Joanne Wilson’s thoughts on secondary data analysis (Letters, January 2012) highlight why such an approach can complement many research projects. Secondary sources can initially be difficult to locate, but my own experience would suggest that these are easier to access than one might expect. The Freedom of Information Act has probably done a lot to help improve request procedures.
Many large organisations now have dedicated members of staff who deal specifically with research data requests. For example, I have often been paired up with a senior researcher or statistician who can help in refining my research question and locating the exact data required. These informal exchanges also cover ethical and related data-protection issues. Cherry-picking is unlikely because a solid case has to be made for any data to be released. Handing over an entire government data set for example, would prove unmanageable and unethical.
Secondary data analysis can be particularly useful for extrapolating experimental findings beyond the laboratory. It can also give hints as to whether a particular idea is worth pursuing further. These two aspects alone mean that such resources represent a fantastic opportunity for psychologists working in a variety of specialities. My advice to those considering an enquiry is to simply ask. Having made several requests over the course of my PhD, I have yet to receive a flat-out ‘no’.
David A. Ellis
University of Glasgow