Digital Archiving of Qualitative Research Projects

Recently, Dr. Sebastian Karcher, Associate Director of the Qualitative Data Repository at Syracuse University, visited with my class and me at the University of Georgia via an online meeting room to talk about digital archiving and sharing of qualitative research projects. Although I’ve been reading about this for some time, his presentation reminded me of how much I still have to learn about this topic. Although qualitative researchers typically do not openly share their data with others, over the years I’ve noticed that researchers have increasingly used personal websites to share research materials with others.

For example, two recent examples are

  • Francyne Huckaby, who includes data from her book here (Huckaby, 2019).
  • Maureen Flint, who includes audio files from her 2019 dissertation study here. (Maureen’s dissertation will receive the 2020 Outstanding Dissertation of the Year at the Qualitative Research SIG business meeting at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.)

Rather than archiving materials on personal websites, researchers might also choose to archive source materials in a digital repository such as the Qualitative Data Repository (QDR).

As background, the QDR was established in 2014 by a group in political science at Syracuse University and has received funding from the National Science Foundation. The repository has a small but growing collection that as of February 2020, holds 72 projects. Currently, each month, two or three projects are added. The collection is international and multidisciplinary in scope and includes projects from anthropology, sociology, public health, education, and political science disciplines, among others.

Dr. Karcher explained that the topic of data sharing has been fiercely debated over the last 10 years in the US. For more on debates about archiving qualitative data, see this blogpost. In the US, debates have involved entities at all levels, including the White House, funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, which now requires principal investigators to submit data management plans that speak to data sharing, the Center for Open Science, The Research Data Alliance, professional associations and journals (e.g., Public Library of Science, or PLOS journals, which require that all data undergirding published findings are fully available without restriction). Another issue that Dr. Karcher mentioned is that norms related to scientific research have changed. Some (although these are still mostly quantitative) researchers are expecting open data sharing in scientific research.

We spent a good deal of time talking about debates related to sharing qualitative data. These relate to the cost and logistics of sharing data (some argue that these are greater for qualitative researchers); ethical and legal obligations to participants of research studies (e.g., preservation of confidentiality); attending thoughtfully to the personal relationships of trust that have been developed with the participants of studies, and epistemic and ontological concerns. It was Dr. Karcher’s view that some data (e.g., long interview quotes) are already shared in publications, and that it is often both possible and positive to share data from studies as a whole. This, he argues, contributes to being able to better assess the quality of research.

Dr. Karcher discussed issues of copyright and fair use in relation to the archiving of qualitative data. A key issue for researchers to consider is that copyright law differs across national borders. It is, therefore, always good practice to check on copyright law before sharing and publishing data sources.

Dr. Karcher also pointed out that newspapers who are not seeking to monetize reproductions are more likely to grant permission to reproduce articles and images. QDR provides templates that researchers can use to seek permission for sharing data with others.

Why would qualitative researchers archive and share their data with others via a repository such as The Qualitative Data Repository? Dr. Karcher mentioned several benefits that a digital repository provides, including:

  • Stable links to data sources and Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs)
  • Long-term digital preservation that includes plans for dealing with file format changes and closure of a repository)
  • Attendance to institutional requirements
  • Assistance with the curation of data
  • Ensuring visibility of data for others to discover, access, and cite
  • Interoperability across disciplines
  • Access controls in cases where sensitive data needs to be restricted

With the digital revolution and massive expansion in online technologies, the number of digital repositories has grown. Dr. Karcher mentioned three different types of repositories.

Institutional repositories

  • Institutions host digital repositories for faculty and students to share source materials and publications.

Self-deposit repositories

These types of repositories typically offer no-cost for access and deposit of source materials but provide no or minimal curation.

Domain repositories that have specific collection policies

These sorts of repositories have a specific focus for their collections, e.g., social science data, with specializations in quantitative and multi-method research. Domain repositories offer curation and assistance to researchers, although costs are involved. Researchers should write these costs into grant proposals, or seek support from their institution. Doctoral students might check to see if there are waivers for fees to archive dissertation data.

According to Dr. Karcher, one of the next frontiers in digital archiving is working on processes to integrate data into publications. At QDR, the staff has developed processes to overlay research reports with annotations that provide links to source documents – referred to as “Annotation for Transparent Inquiry” Dr. Karcher demonstrated this feature for us, and I for one was very impressed at the possibilities. For more on managing qualitative research data, see this online course provided by the Social Science Research Council.

In conclusion, Dr. Karcher offered advice to researchers on how to set up and manage their projects in a way that will provide an easy transition to digital archiving in the future. He suggested that researchers:

  • Be systematic in searches, and systematically record the provenance for source documents
  • Organize projects in a way that is easy to use and provides fast access to files. This may entail setting up an empty file structure at the beginning of a project (which might also be subject to change as a project progresses).
  • Be sure to name files systematically.
  • Make use of digital tools to assist research. These could be Qualitative Data Analysis Software packages, open-source applications such as Zotero, or a research photo management tool such as Tropy.

Dr. Karcher concluded by suggesting that if researchers are well organized in their approach to managing research projects, and are thoughtful and systematic in their work, it will be easy to share projects with others via digital archiving.

For more information, see Dr. Karcher’s slides on the data sharing website, Figshare. Click HERE.

What about you – have you used digital archives from others’ projects in your research? Have you shared qualitative research data with others? If so, how?

Kathy Roulston



Huckaby, M. F. (2019). Researching resistance: Public education after neoliberalism. Gorham, Maine: Myers Education Press.


One thought on “Digital Archiving of Qualitative Research Projects

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s