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Issue 10 Autumn 1995

Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply by email to

Archiving qualitative research data

Louise Corti, Janet Foster and Paul Thompson

Louise Corti is the Senior Administrator for Qualidata. In the past she has taught sociology and social research methods, and spent six years working on the design, implementation and analysis of the British Household Panel Study at the University of Essex. She is interested in both qualitative and quantitative aspects of social research.

Janet Foster, Senior Research Officer at Qualidata, is a professionally qualified archivist with considerable experience in medical and social policy archives, working most recently for the AIDS Social History Programme at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She is also co-editor of British Archives which is recognised as the premier reference work in its field, providing information on the collections and facilities of archive repositories throughout the UK. She is particularly interested in inter-disciplinary exchange about archival matters and encouraging the use of archives by academics other than historians.

Paul Thompson is the Director of Qualidata, a Research Professor and founder member of the Department of Sociology at Essex and Director of the National Life Story Collection at the National Sound Archive. During more than 30 years of teaching and research his work has been primarily in British history but his development of oral history and the analysis of in-depth life history interviews as a research method is equally relevant to the history of any society in the world. He is currently working on qualitative approaches to social mobility.

Although the Economic and Social Research Council's Data Archive has provided a repository for machine-readable datasets since 1967, there had been no similar initiative for preserving British social science research data in other media, primarily that generated by qualitative research methods. As a result, although huge resources have been devoted to qualitative interview, ethnographic, case and anthropological studies, the data are often inaccessible, untraceable or have been destroyed. In 1991, to find out whether there was support for an archival policy for such material and to see how much data might be available, Paul Thompson surveyed social scientists who had received ESRC funding for qualitative research projects.

The survey contacted 247 sociologists and anthropologists concerning 291 projects. Their responses showed that a majority still retained their data in some form, were keen that it should be preserved and supported the idea of an archive initiative. However, there was considerable concern about confidentiality and copyright as well as the feasibility of the secondary use of material which may have been collected in very personal circumstances. These concerns served to increase the imperative for implementing a policy and, following the survey report, a successful application was made to ESRC to establish Qualidata at the University of Essex.

In this article we outline the aims and work of Qualidata and discuss some of the issues involved in archiving data from qualitative sources.

Qualidata's aims and work

The aims of the Centre are locating, assessing and documenting qualitative data and arranging for their deposit in suitable public archive repositories; disseminating information about such data and raising awareness among the social science research community. A key objective is to improve access to qualitative data for researchers. Although the initial proposal was limited to ESRC-funded projects this has now been broadened. In particular we have undertaken to trace the data arising from classic post-war studies and we are in contact with other funding bodies about archival provision for their research data. At present we are negotiating the deposit of Peter Townsend's papers arising from his research for Poverty in the UK (1979) and the preceding studies of the family and institutional life of the elderly published as The Family Life of Old People: an enquiry in East London (1957) and The Last Refuge (1962). Around this core we are planning to gather research from associated studies such as Dennis Marsden's work which resulted in Mothers Alone (1969).

Another function of the Centre will be to maintain a database about the extent and availability of qualitative research material in general, whether deposited in public repositories or remaining with the researcher. Qualidata's database will record descriptions of the research material, its location and its accessibility and will be made available on the Internet as well as in hardcopy form. A World Wide Web Home Page for the Centre should be mounted by the end of the year.

The Centre will also promote and encourage the secondary use of the data it processes, monitor its use by researchers and help researchers to build an archiving component into their projects where this is appropriate. Guidelines are being developed on preparing data for archival deposit. So far we have produced Notes for Depositors, discussing what is involved in depositing material and the various conditions which depositors can make about its re-use; a Project Description Form, requesting information about the purpose and methodology of the research and details of the data generated; and Receipt and Agreement forms. These have been sent to selected repositories for comments and are also being piloted with potential depositors.

The researchers' perspective on archiving qualitative data

Results from surveys of ESRC grant holders across all social science disciplines back to the 1960s suggest that, after completing their research projects, about two thirds of researchers store their data, either at home or at work, a very few archive their data, and about a fifth destroy their material.

A significant number of researchers are resistant to archiving their research material for a variety of reasons. Over the past few months Qualidata has tried to address the problems raised by researchers, in particular the issues of confidentiality and copyright.

The main areas of concern are:

Preservation of confidentiality and informed consent

Many researchers promise informants, usually orally, that their contribution will remain confidential to the research project. In some cases, they obtain written consent from informants. However, there are instances, such as a participant observation study, where neither is consent obtained nor are promises given to the observed. While not necessarily involving a legal requirement, promises to preserve confidentiality do carry a moral obligation. Also, there are some studies, for example those dealing with illicit or criminal behaviour or certain sexual activities, where the informants could be put at risk by breaches of confidentiality, and others, for example covert investigations of paramilitary groups or religious cults, where the researcher could be at risk. Also studies involving readily identifiable public figures present major difficulties in preserving confidentiality. Social research practitioners have addressed some of the problems of research ethics (see the references on Confidentiality, Research Ethics and Copyright below) and most of the professional and commercial associations provide basic codes of practice (e.g. British Sociological Association 1993; Market Research Society 1990). It is important for a recipient repository to be fully informed about consent given by informants or undertakings given by the investigators either at the time of the project or subsequently.

Measures that can be taken to help with preserving confidentiality once material has been deposited include:

  1. closure of the material for a specified period;

  2. restricted access, where the material is only available to certain types of researcher. This may be combined with requests for access being vetted by the depositor;

  3. anonymisation, where all personal identifiers are removed (Mass-Observation Archive routinely anonymise the copies of material that will be seen by users);

  4. users undertaking not to breach confidentiality by publishing identifiable information;

  5. recontacting the informants to obtain consent for deposit in a public archive.

For current research it may be possible to secure permission from informants for material to be archived at the time of interview.

Doubts about usefulness to secondary researchers

Some researchers are concerned that their material cannot be used sensibly without the background knowledge which they have accumulated during its collection. This is particularly so with longitudinal studies of a group where the researcher feels that a special rapport has been developed without which the material may be meaningless. However, the researchers' documentation of the material should provide its context and there are uses other than re-analysis such as comparative research, provision of teaching or illustrative material, methodological studies and historical information.

Continuing use of the material by the researcher

Researchers may feel that they are not ready to deposit their data because they have not yet realised its full potential for their own work. This is often the case for anthropologists who continue to use material from field trips early in their career throughout their working life. However, depositing material secures its preservation and does not prevent the originator from continuing to use it. It may also be possible to copy the data, allowing the researcher to retain the originals, or delay depositing part of the collection.

Criticism of research methods

Some researchers are concerned about exposing their research methods and conclusions to criticism by making their material publicly available. While this concern is understandable, it is probable that secondary users will be more interested in using the data for their own specific research rather than replicating the original analysis. Also there is a benefit to depositors because users will be required to cite both the materials and the original investigator in any publications.

Copyright and ownership of research material

As the law stands today, ownership of copyright depends primarily on when the research was conducted, the form of the material and who sponsored or commissioned the work. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988) specifies that the first owner of the copyright in a work is usually the person who brought the work into existence. In the majority of cases in academic research, it is the principal investigator (or employer or sponsor) who owns copyright and who may transfer it if he or she wishes. The Oral History Society has produced a leaflet detailing the rights of copyright holders of oral history recordings (Ward, 1995).

Some principal investigators wish to retain copyright themselves, whereas others are prepared to transfer rights to a recipient repository. Either option can be included in an agreement of transfer between the depositor and the repository. Fieldwork carried out after the 1988 Act is potentially more problematic for archiving because interviewees are now entitled to copyright in their own words. This may, but in most circumstances will not, have implications for subsequent publishing and quotation of material from interviews. If the intention is to archive recorded interview data it is advisable for researchers to get informants to sign a copyright clearance form (an example is given in Ward, 1995)

Time involved in preparing material retrospectively for archiving

The amount of time and resources required to document material from a qualitative study may appear to make archiving an impossible task. However, handwritten material such as field notes can be archived and it is not necessary to type everything before a repository will accept it. Qualidata is able to offer some help with processing, although grant applicants should include in proposals, where appropriate, the cost of preparing material for archiving, for example transcription of in-depth interviews and labelling and documenting of tapes. Grant-awarding bodies are being encouraged to provide financial support for these activities.

Criteria for archiving qualitative data

Qualidata has developed criteria for prioritising material for archiving and for assisting in deciding about archival suitability. Having established that the data are predominantly qualitative each set of research material is considered according to the requirements set out below.


Archival suitability

Preparing data for archiving

Researchers are asked to contact Qualidata as early as possible to discuss the potential of their data and to consider depositing as soon as the first piece of substantive analysis has been written. They are encouraged to document their research and the material produced during fieldwork from the earliest stages of the project. This ensures that the descriptions of the research material and of the research process are sufficiently complete to place the research data in its context and make it usable by someone who has not been directly involved with the project. Adequate documentation, as well as being necessary if the material is to be reused, is also beneficial for the organisation of researchers' own work (a Checklist of Documentation is included with the Qualidata Project Description Form).

Repositories for qualitative data

Qualidata undertakes to find an appropriate public repository for the material that it accepts and has identified and assessed a number of suitable repositories willing to receive material. If a research project has been based within a university or other institution which maintains an archive department, first consideration is always given to the host institution as the preferred place of deposit. Some of the other repositories which Qualidata has identified are:

British Library, Special Collections Department: national politics, economic and social policy and cultural material arising from the work of any person of more than local significance.

National Sound Archive, British Library: life story and personal testimony tapes of national significance which will broaden the collection and increase research interest; gay and lesbian material.

London School of Economics: British political, economic and social history and social anthropology; material must be relevant to research within the School.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford: non-Western anthropology illustrative of material culture, art, aesthetics and visual systems; principally photographs, with visual communication and research potential being the main criteria.

School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh: oral history in a national Scottish context including newly arrived inhabitants and Scots overseas; human content is a primary criterion.

University of Warwick, Modern Records Centre: industrial relations and politics at the national level including management and business/entrepreneurial activities; motor and related industries; interest groups and political movements, especially left-wing and radical.

Further details of these and other repositories can be obtained from Qualidata and found in Foster and Sheppard (1995).

References and further reading

Qualidata Documentation

Qualidata (1995) Notes for Depositors, University of Essex

Qualidata (1995) Project Description Form, University of Essex, includes checklist of documentation

Confidentiality, Research Ethics and Copyright

Barnes, J.A. (1980) Who should know what? Social science, privacy and ethics Cambridge University Press.

British Sociological Association (1993) BSA Statement of Ethical Procedures.

Bulmer, M. ed (1982) Social Research Ethics, London: Macmillan.

Burgess, R. (1984) In the field: an introduction to field research, London: Allen and Unwin.

Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (1983) Ethnography, Principles in Practice, London: Tavistock Press.

Hammersley, M. (1989) The Dilemma of the Qualitative Method, London: Routledge.

Market Research Society (1990) MRS Code of Conduct.

Social Research Association (1993) Social Research Association Ethical Guidelines.

Punch, M. (1986) The Politics and Ethics of Fieldwork, Qualitative Research Methods Series, Sage University Press.

Thorne, S. (1994) 'Secondary Analysis in Qualitative Research: Issues and Implications' in Morse, J.M. (ed.) Critical Issues in Qualitative Research Methods, London: Sage.

Ward, A. (1995) Copyright Ethics and Oral History, Oral History Society, Department of Sociology, University of Essex.


Foster, J. & Sheppard, J. (1995) British Archives: a Guide to Archive Resources in the UK, 3rd edition, London: Macmillan.

Qualidata is hosted by the Department of Sociology, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3SQ.

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Edited by Nigel Gilbert.

Autumn 1995 © University of Surrey

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