ICPSR Access Policy Framework

Version 3 -- August 13, 2018
Updated by the ICPSR Data Stewardship Policy Committee

1. Overview

This policy focuses on ICPSR's mission in providing access to data for social and behavioral science research and instruction. The policy describes ICPSR's mandate in this area, the objectives and scope of the endeavor, the guiding principles, and related risks and challenges. The appendices provide additional information on access rules, roles and responsibilities, and related links.

2. Purpose

Providing access to digital resources for purposes of scientific inquiry is at the heart of the organization's mission:

ICPSR advances and expands social and behavioral research, acting as a global leader in data stewardship and providing rich data resources and responsive educational opportunities for present and future generations.

The notion of access to data and what access means has changed as ICPSR has evolved and grown. When the organization was established in 1962 with the express goal of sharing and providing access to quantitative social science data, most ICPSR data users were Consortium members. Over the decades, the user community has expanded as external sponsors have capitalized on the infrastructure of ICPSR to provide free public access to their data through topically-themed archives. The openICPSR service also provides open access to data.

In addition to the member-nonmember dimension to access, ICPSR deals with access levels along a continuum from public-use to various forms of restricted-use, which is another important distinction. It is also the case that the stakeholders for data access are many and varied: researchers, policymakers, practitioners, instructors, students, and sponsoring agencies and foundations all use or support the use of ICPSR resources. For these reasons, it is essential that ICPSR establish a clear and transparent access policy to support its data access and dissemination activities.

This policy is intended to coordinate with ICPSR's policies covering digital preservation, data acquisition, and deposit. It also serves as a component of the organization's response to assessing compliance with the Trustworthy Repositories Audit and Certification (TRAC) guidelines.

3. Mandate

ISR and the University of Michigan

ICPSR is a unit of the Institute for Social Research (ISR) at the University of Michigan. It operates within ISR under the terms of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that defines ICPSR's relationship with ISR and the University of Michigan. ICPSR's mission to provide access to data for research and instruction is in keeping with the scholarly and educational missions of both ISR and the University of Michigan.

ICPSR Constitution

As a membership-based consortium, ICPSR has a Constitution and a set of Bylaws that describe its organizational identity, membership and governance structure, stakeholders, and organizational procedures. The Constitution lays out ICPSR's mandate to provide access to data resources:

Article II. Purposes
The purposes of the ICPSR are to promote and facilitate research and instruction in the social sciences and related areas, by acquiring, developing, archiving, and disseminating data and documentation for instruction and research; conducting related instructional programs; conducting such other activities as may be authorized in accord with the Bylaws; and obtaining the resources necessary to accomplish these purposes.


ICPSR enters into contracts, inter-agency agreements, and grants with government agencies, foundations, and other funders to distribute data on behalf of the sponsoring entities. Thus, legal obligations to sponsors provide another aspect of ICPSR's mandate to provide access to data resources.

National Laws

Also relevant to ICPSR's access policy are national laws, statutes, and codes related to the privacy and protection of research participants. Of particular note is the federal regulation on Protection of Human Subjects (45 CFR 46). Institutions bear the responsibility for compliance with 45 CFR 46. Every university must file an “assurance of compliance” with the Office for Human Research Protections that includes “a statement of ethical principles to be followed in protecting human subjects of research.” University Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) review research to address these issues. Other relevant U.S. laws include the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA); the Federal Confidentiality Order; and the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act of 2002 (CIPSEA).

International Laws

As ICPSR's data users and data depositors extend beyond the United States, a wide range of country-specific laws governing data access and privacy may also be applicable in some circumstances.

4. Objectives

ICPSR's commitment to access has the following objectives:

  • Support the repository's Designated Community: researchers, students, practitioners, and other users who need to obtain access to the ICPSR archive of social and behavioral science data
  • Ensure uninterrupted access to data resources over time through technology changes
  • Assist researchers in compliance with requirements to make data available
  • Provide access to digital holdings in a manner consistent with the protection of the privacy of survey participants
  • Support the objectives of sponsoring agencies that have legal arrangements with ICPSR to make their data resources available to a wide audience
  • Facilitate collaborations around access to data

5. Scope

This policy covers access to the entirety of the ICPSR holdings and other products by the ICPSR Designated Community -- social science researchers, graduate students, undergraduates, policymakers, and practitioners, as well as newer categories of users such as journalists.

6. Access Levels

In keeping with the objectives above and its commitment to enduring access, ICPSR's repository commits to offering various levels of access to data and data-related resources, consistent with deposit agreements for stored objects. Further, the repository commits to acquire public-use data whenever possible and when feasible may take the initiative to create public-use files from restricted-use collections to enable some degree of public access. When this is not possible, the repository selects the least restrictive option for access, recognizing that the protection of human subjects is paramount. The ICPSR Authentication and Authorization Rules document provides additional detail on access rules and levels as well as authentication and authorization.

7. Operating Principles

ICPSR is guided by the following principles in delivering access to its digital content:

  • To provide access to data and other resources in as open a manner as possible without compromising the privacy of survey participants, balancing access and protection.
  • To decrease barriers to access through: (1) providing multiple access options in terms of technical formats and access mechanisms for restricted-use data; (2) continuing innovation with respect to user experience on the ICPSR Web sites.
  • To use existing community-oriented open access licenses such as Creative Commons whenever possible.
  • To comply with community standards for access, most notably the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) Reference Model.
  • To meet the needs of the Designated Community with respect to the topical coverage of the digital content delivered.
  • To use a standards-based approach in terms of data and documentation format so as to promote interoperability and long-term preservation. For example, ICPSR currently uses MARC record and Data Documentation Initiative (DDI) formats for its metadata records.

8. Roles and Responsibilities

Several groups within and external to ICPSR play important roles in access:

  • Data Stewardship Policy Committee. One of the standing committees at ICPSR, the Data Stewardship Policy Committee meets regularly to review, update, and recommend changes to policies relating to stewardship, including ICPSR's access policies, strategies, and services.
  • Web Design Team, and Information and Technology Unit. These two groups design and implement the functionality for access via the ICPSR Web site as well as the look and feel of the access tools. Both groups focus on promoting access by creating a web environment that is stable/reliable, consistent, accessible to differently abled users, and usable.
  • Project Management and User Support Unit, and Curation Unit. These units initiate, provide oversight, review, and approve changes to the existing study processing procedures.
  • Archive Directors. These individuals at ICPSR carry out requests of the sponsors and funding agencies with respect to ensuring access to the data that the topical archives make available. Some topical archives distribute confidential data, and it is the role of the topical archive directors and managers to authorize release of these data.
  • ICPSR Official Representatives and Designated Representatives. These individuals support and promote access to ICPSR data on their local campuses.
  • Data Producers. During the period of negotiation between the data producer and ICPSR, access conditions are discussed. Some producers of sensitive or confidential data mandate strict access constraints for their data. It is the role of the data producer to specify access permissions as part of the deposit agreement, often in consultation with ICPSR staff.
  • Curation staff. The ICPSR curation staff curates deposited data and assesses which components of the data should be distributed. They also conduct disclosure reviews while processing data and notify data producers of identified risks in order to discuss options for how to minimize them, including increasing the access security for the data.
  • Metadata and Preservation Unit. This unit is responsible for formulating policies related to ICPSR's preservation mission.
  • Data Users. Users of ICPSR data have the responsibility to uphold the Terms of Use under which they obtained access to the data. In the case of restricted-use data, it is their responsibility as well as the responsibility of the institutional signatories to comply with the legal data use agreement they entered into with ICPSR.
  • Strategy Group. The Strategy Group is charged with discussing and deciding policy and resource allocation issues for the organization as a whole in accordance with the strategic plan.

9. Challenges and Risks

Like other digital repositories, ICPSR faces risks and challenges in disseminating data in the age of the Internet. Maintaining a revenue stream sufficient to support long-term access in a competitive world, meeting the changing research needs of the community, and staying abreast of technology are key challenges. Providing access in as open a manner as possible while adhering to necessary constraints on access is another ongoing challenge.

Funding the Access Mission

ICPSR maintains a diversified revenue stream with funding from both member dues and grants and contracts, and this funding model has proven to be a successful and sustainable one over the five decades that ICPSR has been in existence. Nevertheless, this model is not without its challenges. Member dues revenue tends to be stable but does not increase significantly from year to year. Revenue from grants and contracts can fluctuate, and maintaining this funding stream requires diligence in identifying new revenue sources. It is an ongoing challenge to ensure reliable funding to support access to a growing archive of data. Along with other domain repositories, ICPSR advocates for more reliable funding mechanisms for repositories and archives.

Barriers to Access

While many current initiatives call for free access to data with no restrictions on use or distribution, a substantial portion of ICPSR's data has some access constraints. The organization has determined that there are important reasons why ICPSR must actively control access to its data, even if these controls appear to be barriers to access. These reasons relate to ICPSR's commitment to ethical social science norms and to the funding required for ICPSR to pursue its mission into the future, as discussed above.

Content Needs of Designated Community

ICPSR's traditional clientele - the social and behavioral science research community - are now requiring access to data that blur the boundaries between the social sciences and the biological and physical sciences. ICPSR needs to rise to this challenge by anticipating the needs of the community for these more complex data collections, acquiring and preserving them, and providing them in formats and systems that expedite their use. This may mean requiring new skill sets for staff and widening ICPSR's perspective on data relevant to the field.

Technological Change

It goes without saying that the rapid pace of change in technology in the digital environment is a challenge for any repository providing access to digital assets. ICPSR monitors and implements new technologies for data capture, storage, analysis, and visualization to ensure that ICPSR stays relevant and agile enough to continue to meet the needs of its users.

10. Audit and Self-Assessment

ICPSR commits to periodic self-assessments against established audit and certification program standards in order to evaluate, measure, and adjust its procedures, approaches, and practices with respect to access.

11. Policy Administration

This policy was initially approved on June 28, 2010 by the ICPSR Directors Group after review by the ICPSR Council. ICPSR commits to a periodic review of this access policy by the Data Stewardship Policy Committee. Recommended changes, when rising to the level of major revisions, will be brought to Council for their information. Each new version of the policy published on the Internet will carry a version number and a date stamp.