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I would like to use the NEO-FFI instrument to measure the Big 5 psychological traits. Is a license needed? Are there any open, free, or public domain Big 5 tests that can be used for no (or minimal) cost?

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Yes, a license is needed for most uses of the NEO-FFI. Here's a quote from PAR's Permissions & Licensing page:

Tests, test protocols, test items, normative data, score reports, and other related materials are copyrighted and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from PAR. The reproduction of any part of PAR’s copyrighted tests and related materials in any way, without permission, whether the reproductions are sold or provided free for use, is a violation of federal copyright law.

If you plan to use a test in its entirety, please purchase the published version of the test...

If you plan to modify or use only part of a test, written permission is required prior to using any PAR proprietary material. Written permission is required prior to:

  • Using a translation. All of our translations have been approved. Back-translations have been conducted by an individual unfamiliar with the English version of the test and the back-translation has been forwarded to the author/PAR for review and approval.
  • Using any part of a test;
  • Using a modified format of a test;
  • Translating a test into a language for which it is not currently available;
  • Including a few sample items or other materials (i.e., tables, charts, graphs) in a publication or appendix of a dissertation or thesis. PAR will not grant permission to include an entire test or scale in any publication, including dissertations and theses.

Anyway, yes, there are plenty of free tests! One such resource my former advisor (Dan Ozer, personality assessor extraordinaire) has always seemed to favor is the International Personality Item Pool. It might give you a headache to see how many options you actually have just through this source, just for measuring broad personality traits akin to the Big Five. In our work, we've generally used the Big Five Inventory (BFI; John, Donahue, & Kentle, 1991), which is also freely available for non-commercial use, but is somewhat basic (44 items, 5 factors, no facets). If that's not basic enough for you, you may also want to consider Saucier's (1994) Mini-Markers, which has 40 items and one fewer Likert scale option. Even shorter is Rammstedt and John's (2007) 10-item short version of the BFI!

I should add that this question is a partial duplicate: @JeromyAnglim already asked (and answered!) the question about free alternatives here: What free scientific measures of Big 5 personality are available? His list is more comprehensive, and I'm about to go add Rammstedt and John's over there, so this post won't have anything unique from that thread once I do (except the bit about the NEO-FFI licensing).

One might almost be inclined to say there are too many options! As for me, I'm with Martha Stewart on this one: "It's a good thing."

References

John, O. P., Donahue, E. M., & Kentle, R. L. (1991). The big five inventory—versions 4a and 54. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Personality and Social Research.

Rammstedt, B., & John, O. P. (2007). Measuring personality in one minute or less: A 10-item short version of the Big Five Inventory in English and German. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(1), 203–212. Available online, URL: http://www.westmont.edu/_academics/departments/psychology/documents/Rammstedt_and_John.pdf.

Saucier, G. (1994). Mini-markers: A brief version of Goldberg's unipolar Big-Five markers. Journal of Personality Assessment, 63(3), 506–516. Available online, URL: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~prsnlty/SAUCIER/Saucier.Minimarkers.Full.pdf.

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