AEA Data Legality Policy and Explanations

Advice to Authors

A more extensive explanation of the Data Legality Policy’s rationale is given below, but a key rationale is that under the Policy the discussion of data legality occurs early in the editorial process so that there are no surprises at the end.

AEA Journal Editors or the AEA Data Editor would be happy to answer questions about data legality before you submit your paper. If you use data that you believe might not be considered legally acquired, please flag this in the online submission portal when submitting your paper.

AEA Data Legality Policy

Adopted by the AEA Executive Committee on January 8, 2023.

This policy pertains only to the legality of the data used in papers. Authors should refer to the AEA's Submission Policy for documentation, such as IRB approval, regarding the ethics of the research.

All data used in papers published in journals of the American Economic Association should be legally acquired. The (Co)Editor handling a paper may reject it if some or all of the data used in the paper were not legally obtained. The current Editor of the journal to which the paper was submitted, or in which it was published, may rescind the acceptance decision or retract the paper if some or all of the data used in the paper were not legally obtained. The Data Editor must be consulted in all cases where the legality of the data in question. The Editor must consult with the Secretary-Treasurer of the AEA before issuing a retraction or rescinding an acceptance decision.

The handling (Co)Editor may grant an exception to the rule that data in published papers must be legally acquired for the following two cases:

  1. The author purchased or acquired data from a third party and, at the time of purchase or acquisition, a reasonable person would not have had grounds to suspect that the third party had acquired the data illegally. Reasonable grounds to suspect that data may be illegally acquired include, but are not limited to: (i) the third party is not an official firm or organization, (ii) the third party is secretive about its distribution of the data, (iii) the author is not able or allowed to identify the third party, or (iv) the nature or sensitivity of the data is such that third parties would not typically be able to legally obtain such data. If there are reasonable grounds to suspect the data may have been acquired illegally, the author should provide proof that the data were legally acquired by the third party.
  2. Highly exceptional cases in which, by the handling (Co)Editor’s judgment, the societal benefit of the publication outweighs the use of illegally acquired data. In such cases, the author must disclose in the cover letter of the initial submission that the data were not legally acquired (by the data provider or by the author themselves). Before inviting a revision or conditionally accepting a manuscript in which the author disclosed the use of illegally acquired data, the handling (Co)Editor must consult with the Editor, the Data Editor, and the Secretary-Treasurer of the AEA.

The AEA will publish data in its Data and Code Repository only if it has been legally acquired and can be legally redistributed, as per the Data and Code Archive Agreement.

This policy is in effect for manuscripts submitted on or after July 1, 2023.

Rationale and Background of the Data Legality Policy

January 20, 2023

Editors at AEA journals occasionally get papers based on data that were acquired under questionable circumstances. Possible examples include data obtained while interning for a company but without the company’s permission, the purchase from a third party of data that the actual owner of the data does not sell, or contracting with a hacker to obtain private personnel records of a firm. In addition to ethical concerns, such data are problematic because other researchers don’t have access to them, raising concerns about equity, the data’s veracity, and the replication of findings using these data.

Often, these issues only come to light later in the editorial process, when options for a reasonable resolution are limited. Authors can claim that they didn’t know what they did was problematic because there is no AEA policy covering their case (at least prior to 2023). Moreover, at a late stage in the editorial process, often the only option is to rescind a (conditional) acceptance decision, which is a strong step with potentially far-reaching professional consequences for the author. The final concern would be equity. Why is the acceptance decision withdrawn for this particular author whereas there may have been earlier authors who published articles with equally questionable data?

The Data Legality Policy is intended to deal with cases such as the above examples in an upfront, consistent, and equitable manner. Under the Policy, any issues about data legality are addressed at the start of the editorial process rather than near the end.  The starting date of the Policy addresses concerns about why current authors are required to use data that are legally acquired while the same standard may not have been applied in the past.

The AEA recognizes that there can be compelling public interest reasons to publish papers with data that have not been legally acquired. For example, research on corruption or illegal activity can sometimes make important progress by using data that have not been legally acquired. Whether the benefit of such research outweighs the drawback of illegal acquisition is a tradeoff the AEA will make in specific cases, as laid out in exception (2) of the Policy. This determination would be made for the paper’s initial submission, before authors have invested significant time and resources into the editorial process at an AEA journal.

A particular concern expressed by many researchers is the treatment of computer-assisted acquisition of data (“scraped data”) when such acquisition contravenes terms of use of the data owner. While scraping may contravene terms of use, it may not be illegal. Its legality is not settled under current US law (as of January 2023). Editors will treat papers with scraped data as legally acquired as long as this issue is unsettled when the paper was submitted. Should it in the future become settled law that scraped data is illegal, the AEA will communicate how scraped data will be treated under the Policy.

The AEA is a US-based institution and legality is based on US law.