Open data practices are largely conceived and managed in ways that support quantitative, rather than qualitative data. Susie Weller outlines how an ethics of care is essential to making open qualitative data practical and ethical.
In the UK, the growth of data repositories and the opportunity to access a burgeoning amount of archived qualitative material offers researchers exciting possibilities for repurposing data. For the research institutions driving the open science agenda, the sharing of publicly-funded data is seen as essential to accountability and transparency, with researchers expected to make data available in a timely manner.
For qualitative researchers, navigating the formalised, regulated and institutionalised data sharing landscape is challenging, largely because the process is governed by quantitative data management practices
Whilst, there has been much discussion about quantitative data sharing, less consideration has been given to qualitative material. For qualitative researchers, navigating the formalised, regulated and institutionalised data sharing landscape is challenging, largely because the process is governed by quantitative data management practices.
Rather than simply rejecting the potential of open qualitative data outright, it is important to reflect on the challenges qualitative researchers face in making data available. To enhance further good secondary analytic practice, I propose a means of reframing data sharing policies and guidance in ways that are more attentive to the nature of qualitative data and to the intellectual, emotional and temporal investments made by qualitative researchers. An issue I have discussed at greater length in a recent paper.
A journey through data sharing and re-use
I draw on two key initiatives, which inspired personal reflection on the place of qualitative research(ers) in data sharing.
My journey started with the ESRC Timescapes initiative; a programme designed to enhance qualitative longitudinal research practice, including data sharing approaches. I worked on one of the seven empirical studies, generating data, helping to prepare 145 transcripts, 500 activity sheets and contextual notes for sharing, and contributing to the development of archiving practice.
I subsequently collaborated on a National Centre for Research Methods study tasked with examining the feasibility of conducting large-scale qualitative secondary analysis (QSA), for which we worked across six of the Timescapes data sets.
What challenges do qualitative researchers face in making data available for re-use?
Standardised data management guidance implies that well-managed, compliant data sets are ready for sharing without much extra work. Any additional tasks are consigned to being simple or menial. This eclipses the ethical and intellectual work involved in deliberating a range of complex ethical and epistemological issues prior to sharing data. For instance, balancing data integrity with confidentiality, safeguarding sensitive material, and creating comprehensive resources to scaffold secondary analysis.
data sharing guidance is seldom attentive to the co-constructed nature of qualitative material.
The expected and prescriptive ways of preparing data are a key part of the problem. These are governed largely by quantitative data management strategies. Qualitative data is the outcome of personal interactions between researchers and participants. Yet, data sharing guidance is seldom attentive to the co-constructed nature of qualitative material. “The identities of researchers and what they reflexively reveal of themselves, how they interact with participants, their techniques and approaches and the messiness of qualitative work are laid bare within the artefacts of qualitative data” (Weller 2023: 9). This can make researchers especially vulnerable to personal and professional scrutiny in a way that survey and other quantitative researchers are not.
Data ownership is another example where a focus on regulatory aspects obscures the complexity of qualitative data. The Intellectual Property (IP) of data generally rests with the institution where it was generated. So, if a researcher moves to a new institution, ownership continues to rest with that institution. For many qualitative researchers, a sense of ownership might be conceived differently, instead stemming, for example, from the relationships cultivated with participants.
Career advancement in academia is closely tied to the production of particular outputs, with the curation of data sets held in less esteem than publishing a high-impact article or securing a grant. Data sharing preparation often falls to early-career researchers who, given employment trends in UK higher education, are more likely to be on short-term contracts. The expectation to prepare data expeditiously means that they might not have time to conduct their own analysis or engage in career-enhancing opportunities.
Towards an ethics of care in qualitative data sharing
In contemplating these challenges, I have found it productive to look to the ethics of care literature. Tronto and Fisher outline four aspects of care: caring about, caring for, caregiving and care-receiving and four corresponding ethical values: attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness. Integrating these ethical values into data sharing policies and practices could help divert attention from procedural matters to foster more meaningful ‘habits of care’.
I illustrate this with four brief examples:
1. Caring for and about investments in qualitative data production
An attentiveness to investments in qualitative data curation is a key starting point. This requires a commitment from the research institutions driving the open science agenda, to take responsibility for the way such work is portrayed and valued. For example, funding application procedures should emphasise that this is a complex interpretative process with ethical and epistemological implications, worthy of appropriate resourcing.
2. Thinking with care about researchers’ differing positions in the wider Higher Education landscape
An attentiveness to the impact of wider trends, particularly short-termism, on academics at different career stages is also required. This necessitates structural changes to create more stable employment situations, which would also help ensure that it is feasible to dedicate enough time to data preparation. Researchers are then likely to benefit from having more time to complete and publish their own analysis, prior to sharing with others.
3. Being careful about the place of researchers in the production of qualitative data
Data management policies and practices need to be more attentive to the nature of qualitative work and the place of researchers in the co-construction of data. This requires a change in regulatory guidelines and data management protocols to ensure that qualitative material is not subjected to the same standardised procedures as quantitative data sets, in which researchers are often invisible. Furthermore, large, centralised repositories may not always be flexible enough to accommodate the complex and emergent nature of qualitative data. We need to think carefully about how different types of qualitative material are made available to others.
4. A relational view of care and responsibility in research teams
Acknowledging power dynamics in research teams, particularly regarding the early-career researchers handling data preparation, requires a shift from individual responsibility to a relational disposition. To promote ethical data practices, fostering collegiality, sharing tasks, and equitable decision-making is crucial. The development of ethical guidelines could help ensure access to re-use benefits all team members.
Fostering habits of care in qualitative data sharing policies and practices is not merely an ethical consideration; it is essential element of rigorous and respectful research in an increasingly demanding HE landscape. By embracing this shift, we can help enhance secondary analytic practice ensuring that qualitative data and the researchers who co-produce it receive the respect, value, and care they deserve.
This post draws on the authors article, Fostering habits of care: Reframing qualitative data sharing policies and practices, published in Qualitative Research.
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