Archiving data: ethics, practicalities and dilemmas

Written by Laura (Researcher). Posted in News

Our project aims to collect and catalogue an archive of data on the role of celebrity in young people’s aspirations. The archive will include data from group and individual interviews, online discussion data and celebrity case studies. Data archiving is prioritised by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council raises a number of ethical and practical questions. Archiving enables the sharing of anonymised data with other researchers, creating the possibility of comparative studies and additional analysis of the data. From an ethical perspective, enabling other researchers to analyse existing data sets makes good use of the time and energy that research participants put in to taking part in research projects, encourages rich interpretations of our data and transparency of data analysis.

In addition to gaining informed consent from participants, archiving qualitative data requires a great deal of care in terms of confidentiality and anonymity. As the data held in the archive includes transcript-length documents, anonymisation requires removing or changing both direct and indirect details that could identify the participant or anyone that the participant refers to during the interviews.

Much of the richness of qualitative research stems from the depth and detail that qualitative methods can enable. This can include detailed discussions of biography, family relationships, details of place and time and critical moments that have shaped participants’ lives. Participants can also reveal information that poses ethical dilemmas for researchers not only in terms of confidentiality, but the nature of the disclosures themselves. Researchers also draw on detailed field notes about their experiences in the research process, including observations about people, institutions, networks and connections and the psychosocial aspects of conducting research in which researchers reflect on their own investments and position in relation to the project and participants. These are more than just field ‘notes’ – they provide valuable and essential data in themselves, providing a unique insight into the worlds in which participants live and  interview data is generated.

However, while securely held data shared within a small research team can retain much of this detail for analysis, archived data requires that some of this depth must be lost in order to protect the anonymity of participants. While researchers must always make decisions about what to include and exclude when publishing data extracts or describing participants, in the initial process of data analysis they can draw on their knowledge of participants from research, their field notes and full transcripts.

The process of anonymisation can be time consuming and costly. I learnt at a recent seminar on qualitative longitudinal research, that data sharing is much less commonplace in the US, while in the UK the practice of archiving and making data available to others is becoming more popular. At the same seminar I heard a fascinating paper about a project on young people’s aspirations, which returned to the small English Isle of  Sheppey to conduct a comparative study to explore how young people’s dreams about the future had changed since research in the same area in the late 70s and early 80s by a team of researchers led by Ray Pahl. The current Sheppey project research team are revisiting some of Pahl’s data from that time, and returning to some of the methods the earlier project used, to explore some of the changes that have taken place in the area over the last thirty years.

The data from the original Sheppey project are archived at the UK Data Archive. The archive offer guidance for researchers planning to archive data, including building good data management into the research plan from the start of the project. This includes planning how to organise, label and store data, as well as questions of copyright. Data centres such as the UK Data Archive preserve data securely, and enable licensing and monitoring of the secondary use of data. However such centres also require data to be archived in particular formats, which can be time and cost intensive. The UK Data Archive recommends that the process of anonymisation should start at the initial stages of the research, with original copies of transcripts kept for the research team only. However this could also present challenges for a research team when analysing data, particularly when using a data management and analysis programme like NVivo. One option would be to conduct an initial anonymisation of the data for the purposes of the research team, in which pseudonyms are used, and then conduct a secondary process of anonymisation in order to prepare the data for archiving. These are issues that we will continue to think about and discuss as we start the first phase of our data collection.

Many thanks to the participants at the New Frontiers in Qualitative Research seminar on 15th November, and a draft PhD chapter written by Cathy Gower for inspiring and informing this blog post.




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