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Case 04. Misuse of Data


Dr. Elizabeth Johnson is a sociologist who heads a public policy institute within a large state university. The institute wins the state contract to evaluate new state welfare initiatives. The contract stipulates that the social scientists associated with the institute, who make up the evaluation team, will be able to use the data for their own research in addition to using it as the basis for specific state mandated evaluation studies. The initial evaluation studies of the state experiment in welfare reform show no reduction in the number of welfare recipients and suggest some unexpected and dysfunctional aspects of specific aspects of the experiment. In response to these findings the director of the state Department of Health and Human Services writes a letter to the public policy institute nullifying the evaluation contract and directing Johnson to return the data to the state within two weeks. Johnson protests to the Chancellor of his institution who directs her to comply.


  1. Does Elizabeth Johnson have an obligation to inform the public of her initial findings about the impact of the experiment in welfare reform on welfare recipients?
  2. If she does have such an obligation, what action should she take?
  3. How should she go about making this decision? Who might she consult?
  4. Dr. Johnson also feels that the Chancellor should have backed her up? Does she have any ethical obligation with respect to the Chancellor's behavior?
  5. Does Dr. Johnson have any ethical obligations with regard to her colleagues at the public policy institute?
  6. Dr. Johnson knows that the state needs to have the welfare experiment evaluated and will have to find other social scientists to do the evaluation, does she have any obligation to share her experience with these researchers?

Reflect on the above questions and form your own answers before clicking the Discussion key to review the commentary provided with this case.