Updated: Dec 15, 2020
A key benefit of using dedicated CAQDAS-packages rather than non-dedicated tools or manual methods for qualitative or mixed-methods analysis is access. We can usefully think of the access CAQDAS-packages provide in four ways: access to materials, access to ideas, access to process, and access for others. There are other reasons to choose to use a dedicated CAQDAS-package – for example there are some analytic tasks that just aren’t practically possible otherwise, CAQDAS-packages can be used to illustrate the quality of an analysis in more concrete ways, and can be used to teach methods in integrated and innovative ways. However, access is a fundamental reason to use a dedicated CAQDAS-package, whatever the methodology (types/amounts of data and analytic strategy).
Access to materials
Using dedicated CAQDAS-packages enable us access to all the materials that contribute to a research project all in one place, including, but not limited to, "data". This is because everything relevant to a study can be imported into the CAQDAS project, or referenced via dynamic links. Having everything in one place in this way not only makes finding project-related materials easier, but we can also work with and integrate them in ways that just aren’t possible otherwise. This is particularly powerful when choosing to use a dedicated CAQDAS-package right from the start of a project.
Access from the outset
Many researchers start thinking about and engaging with CAQDAS-packages when they have piles of qualitative materials before them and they realize they need an electronic means of managing them. But CAQDAS-packages can be used for earlier stages too – such as formulating the research problem, reviewing the literature, planning the analytic focus, organizing factual characteristics about materials and participants, transcribing the data. Some also have mobile Ap versions that enable data to be collected in the field on mobile devices and immediately uploaded to the full version and integrated with other materials. Others allow online materials to be searched-for, accessed, sampled and directly imported.
CAQDAS projects as a container and connector
Using a CAQDAS-package as the container for and connector to everything that relates to a research project makes managing and integrating those materials so much easier, because you have access to them all from the same place, without scrabbling around to find what you’re looking for.
Access to ideas
The ideas we have about what’s interesting and meaningful about our materials and how we conceptualize them forms the basis of all forms of qualitative analysis. Whatever the methodology, throughout the analytic process we have ideas about all the things that are
interesting, all the time. Ideas need to be captured, so they can be easily accessed over and again, to grow an interpretation and build a rigorous account.
Capturing ideas at the click of a button
Three common techniques for capturing what’s interesting and meaningful in qualitative materials are coding, writing, and linking. All CAQDAS-packages have various tools for coding and spaces for writing, and many also have well-developed linking tools. In terms of access, capturing ideas in CAQDAS-packages allow us to get back to ideas we previously captured - and crucially, the data that prompted them, all at the click of a button. Human brains are amazing things, but they can’t keep hold of all those ideas in any systematic and reliable way that we can access whenever we need to. We need to get those ideas out of our heads so we can retrieve them and build on them to develop an authoritative account of our materials. CAQDAS-packages are explicitly designed to facilitate this.
CAQDAS-packages make the messy process manageable
We can of course capture ideas by making notes in other digital tools or using paper and pen, but they’re not connected to the materials which prompted the thoughts. Search the qualitative analysis literature and the word ‘messy’ comes up time and again. Manual methods certainly are messy. Bits of cut-up transcripts, highlighted in never enough colours, post-it notes, scribbled notes and diagrams, all over the table, floor or wall.
Using non-dedicated tools for analyzing qualitative data, such as MS Word, Excel, Onenote etc. are less messy, but you need to expend time and effort instigating systematic procedures to structure data in useful ways and make cross-connections.
Using dedicated CAQDAS-packages make the messy process manageable. Because they’re intentionally designed to facilitate the processes involved. Using dedicated CAQDAS packages enables us to quickly, easily and reliably look back on what we did yesterday, last week, last month without having to create our own structures for doing so – it just happens, because everything is connected. We can access our earlier work we (and our colleagues’ if we’re working in a team) have done, at a click of a button, in order that it can be systematically built on to produce a valid and authoritative account.
Access to process
Keeping track of, and reflecting on the process of an analysis is important in all projects. Dedicated CAQDAS-packages can be used to access process via technical audit trails and to generate in-depth reflections on process.
Technical audit trails
Some dedicated CAQDAS-packages automatically capture every software operation, providing a technical audit trail of process. This allows you to clearly see - and share (see below) - the chronology of an analysis in terms of the use of tools to accomplish analytic tasks. In projects undertaken by multiple analysts and those where there is a need for replication, this is incredibly useful.
Reflecting on process
Whether your chosen CAQDAS-package automatically generates a technical audit trail or not, it’s also always necessary to reflect on the process by keeping a ‘research diary’ or ‘process journal’. This way you document and reflect on the rationale for undertaking tasks, the logic of the sequencing of tasks (rather than just the order in which they occurred as is captured in technical audit trails), how they build on one another to accomplish the analysis, whether they were useful or not, and any other relevant reflections. This is the responsibility of the user, but one that the use of dedicated CAQDAS-packages can facilitate because the materials, ideas, and the results of interrogations – often in the form of visualizations – are always immediately accessible to base reflections on.
The importance of accessing process
Analytic process is something qualitative researchers have historically not always been very explicit about – it’s difficult to concretely illustrate process when working manually. Using dedicated CAQDAS-packages enables us to not only develop technical and reflective audit trails but to be transparent about our process – showing others the logic as a way of illustrating rigour in our processes and quality of the analysis. This can be done via a range of export options, often specifically designed to show process, and by taking screenshots of work in progress and annotating these illustrations to explain a process or task.
Access for others
Using dedicated CAQDAS-packages also allows us to provide access for others – through team-working and participatory approaches, sharing our findings and data, and building new projects based on our work in the future.
Team-working and participatory approaches
CAQDAS-packages enable team-working in different ways, but it’s always possible to collaborate on project materials and integrate interpretive contributions. Multi-user programs allow concurrent team-working such that multiple researchers can work on the same materials at the same time from different geographical locations, whereas single-user programs usually enable separate project files to be merged, thus bringing the work of multiple researchers together incrementally as a project progresses. Either way, team-working is greatly facilitated by dedicated CAQDAS-packages, particularly managing work and incorporating and tracking multiple perspectives.
Team-working via dedicated CAQDAS-packages isn’t limited to involving researchers or analysts but can also involve research participants in the process of analysis and interpretation. Some CAQDAS-packages have been intentionally designed to be so user-friendly that those without formal qualitative methods training or experience can easily use them, a trend that has grown over recent years and greatly facilitates participatory approaches.
We can also use dedicated CAQDAS-packages to share our findings - generating visualizations to illustrate interpretations in reports, articles and presentations. The use of dedicated CAQDAS-packages allows us to represent findings in a range of ways, beyond the traditional textual forms of writing an interpretation and presenting a few illustrative quotes. Visualizations including charts and diagrams, maps and networks, and joint displays are available in most dedicated CAQDAS-packages. Their use, of course, must be methodologically appropriate, but the options provide powerful and engaging ways to communicate.
Data archives and repositories have been accepting qualitative datasets for many years for re-use, and we can now also shared analyzed qualitative data using the open exchange standard (known as the REFI-QDA Standard) developed by the Rotterdam Exchange Format Initiative (REFI), which allows analyzed data to be exported from one CAQDAS-package and imported into another. Several benefits for researchers and teachers arise from the REFI-QDA Standard, including the ability to fulfil analytic tasks when a tool isn’t available in our software of choice, and showcasing contrasts between CAQDAS-packages to facilitate informed choices.
In addition, several data archives and repositories have declared the REFI-QDA Standard as a preferred format for archiving. Sharing analyzed data in this way not only facilitates re-use - which is particularly relevant in the current situation where collecting qualitative data can be more challenging – but also opens up our work for evaluation, which can contribute to methodological discussions.
Building on earlier work
Anyone who has done qualitative research knows that the richness of the materials we generate is incredible. Likely, no one project can do justice to all the nuance contained within a set of materials generated for a given qualitative project. Through the analytic process, we make decisions to focus on particular areas, thus at the end of one project, we have ideas for further projects and uses for our materials. Using a dedicated CAQDAS package allows us to easily focus on conceptual areas and sample sub-sets for the current purpose, without deleting anything. This is because all CAQDAS-packages have filtering capabilities, meaning we can return to a CAQDAS project at any point to revisit materials, to look at them from different perspectives or for different purposes.
As such, a project undertaken in a dedicated CAQDAS-package can act as an archive for future studies. We can revisit the entire set of materials – the data, the supplementary (perhaps linked) resources, the ideas, processes, interpretations and findings – to view them via a different lens. We can create a new CAQDAS project out of a sub-set of the original project to focus on a different area. We can build on our earlier work, either in relation to it, or independent from it.
Access at the click of a button
Access to materials, to ideas, to processes and for others are fundamental to generating insightful, authoritative, transparent, meaningful and impactful outcomes from qualitative data. CAQDAS-packages allow us to access at the click of a button.
We can do it manually, but we need to be very organized and very systematic in the manual systems we develop in order to be able to reliably access what we need, when we need it and for whom we need it. And really, there are a whole bunch of things that just aren’t possible manually.
We can do it using non-dedicated software, but we hit limitations pretty quickly because whichever tool we use, it just hasn’t been designed for the needs of qualitative analysis at its heart, and it soon falls down for the complexity of the connections we need to make.
They know what they’re doing
Most dedicated CAQDAS-packages are developed by computer scientists who are also, and often foremost, qualitative or mixed-methods researchers themselves. They know what’s involved in analyzing qualitative data, what it means, and the principles and methodologies that underlie analysis - and they continually develop tools to facilitate common processes and to further methodological options.
Make informed choices
If you haven’t explored dedicated CAQDAS tools, I’d recommend you do – there are loads to choose from, no one is ‘best’ or even ‘ideal’ for all of your needs, but they are way better for the fundamental access needs that we all have than the manual or non-dedicated alternatives. At the very least, if you choose to work manually or using non-dedicated tools, do so because you’ve explored the dedicated options and made an informed decision that they can’t facilitate your access needs.