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New Repository Offers a Home for Data That Aren’t Numbers

After spending months or years collecting data from focus groups, surveys, and other sources, what are scholars doing with the mountains of information that may or may not have made it into their published research?

In the quantitative-research world, where data come as numbers that can be collected and stored in an organized way, the answer has been to share the data. But for qualitative and multi-method researchers, whose data might come in the form of lengthy interview transcripts, field notes, or even recordings, the most common practice is to discard those materials. That’s mainly because data collected using less-structured techniques can be difficult to organize and share.

To deal with that problem, the Center for Qualitative and Multi-Method Inquiry at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs has created a Qualitative Data Repository that is intended to serve as a platform to store, share, and preserve this kind of digital data.

Diana Kapiszewski, co-director of the repository and an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, says quantitative researchers in the United States have a stronger tradition of sharing data than do their qualitative counterparts. She has experienced the challenges posed by qualitative research methods—which can produce large amounts of information, some of it subject to copyright or to human-subject restrictions—and she says that while most researchers are interested in finding ways to share their data, doing so hasn’t always been possible.

Thanks to technology, though, even qualitative data can now be digitally stored, easily shared, and quickly browsed. This is just what qualitative researchers need, says Colin Elman, the repository’s co-director, who is also an associate professor of political science at Syracuse.

Mr. Elman, Ms. Kapiszewski, and others started the repository with help from existing repositories, such as the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research and the UK Data Archive. In 2011 the National Science Foundation gave them a $600,000 grant.

Mr. Elman says the repository’s three goals are to:

  • Help make specific pieces of research more transparent to back up the conclusions reached by scholars.
  • Share data as a public good to reduce the cost of research and make other research more feasible.
  • Use data in pedagogical texts to make teaching of research techniques more effective.

The need for data-sharing platforms has increased in recent years as grant agencies began requiring that data collected during the course of research be archived and shared. In 2011 the National Science Foundation started requiring grant applicants to devise a Data Management Plan that would explain how they expected to share their findings and data. The guidelines state that researchers must share “the primary data, samples, physical collections, and other supporting materials created or gathered in the course of work under NSF grant.”

Ms. Kapiszewski says that in addition to providing a searchable repository that will bring attention to the data collections, the repository staff will help scholars with ethical and legal questions. The idea is to encourage researchers and make them feel comfortable using digital data repositories.

The only requirement of those wanting to share and browse the repository’s data is to register as a user, and there is no fee at the moment. The repository plans to offer annual institutional memberships for colleges and other organizations at a moderate cost starting this fall, but Mr. Elman says no decision on the cost has yet been reached.

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