Academic journal article Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education

Survey Confidentiality vs. Anonymity: Young Men's Self-Reported Substance Use

Academic journal article Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education

Survey Confidentiality vs. Anonymity: Young Men's Self-Reported Substance Use

Article excerpt


A key concern in the literature on survey validity is how the absence of anonymity affects responses to questions regarding sensitive personal issues. This paper reports on an experiment conducted to see if respondents who provided their identification to researchers would be as forthcoming regarding substance use as anonymous respondents from the same population. A sample of 1811 male entrants into a U.S. military branch (mean age= 18.9 years), using self-administered questionnaires, provided self-reports of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use. Confidential identification codes were visible on 1507 instruments, and absent of 304 instruments. No statistically significant differences were found between the 2 groups' self-reported substance use over the previous 12 months. The findings suggest that the lack of total anonymity in the confidential mode of survey administration does not necessarily impede the same kind of self-reports of alcohol, tobacco and other drug consumption given anonymously.

[Keywords: Survey Methods, Data Collection, Alcohol Consumption, Tobacco, Illicit Drugs]


How does the absence of anonymity affect the quality of responses to survey questions regarding sensitive personal issues, or issues that if exposed, could put an individual respondent at risk? This paper seeks to answer that question by reporting on the outcome of an experiment conducted in a population of young adult males entering a military workforce to assess whether the presence or absence of anonymity within a confidential survey would influence disclosure of rates of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use.

Survey expert Don Dillman has described confidentiality as "an ethical commitment not to release results in a way that any individual's responses can be identified as their own." Dillman adds that "Only when the sponsor cannot identify each person's response, even momentarily, is it appropriate to promise that a response is anonymous" (Dillman, 2000, p. 163). In other words, confidential respondents are known only to the researchers, and anonymous respondents are not identifiable even by the researchers.

A review of the literature comparing modes of survey administration indicated that self-reported alcohol or drug use varies in accuracy, depending upon how questions are administered (Harrison & Hughes, 1997; Gmel, 2000; Kraus & Augustin, 2001). For example, Hamid, Deren, Beardsley, & Tortu, 1999) found that respondents were much more likely to report drug use after rather than before undergoing a urine test.

It is beyond the scope of this article to review the inconsistencies of estimating substance use including methods other than self-reports (such as collateral accounts, sales records, etc.), but such studies are plentiful (Longford, Ely, Hardy, & Wadsworth, 2000). A classic review article on the validity of alcohol consumption self-reports (Midanik, 1982) suggests that under-reporting may result from denial or failure to recall (especially in response to questions on longer timeframes). However, Midanik (1982) also mentions youthful bragging as the source of over-reporting of some drug use. Other data sources for establishing validity of self-reported substance use, such as collateral reports, official or archival records, or alcohol sales data, are not necessarily more accurate than self-reports to establish consumption rates or the number of substance-related problems (Midanik, 1982).

Even in anonymous surveys, social acceptability can influence responses (Embree and Whitehead, 1993; Kraus and Augustin, 2001). In sensitive domains, including self-reported substance use and sexual behavior, comparisons of anonymous and confidential survey administration have indicated some differences in response rates, even if the responses themselves did not differ significantly by mode (Seigal et al. …

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