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It is often advisable for researchers to use an existing data set to answer research questions. In particular, using an existing data set can help a researcher obtain results much more quickly, at a lower cost, and without exposing new research subjects to many of the potential harms associated with research participation. However, the many researchers seeking to use an existing data set face a variety of challenges specific to this research methodology. This article reviews some of the key differences associated with using an existing data set as compared with those conducting research by recruiting research subjects. Advantages and disadvantages associated with the use of existing data sets are discussed as are ethical issues, strategies to obtain an optimal data set, and special considerations associated with this methodology. Additionally, suggestions are given relevant to reporting results when conducting research using an existing data set or a “secondary analysis”.
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