judy Gold, and Margaret Hellard (all from the Burnet Institute in Melbourne), published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

In the article, the authors discuss asking each survey respondent what their "porn star" name is. They explain:
"We trialed the uniqueness and reliability of a novel identifying characteristic: first pet's name and first street - colloquially known as a "porn star name".
The authors provide a table of examples of porn star names, of which 'Honey Scotsburn' and 'Precious Duckholes' were two (I'm not making this up - check the paper). They then go on to test whether they could match respondents from a baseline and follow-up survey based on the porn star name. Porn star names were unique to 99% of their 1281 respondents to the baseline survey, and adding month/year of birth was enough to provide 100% uniqueness. When re-contacted later, they were able to match 76% of respondents between the two surveys using only the porn star name, and using month/year of birth they could further match 96% of those who provided a partially-consistent porn star name.

It seems this is a pretty unique way of matching respondents between waves of a survey while maintaining plausible anonymity for those respondents. However, the authors note that "calling the identifier a PSN... might also have made the question seem trivial to some participants and resulted in false responses". Of course, this could all be a joke - Lim and Hellard were also two co-authors on research about the survival of teaspoons. Even if this paper was taken seriously (and it could be, since it addresses a real issue), it seems the research community isn't interested - this paper has only been cited twice since it was published in 2011.

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