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I have found a report with a lot of useful data in it. It is very easy to get ahold of; the organization that ordered it actively promotes it on their website. I would like to cite it. However, the report includes a "General use restriction", stating:

This report is prepared solely for the use of the [organization]. This report is not intended to and should not be used or relied upon by anyone else and we accept no duty of care to any other person or entity. The report has been prepared for the purpose of estimating the [useful data] in [country]. You should not refer to or use our name or the advice for any other purpose.

Does this actually mean that I cannot use the data at all? And/or is the best approach to cite that specific data, to instead cite the organisation's summary of it, even if that is in a summary report, or even just on a webpage?

In the latter case, it is also unclear to me if I should include the actual report in the reference or not.

I have reached out to the company (no individual authors are listed). Regarding quality, the only thing I can say is that the organization that ordered it seems very happy about it, as seems several other advocacy groups who have cross-links the report.

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    I'm curious how you acquired the document itself, considering the apparent wish for secrecy! :) Is it actually semi-public, with that disclaimer? If so, then why make it semi-public ... if they also want that disclaimer. Strange, unless it really is a clumsy and over-stated "use at your own risk", as opposed to discussion of something proprietary. Jan 27, 2023 at 18:45
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    Have you reached out to the authors about this question? This seems like a bind to me: If you want to cite the report to credit ideas, I'd feel obliged to. If just for data, based on this disclaimer the authors of the report think it may be junk...very hard to justify using the data in that case.
    – user137975
    Jan 27, 2023 at 20:57
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    @paulgarrett I would challenge that premise - on the contrary, they may believe that this work is very much decent. That is, if a company A does some work for a company B, this work becomes a part of their portfolio. They are interested in impressing companies C, D, E etc. with this data so they can get a similar contract with a nice pouch of money attached to it, but are not interested in providing support for free or working with small fry (you may be willing to pay, but anything under say $10k is not worth the effort for them). Or the company's policies are just not consistent. Who knows.
    – Lodinn
    Jan 27, 2023 at 22:42
  • @paulgarrett I have seen completion reports to funding agencies that are public, but not citable. For example, glfc.org/publication-media-search.php is a database full of reports like glfc.org/pubs/pdfs/research/reports/2019_LAR_440830.pdf that are not citable per the authors. Feb 28, 2023 at 13:40
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    @RichardErickson, hm! Seems strange to me. A different world from mine. Thanks for the data points! :) Feb 28, 2023 at 17:54

5 Answers 5

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Does this actually mean that I cannot use the data at all? And/or is the best approach to cite that specific data, to instead cite the organisation's summary of it, even if that is in a summary report, or even just on a webpage?

You have reached out to the authors, but not heard back. I think you have answered your own question with: cite the organisation's summary of it, even if that is in a summary report, or even just on a webpage. This will allow you to acknowledge the existence of the work, but not use the data as part of your work.

If I were doing research on a topic covered in a situation like this, I would likely cite ongoing research for the topic in either the Introduction or Discussion. I would write something like:

[My really important research topic] is important to [country] who [commissioned/requested/funded] research on the topic. [A grey paper/report/preliminary data/summary] has been posted to [the organization's webpage/other public venue (cite here in appropriate style)], but are not publicly [citable/available].

Depending upon the venue, you might even mention that you reached out to the authors, but they did not respond. I have seen this done when people try to recreate other studies, but the data is only available upon request and authors do not share their data.

Lastly, I have seen examples of these types of disclaimers with completion reports such as those for US FDA studies (sorry, no link to a database) and NGOs such as the The Great Lakes Fisheries Commission who publishes completions reports and abstracts with a disclaimer such as

ABSTRACT NOT FOR CITATION WITHOUT AUTHOR PERMISSION.

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  • "reached out to the authors, but they did not respond" No answer yet does not mean "yes".
    – Nobody
    Feb 28, 2023 at 14:37
  • And, that is why I said cite the organisation's summary and not use the data. Feb 28, 2023 at 15:01
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In medical settings a grey area of activity is the quality improvement (QI) project. One of the hallmarks of a QI project according to HHS is

... quality improvement activities do not satisfy the definition of “research” under 45 CFR 46.102(d), which is “…a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge…”

As a QI project does not contribute to generalizable knowledge, our research support office requires all publications of QI projects to include a similar disclaimer that states the purpose of the QI project and that the results should not be used for anything but that purpose.

Ideally,the limitations of a QI project should make it so no one wants to generalize based on it, but in reality some researchers use QI projects to conduct research without IRB requirements. There is a lot of grey area in between where the methods, data and analysis may all be solid and the ability to generalize appropriate apart from the disclaimer.

The disclaimer does not read to me as a cannot, but rather a should not. If you are going to use the data/report to generalize, you should be cautious and add the appropriate disclaimers to that section of work.

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I disagree with the accepted answer. I think you should cite the work.

First, the gold standard for whether to cite does not exactly have to do with the paper quality or with such disclaimers, but whether it is relevant. Did it influence your work? Is it related to your work? Did it make a contribution to your research area?

Second, it's always safer to include a citation than to exclude it. If you're not sure how accurate the data is, you don't have to use the data (you can even say why you didn't use it), but you should cite any prior work on your research problem.

However, the report includes a "General use restriction"

This use restriction reads more like legalese than anything else. It does not say you shouldn't cite it. Rather, it tries to absolve the authors of any responsibility or liability for what you do with the report.

Does this actually mean that I cannot use the data at all?

Certainly not! The disclaimer even specifically says that you can use the data "for the purpose of estimating the [useful data] in [country]". Beyond this, you can likely use it and use your judgment or use it with a disclaimer.

Regarding quality, the only thing I can say is that the organization that ordered it seems very happy about it, as seems several other advocacy groups who have cross-links the report.

This seems like good evidence that this work is already considered to be useful in your area, and has made a contribution to the field. If so, then it would be prudent to cite such a contribution.

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  • I read the disclaimer as: 1) it should not be used, or relied on [i.e. referred to] by anyone that is not affiliated with [organization], AND 2) it should not be used for any other than the stated purpose. So since point 1 is not fulfilled, it does not matter if 2 is or not.
    – JohanPI
    Mar 1, 2023 at 11:26
  • @JohanPI That's the literal reading, but not mine. Legalese is often overly cautious; they always overstate the restriction so that they could never reasonably held responsible for someone else to use it. I don't think they can prevent you from citing the work. Mar 1, 2023 at 16:49
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It depends. Why do you want to cite it? Until you are able to get more information about the provenance of the data, you shouldn't be making any direct references to it as support for any claim of yours. You have no idea how the data was gathered or what standards were used. If you can't get any more information, I would be careful about using it for anything substantive in a paper.

If, however, you merely wanted to make reference to it in a section addressing further research that is required into a topic (e.g. "an area requiring further research is whether x, a report by company y suggests blah, however, their sources and methodology were not disclosed [cite]), I don't see anything wrong with that.

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  • The report methodology is both well-documented and, as far as I can tell, quite sound (otherwise I would likely not be as interested). The question is if I can and should use it at all.
    – JohanPI
    Feb 28, 2023 at 13:21
  • @JohanPI, well, are you trying to use it for something other than the "purpose of estimating the [useful data] in [country]"? If so, then you are using it for something other than what it was created for. That would be problematic even if it didn't have these disclaimers on it.
    – Red Anne
    Aug 12, 2023 at 0:59
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After not having received a response from my inquiries from the company that authored the report, I have decided to play it safe and disregard it entirely from my work.

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  • Please see my answer. I would include it if I were in your shoes. Feb 28, 2023 at 14:02
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    I think you did the right thing. When an author specifically states that "You should not refer to or use our name or the advice for any other purpose.", the only way for you to cite it is to get their permission first.
    – Nobody
    Feb 28, 2023 at 14:14
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    I disagree with this answer. The gold standard for whether to cite has not much to do with the paper quality or with such disclaimers, but whether it is relevant. Did it influence or was related to your work? Did it make a contribution to this area? Feb 28, 2023 at 15:58
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    Additionally, the general way to "play it safe" with citations is to include them, not to exclude. Feb 28, 2023 at 15:58
  • I really appreciate all the thoughts on the matter. You raise a lot of good, albeit conflicting, points. I have opted for @RichardErickson's answer as it seems like the safest in this particular case, though in other cases another answer might be the way to go.
    – JohanPI
    Mar 1, 2023 at 11:18

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