Think Carefully Whether to Disclose Participating Firms or Departments

During the eight years that I conducted the world’s largest benchmark survey of law departments, I proudly listed in the Appendix the names of all the participating companies. (Actually, if they requested anonymity, I did not disclose their name, but few disallowed the listing.) I believed strongly that if other companies could see who is in their industry it could persuade them to take the survey (I produced three or four surveys a year, so later in the year potential participants could examine who was already in). No one wants to be part of a tiny survey; if many others have voted with their pencil, so to speak, it reassures others about the value of the survey and their anonymity in the crowd of aggregated findings.

However, when law firms reach out to companies to ask for numbers and attitudes about a topic, they almost never list the participating companies. They give summary data for their respondent’s demographics of size, country, and industry, but they do not name names. Sponsors shy away from disclosures that might cast them in a disparaging light. The worry that if few people would recognize the participants or would remark on the missing industry leaders, they might lose momentum. So, sponsors only mention the number of respondents or how that group was invited. The actual names get short (or no) shrift.

If you plan to catalogue the names of participating firms, you should state in your e-mail invitation (and, even, better, in the question that asks for the name of the company or law firm) that you will disclose the name unless they ask for it to be concealed.

A list of participants by name certainly builds credibility, if either many have signed up or industry notables are in the survey. Disclosure builds credibility and it enables readers to make a better estimate of how apposite the findings are for their own circumstances. If it is a one-shot survey you don’t have the argument that disclosure of participant names will help the next time you conduct the survey.

But disclosure of names can boomerang if much larger or much smaller potential participants don’t see any of their kindred or the sector of a potential participant is sparse, and therefore don’t take part. Also, if you disclose names, some of your plots might lose anonymity. For example, if you have surveyed law firms and publish names, everyone can figure out the largest firm and therefore on a scatterplot by number of lawyers know which firm it is.

In short, it is arguable whether listing participants entices or repels participants, whether it attracts or detracts. Regardless, I submit that reproducibility and transparency lean toward disclosure.

If you feel obliged to obtain permission from every participant that you intend to list, you fall into the brambles of tracking, negotiating, checking everything twice, and inevitably making a mistake. You will eventually list an entity that asked to be private! I told participants in my law department benchmark series that I would list their company unless they requested anonymity. Around ten percent wrote me to ask that I keep them anonymous, which set in motion all kinds of extra work for me.