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Finding Social Science Data for Research : Restricted Data

This research guide provides an introduction to using campus resources, government agencies, and consortia like ICPSR for finding and obtaining social science data.

What is Restricted Data?

Data sets made available for public-use contain observations that have been de-identified. This means that certain data elements (which would make it possible and/or easier to identify a respondent) have been removed from an administrative record or survey response. These elements are considered restricted data and include the following:

  • Geographical locations (county, city, zip code, etc.).
  • Personal identifiers (SSN) or other federal agency administrative data
  • Educational outcome data (grades, test scores).
  • Responses to sensitive questions (relationship, illicit/criminal behaviors)
  • Healthcare data (disease diagnosis, treatments, DNA)

However, such data offers potential for important and innovative research. Therefore, the government and the University want to be sure that restricted data is handled in a way that will safeguard the respondents/research subjects while allowing access to research which benefits our society as a whole. Files containing the confidential information listed above are available to researchers only under certain conditions and agreements. 

Acquire Restricted Data

What you will need to acquire restricted data:

  1. Principle investigator: Data providers require graduate students to be supervised by someone with faculty status before they will give you access to their restricted data files. Before you begin the process of applying for a restricted data file, work with your advisor or a faculty member on your dissertation committee who will be willing to act as the Principle Investigator/Principle Project Officer for your project.
  2. Institutional Review Board (IRB): Almost all social science research involves data collected from or about human subjects. By law, the University must insure that such research is conducted in a manner that will minimize the risk of harm to the research subject. Even when the research involves the use of a secondary data resource (not the actual collection of data from a human subject), the University wants to be sure that such research will treat the data in a way that ensures the protection of both participants and the University community. When using restricted data you will need to apply for an IRB protocol from the Education and Social/Behavioral Sciences IRB. In your application you will be asked what data you will use, how the data will be secured, and how you will protect the interests of the participants.
  3. Legal authority (Research and Sponsored Projects/Dean’s office): When you enter into an agreement with a data provider to use restricted data you are signing a contract with the provider. These contracts stipulate not only how you will use the data, but also sets forth requirements for the institution. You do not have the authority to enter into such an agreement. Each school on campus has an office or an official who possess the authority to enter into agreements with outside organization. For L&S, I work with attorneys at the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects.
  4. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 [HIPAA]: When your research involves data collected from or by a health care organization your research may be impacted by the requirements of HIPAA. HIPAA requirements set forth a unique set of rules for how health care information may be used (in both a research and health care setting). When using HIPAA data please be aware that you will need to work with the Office of Cybersecurity and the UW Office of Compliance to get permission for your research.

Human Subjects Training

The University offers a free Human Subjects training module that will introduce you to the important legal and ethical concerns which using restricted data may encompass. If you are a doctoral student and plan on using restricted data, or plan on collecting your own data, we highly recommended that you complete this training.To learn more about who should take the training and how to access the training module see: Human Participants Research Training

Wisconsin Research Data Center (WiscRDC)

WiscRDC is a branch site in the U.S. Census Bureau's secure Research Data Center (RDC) program on the UW-Madison campus. RDCs make available to qualified researchers otherwise confidential microdata from the Census Bureau, the IRS, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).