Post#26: Dr Susie Weller: Collaborating with original research teams: Some reflections on good secondary analytic practice

In this blog, Dr Susie Weller, Senior Research Fellow at the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods and the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton reflects on her experiences of thinking about good practice in qualitative secondary analysis. Susie draws on a recent ESRC National Centre for Research Methods study – Working across qualitative longitudinal studies: A feasibility study looking at care and intimacy – conducted with Prof Rosalind Edwards, Prof Lynn Jamieson and Dr Emma Davidson. She considers some of the possibilities and challenges of developing collaborative relationships between secondary analysts and members of the original teams who created the data sets. In so doing, she shows how attachments to data and notions of ownership – for both original researchers and re-users of the data – shift over time.

Collaborating with original research teams: Some reflections on good secondary analytic practice

With colleagues, I have been conducting secondary analysis across six of the core studies housed in the Timescapes Qualitative Longitudinal Data Archive. The Timescapes project sought to scale up qualitative longitudinal (QLR) work. It was a five-year study comprising a set of empirical projects documenting change and continuity in identities and relationships over the lifecourse. The initiative also pioneered new approaches to archiving and re-using QLR data. Seven teams from five Higher Education Institutions in the UK conducted the original studies. As a secondary analysis team, we came to these data sets not just as secondary analysts, but also primary researchers. I conducted one of the Timescapes studies – Siblings and Friends – with Rosalind Edwards, and Lynn Jamieson was part of the Work and Family Lives project . Not only did this connection help us understand better the origins of the data, but it also facilitated relationships with the original researchers.

Having been heavily invested in our own QLR studies, we were mindful of the very particular nature of the long-term connection between researchers and participants. Our perception was that even though the original teams had archived their data for the purpose of re-use, we ought, in our negotiations about the secondary analysis of their material, to be sensitive about such long-term connections and the emotional investment made by the researchers. For us, our initial ideas about good secondary analytic practice involved developing approaches to sustained collaboration with the original researchers. Of course, some secondary analysts might regard the engagement of primary researchers as an interference, instead viewing the data as embodying new knowledge or alternative insights, which do not require the explicit involvement of the original researchers. Our approach was guided by a duty of care, and was shaped by our own understandings of the temporal and emotional investment involved in QLR.

With these concerns in mind, we contacted former Timescapes colleagues at the outset to inform them of the purpose of our study and our plans to use their archived material. In the early stages, we liaised with individuals via email, asking project-specific questions about, for instance, the research context, data set structure and their own analysis. Whilst our intention was to be inclusive, in practice we liaised with only one or two members of the original team; those with whom we had strong professional relationships. Later, we took a more formalised approach inviting members of the original teams to complete an online consultation with questions asking them about their changing connection to the data, feelings and concerns about data sharing and re-use, and the forms of consultation or connection (if any) they would consider appropriate/valuable. We received responses from all teams over varying timescales, some of whom have contributed to our series of guest blogs. Most of the responses were from the researchers who had produced the data.

Their willingness to contribute to our work on good practice in qualitative secondary analysis may be regarded as acts of cooperation and we have relied heavily on the goodwill of these colleagues, some of whom we have known for many years. In 2017, with NCRM colleagues Melanie Nind and Sarah Lewthwaite, we were awarded additional funding to build capacity and develop resources for the teaching of our new breath-and-depth approach to big qual analysis. This opportunity enabled us to work more closely with some of our former colleagues through action-oriented training events. We have since shared details of the resources produced via our final correspondence with the original teams.

We soon came to realise that, whilst our initial ideal was to foster sustained collaboration, this was not something that the original researchers necessarily wanted, expected or could accommodate. Some had left academia for new ventures, or were not available. Others had developed different interests and had moved on from their Timescapes work. Few were still using their own project material. Our consultation revealed that of the 19 who responded to a question about their connection to the data, seven explicitly stated that their attachment had declined over time (one person reported having never felt any connection). Furthermore, of the 14 who replied to a question asking their opinion on appropriate levels of contact between original researchers and secondary analysts, three did not want any contact at all. Conversely, our engagement with material from studies other than our own gave us a greater (and growing) sense of connection to the broader Timescapes collection.

Whilst original team members may wish to collaborate they may not have the time or funds to do so. Yet, it may well be junior/field researchers who are best placed to enlighten secondary analysts on the minutiae of a project. We were, however, concerned that sustained collaboration, which relies largely on the goodwill of colleagues, could result in exploitation. It is important to acknowledge the hidden labour involved in such collaborations and to think through the possibilities for formalising the process to some degree. This could involve a variety of options from acknowledging the investments of data generators in project outputs through to developing joint ventures, or incorporating willing original researchers in grant design and budgets. This might be particularly appealing for fixed-term contract researchers.

That said our consultation showed that some of our Timescapes colleagues felt increasingly detached from ‘their’ archived data over time, whereas we became more attached to it. We merged data from the six projects into one assemblage organising the material by gender and cohort-generation. This was a time-consuming process and we engaged with the data over the course of four years, albeit on a part-time basis. The labour we invested in this process meant that we became attached to it as our production, thereby shifting our perception of ownership. Indeed, we are currently in the process of preparing our data assemblage for deposit in the Timescapes Archive as a teaching data set. Archiving and data re-use implies that the knowledge production has not ended. Secondary analysis disrupts usual understandings of collaboration introducing it as emergent, iterative, unexpected.

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