Privacy in research

An anonymous dog turd

Photography: Judith Jockel

When conducting experiments on human subjects, researchers often collect privacy-sensitive information. That is why it is mandatory for them to draw up a data management plan stating what data they intend to collect and how they will be managing it. This includes data on dog turds.

Evelien Bos (24) wanted to work with animals even as a little girl, but she was not keen on cutting them open. So she decided to study Animal Sciences at WUR rather than veterinary science. After she graduated, she soon found work in the R&D department of animal food producer Prins Petfoods in Veenendaal. “When I heard about the PhD project ‘In-home testing for quality of pet foods’, developing a quality check for dry dog food, everyone agreed it was tailor-made for me. So I switched jobs last year and started on my PhD.”

In Evelien’s PhD study ‘The Golden Dog Turd’, dog owners are given dry dog food and in return they hand over their dog’s faeces. For two weeks, the dog owners have to collect all the faeces from their pet and store it for analysis. They also have to stop giving their dog any snacks other than the daily dose of dry dog food for that two-week period. Evelien: “The aim is to come up with a home test for the market that is a good test of the quality of the pet food and that every pet food company can use.”

Collaborating with dog owners

Like all other researchers at Wageningen University & Research, Evelien started by drawing up the mandatory data management plan (DMP). In this plan, researchers have to specify how much data they will be recording, for what purpose and how they will be collecting, processing and storing the data. Because Evelien’s study involves collaboration with dog owners, the PhD candidate has to deal with privacy issues and the stringent requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

In the data management plan, researchers have to specify how much data they will be recording
‘The privacy regulations say we mustn’t request unnecessary data’

Evelien says the most important thing in the DMP was to determine in advance the scope of the study. “As a researcher, you want as comprehensive a picture as possible but the privacy regulations say we mustn’t request unnecessary data.” A risk analysis was conducted within WUR together with privacy officer Rita Hoving to make sure Evelien had satisfied all the conditions. Evelien: “I discussed with her what data I needed and how risky it was to collect that data.”

Paw print

Evelien is sticking meticulously to the rules. Participants give their consent for the use of the data they have filled in for the study. Afterwards too, they are asked to give permission to be updated about the results of the study. Evelien added her own tongue-in-cheek rule: “In my study, the dog has to give its consent too. I’ve drawn up a certificate of participation that requires the dog’s paw print.”

The PhD candidate is also very careful in what she does with privacy-sensitive information from the participants in the study. “When I visit a participant, I always hide forms with the names of the previous participants I visited firmly away in my bag. I never say anything to participants about the neighbourhoods where I’ve done research. I aim for maximum anonymity.”

Untraceable

That anonymity also applies to the database of participants. “All data from the laboratory and other analyses is recorded using numbers that can’t be traced to the participant, rather than with the name of the dog or the owner. Questionnaires used for obtaining data from the pet owners before, during and after a study are filled in using an online system that WUR has approved as sufficiently secure and watertight. That is a safeguard for the information that is filled in.”

This is very different to how researchers used to deal with data, says Guido Bosch, an assistant professor and Evelien’s supervisor. “It starts with the data storage. In the past, data was stored physically in an actual filing cabinet; now it is stored digitally.” Of course ethics and integrity have always been a part of the work at the university. Bosch: “But we have better systems now for safeguarding that integrity. For example, we used to have informed consent in the past too [a form in which test subjects declared they were aware of any risks, ed.] but the verification procedure for this is a lot better now thanks to the privacy officer, who you can ask for advice.”

‘Of course pets are an incredibly appealing subject for Instagram’

One issue that can arise in the course of the research is the use of social media. Evelien: “Of course pets are an incredibly appealing subject for Instagram, even more so when it’s a pet that is taking part in a scientific study. Theoretically that can mean you lose some anonymity because someone has posted something about their participation. But that doesn’t always have to be negative.”

That is why Evelien has no plans to forbid the participants in her research from posting items on social media. “One of my aims is to bridge the gap between the scientific world and the general public by involving ordinary people more in my research. Social media can be a really good tool for that, so as far as I’m concerned, people can share the fact that they are taking part in this study. I was initially intending to use Instagram myself but I decided against it in the end.”

Evelien did not find drawing up the DMP for this research project much work and it didn’t feel like a box-ticking exercise either. “The chair group has a protocol for this. That increases awareness in PhD candidates.”

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