American Sociological Association

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?


If Johnson doesn't inform the public in some way, welfare recipients in her state and in any other states where these particular policies are adopted may suffer and state funds may be wasted. It is for this reason that she might want to talk about the public policy institute's initial findings. She might also want to reveal what appears to be the political nature of the contract cancellation both because it says something important about the current administration and because she may feel she has been wronged. Each is a separate ethical issue that she should probably not act on with consulting knowledgeable others and strategizing the minimize injury to herself, her profession and her colleagues.
Not only may she feel wronged, but she may also feel that her colleagues have been wronged. There may be those among them whose career advancement will be compromised by having to return the data. On the other hand, these same colleagues may have their job prospects diminished if she "goes public" rather than quietly discussing the experience. Johnson could copy the data and use this copy to publish from, but if she does, she puts herself and her colleagues at risk legally, may be putting their jobs in jeopardy, and engages in action with itself is of dubious ethical standing.

She should certainly investigate the grievance procedure at her institution and within the state bureaucracy. She should also immediately reread the contract and make sure that it says what she thinks it says. Blanket approval of access to data for purposes of publication in evaluations of this sort is unusual. If she is unsure of the meaning of the contract, she should seek competent advice. All this is advice after the fact. Close scrutiny of the contract up front and subsequent negotiation of problematic language or insistence on language that guarantees the integrity of the research process, along with consideration of the volatility of the topic of the evaluation might have made this whole situation avoidable.

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