Ethics of Using Public Officials As Field Experiment Subjects


McClendon, Gwyneth H. 2012. “Ethics of Using Public Officials As Field Experiment Subjects.” Newsletter of the APSA Experimental Section 3 (1): 13-20. Copy at


In recent years, the number of field experiments using public officials as subjects has increased. Some of these experiments are relatively cheap and easy to replicate, and yet, the ethical guidelines for dealing with this particular class of subjects are in some ways both nascent and underdeveloped. If this line of research is to continue in a responsible manner, it is worth considering whether there are particular ethical questions raised by using elite, public servants as subjects and if so, how we might deal with those ethical questions. I am not a moral philosopher, and I do not have hard and fast answers to the issues I raise below. I am sympathetic to these types of experiments, having conducted one myself, but I am also sensitive to issues raised by their critics. I hope the following will encourage further debate.

There are at least two reasons public officials differ from citizens as experimental subjects. First, when we use public officials as subjects, the behavior we are trying to observe and affect is usually part of their routine, public duties. This may mean that the societal benefits of the knowledge gleaned from these experiments are particularly great. But it also introduces questions about whose resources are being used while subjects take time to participate, as well as questions about debriefing and appropriate compensation. Second, public officials are a limited pool, and they often control public purse strings, including funding for universities and research. This difference introduces questions about researchers’ ethical responsibilities to other researchers when conducting experiments with public officials. Let me consider each of these differences in turn.

Author's website

Last updated on 01/06/2015