Case 2: Who Owns the Field Notes?

Jerry Vaughn contracted with a federal agency to conduct a social impact assessment of proposed topographic changes in an aboriginal habitat in a far north region of North America. The contract contained no stipulations regarding ownership of data. In order to determine the potential impacts on the culture of peoples living in that region, Vaughn engaged in participant observation (keeping a detailed field notebook of same); conducted in-depth personal interviews; and took over 1,000 photographs of people working, socializing, and enjoying other everyday and special activities. This work was carried out over a one year period. Vaughn was paid 75% of his contracted salary and other expenses before the fieldwork.

Vaughn then wrote a 150-page report detailing the areas of social life that would be adversely affected if the plans were implemented. He further noted that, if the plans were implemented as proposed, there could be no mitigations that could prevent the people's culture from being totally altered. Because of these severe conclusions, the agency director instructed Vaughn to turn over his entire research record in order that the agency could solicit another opinion on the matter. Furthermore, the director told Vaughn that unless he would turn over the record, no further payment would be made to him.

Vaughn's Dilemma: Should he turn over the interview materials, the photographs, and his field notes, all of which contained sensitive and personal information? Should he turn over only part of his record? Or, should he refuse to turn anything over to the agency?

Vaughn's Decision

With an attorney's help, Vaughn developed a sound argument that stated that it was customary for anthropologists to keep the data they collected, that he had conducted his contracted work in good faith, that the contract contained no stipulations regarding ownership of the data, and that he was therefore due his full salary.

Vaughn later realized that, since it is possible in many instances to collect data for one's own professional use, as well as the data necessary to fulfill the terms of a contract, one needs to know in advance to whom the data for the contracted research will belong. This will permit maintenance of separate files, from the outset.

He won his argument and was paid in full.