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Citations versus attributions

If you’re presenting comments from research participants in your work, consider whether you should cite or attribute the comments. Citations require you to have participants’ consent to put their comments on record and to name them in citations. If you have that consent, participant comments can be considered personal communication and cited as such e.g., (A. Charles, personal communication, January 23, 2018). If you’re going to cite a research participant, it’s good practice to share the text with the individual before publishing it and to obtain their written permission to use the material in the work (Lee & Hume-Pratch, 2013, para. 9).

If you promised anonymity to your research subjects, it isn’t possible to maintain anonymity in citations so another approach is needed. Attributing research data by using pseudonyms associates comments to specific individuals without revealing identities; for example, “Participant A noted that…, whereas Participant C disagreed because…”. Since neither personal communication nor attributions are connected to recoverable data, references aren't needed for either approach.

Ensuring your subjects remain anonymous requires more masking than just leaving names out of your text. As per Lee and Hume-Pratuch (2013),

Strategies for the ethical use of data from research participants include the following:

  • referring to participants by identifiers other than their names, such as
    • pseudonyms or nicknames,
    • initials,
    • descriptive phrases,
    • case numbers, or
    • letters of the alphabet;
  • altering certain participant characteristics in your discussion of the participants (e.g., make the characteristics more general, such as saying “European” instead of “French”);
  • leaving out unimportant identifying details about the participant;
  • adding extraneous material to obscure case details; and
  • combining the statements of several participants into a “composite” participant. (para. 5)

If you’re unsure whether to use citations or attributions in your work, please check with your academic supervisor or journal editor. For more information on discussing primary research data, please see “Let’s Talk About Research Participants” (Lee & Hume-Pratuch, 2013) in the APA Style Blog.

Do you have questions about this writing tip or any other writing matter? Please contact the Writing Centre as we’d be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Writing Centre Manager

(Originally published in Crossroads January 31, 2018)


Lee, C., & Hume-Pratuch, J. (2013, August 22). Let’s talk about research participants [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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