Frequently Asked Questions about ICPSR

While this may answer a few superficial questions, ICPSR's FAQ provides quite detailed technical assistance.

What is ICPSR?
What sorts of data are available?
What format is the data in?
Who should use this data?
Who is allowed access?
How do I access the data?
How do I log in anonymously?
What are codebooks?
How do I get the codebooks?
What software do I need?
Where do I get the software (or where can I use it)?
How do I cite an electronic data set in my bibliography ?
How can I download data if I'm off campus?
How can I find out if the data set I'm using is updated in the future?
Whom on campus can I contact for help?

What is ICPSR?

From the ICPSR web site: "The Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, established in 1962, is an integral part of the infrastructure of social science research. ICPSR maintains and provides access to a vast archive of social science data for research and instruction, and offers training in quantitative methods to facilitate effective data use. To ensure that data resources are available to future generations of scholars, ICPSR preserves data, migrating them to new storage media as changes in technology warrant. In addition, ICPSR provides user support to assist researchers in identifying relevant data for analysis and in conducting their research projects.

A unit within the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, ICPSR is a membership-based organization, with over 400 member colleges and universities around the world. A Council of leading scholars and data professionals guides and oversees the activities of ICPSR."

What sorts of data are available?

The ICPSR data holdings contain some 6,000 studies and 450,000 files that cover a wide range of social science areas such as:

  • population
  • economics
  • education
  • health
  • social and political behavior
  • social and political attitudes
  • history
  • crime
  • aging, and
  • substance abuse.

Virtually all of the seminal data collections of the social sciences are accessible through ICPSR, along with special collections prepared by ICPSR to meet specific needs in the research community." Search the data holdings at

What format is the data in?

Most of ICPSR's data files are ASCII fixed-format files. From ICPSR--"The structure of a data file defines how records, or rows of data, are related to fields, or columns of data. The most common data structures found in the ICPSR holdings are:

  • Rectangular or Logical Record
  • Card Image or Multiple Record
  • Hierarchical
  • Relational."

See the ICPSR's FAQ for more information--search for "data structure".

Who should use this data?

The data files are not the analyzed findings of a study or trend statistics, but the raw data from which such statistics may be extrapolated. Potential users must be willing to process the data using software packages such as SAS, SPSS or Stata, though in some cases data resources may be analyzed online using Web-based analysis tools.

Who is allowed access?

Some of the data sets at ICPSR are publicly available (like most of the Special Topic Archives), but access to most data resources is restricted to member institutions. The Libraries maintains membership for NCSU, whose faculty, staff and students are allowed access to the data.

How do I access the data?

Note: your web browser must be set to accept cookies and pop-up windows.

NCSU affiliates on campus may access the ICPSR Web site directly at and search by title, keyword, principal investigator, or study number (exclude leading zeroes). You must create your own login from an on-campus computer to be able to download data files.

If you have not already created a login, look for the New User link. You will be asked for your email address and information about your NCSU affiliation and you will create your own password. To complete the account creation process, ICPSR will send you an email and you must click on a link (URL) contained in the verification message.

Once you have logged in once from campus, your account is automatically authorized to download data from anywhere, on or off campus, for six months. After six months, you may simply log in from a campus computer again to re-authorize for the next six months.

Other access options may be necessary depending on the data set. See ICPSR's web site for more information about the special kinds of data sets listed below.

Type of Data Set Access Method
anonymous FTP
specified in study's Description
on CD after signing agreement

When you first try to download files, the system will require you to create a "profile"--basically create a password and provide identifying information. Thereafter, you will login with your email address and password, identifying every data set you download. See our note below for information on how to log in anonymously.

Why does ICPSR want this information? How do I protect my privacy?

As noted in the previous answer, when you first try to download files, the system will require you to create a "MyData" profile--basically create a password and provide identifying information. Thereafter, you will login with your email address and password, identifying every data set you download.

From the ICPSR web site:

"The system creates a more secure environment for users and enables them to sign up for notification services that ICPSR is developing. MyData has the following user-friendly features:

  • Uses an e-mail address as a login ID
  • Requires a password to authenticate to the Web site
  • Allows users to create an account and set preferences
  • Allows registered users to reset a forgotten password
  • Enables users to view prior download history
  • Enables users to subscribe to an update notification service that emails users when a study they've previously downloaded is substantially updated."

You can log in anonymously simply by providing false or non-identifying answers, e.g., First Name: Anonymous, Last Name: User. You'll need to remember, though, what pseudo-email address you provide in order to use that login again, or else you'll need to create a new profile every time you log in.

You may also choose to provide your real information to ICPSR and choose the option for it not to share your name and contact information with the ICPSR contact (the "official representative") at NC State. You should understand, though, that in this circumstance ICPSR would still be obligated to share identifying information with the appropriate authorities if it was served with a court order to do so.

What are codebooks?

From ICPSR--"A codebook provides information on the structure, contents, and layout of a data file. Users are strongly encouraged to look at the codebook for a study before downloading the data files." Information on the Description tab provides only a brief overview. On the download screen codebooks are usually referred to as "documentation".

How do I get the codebooks?

You must download codebooks from the ICPSR web site.

ICPSR warns against relying on hardcopy codebooks, some of which may still be found in the Libraries' or departmental collections, because they will not reflect updates.

What software do I need?

From ICPSR--"Most ICPSR data files are distributed as ASCII files. An ASCII data file consists of rows and columns of alphanumeric characters. Since ASCII data files are simply text files, they can be opened in any word processing program or Internet browser. However, the alphanumeric characters are not meaningful without the help of a codebook or setup files [which ICPSR provides through the download screen] to link the columns of the ASCII data file to particular variables...[V]isual interpretation of the data record is inefficient. Commercially available statistical software packages such as SAS and SPSS are available to interpret data files and to extract the variables and or cases as needed."

Online analysis tools are available for some data sets but students should verify with their professor that these are appropriate for their assignment. For more information about these studies, see ICPSR's Web site about the Data Analysis Systems (DAS).

Where do I get the software (or where can I use it)?

Academic and administrative users at NCSU may obtain their own copy of SAS software in conjunction with the SAS Software and Services Grant Program. Go to for more information (under the Products heading).

SAS can be accessed from any of the Unity computing labs on campus. In the DH Hill Library Learning Commons, SAS is installed on the GIS Workstations.

Check with individual colleges' labs to verify other software options. For instance, SPSS and SAS are installed in all CHASS labs.

How do I cite an ICSPR data set in my bibliography ?

ICPSR provides citations for all of its data sets in:

  1. the study descriptions that appear on the Web site
  2. the file manifest
  3. the PDF Description file.

Examples of citations are also available on their web site at under "View All Citations."

If you use ICPSR data, be sure to notify them--your research may be included in their Bibliography of Data-Related Literature. Submit your citation for inclusion via email to: bibliography -at- .

How can I download data if I'm off campus?

By logging in once while on campus, your account will automatically be approved by ICPSR for off-campus access for six months. After six months, simply login again from a campus computer to re-authorize for the next six months.

If you haven't created an account, need data immediately, and you're off campus, try using the NCSU Virtual Computing Lab. Just open a session and use a browser to create your ICPSR account. ICPSR will see you as coming from a campus IP address.

How can I find out if the data set I'm using is updated in the future?

The new MyData notification service will automatically send an email notice to you when a study is substantively updated. To sign up for this service, go to the ICPSR Web site, log in to your MyData account, and choose the Notification Services link.

Whom on campus may I contact for help?

Questions, data-related requests and comments may be sent via email to Jeff Essic, the Data Services Librarian and NCSU's ICPSR Official Representative. His phone number is 919-515-5698.

Go to the Libraries' ICPSR Page