With the rise in attention to evidence-based policy making (Sutcliffe and Court, 2005), the growth of digital technologies (National Academy of Science, 2009) and the realisation of the power of ‘big data’ (Lynch, 2008) the importance of archiving research data has become a topic of interest internationally. Indeed, many funding organisations, including the Irish Research Council, require applicants for grant awards to show how their data will be made available to other researchers. This has created the need for researchers to take account of procedures for archiving their data from both the ethical and research design perspective.
Where the issue of archiving research data has not been a central consideration at the commencement of a research study it can be difficult to retrospectively adapt it. Such was the case with a number of evaluation studies commissioned in the mid-2000s by the Childhood Development Initiative [CDI]. Included was an evaluation led by the Dublin Institute of Technology [DIT] designed to evaluate the CDI Early Years Programme - a two-year early childhood intervention for children aged between 2 years and 6 months and 4 years. The evaluation comprised both a quantitative assessment of the programme and a qualitative assessment of the implementation process and, as such, had a rich data set with the potential for archiving (Hayes, Siraj-Blatchford and Keegan, 2013).
However, at the time of study design no request for, nor commitment to, archiving the research data was discussed. This was not unusual with community-based evaluations at the time but, as a consequence, no contingency for archiving had been included when developing information and consent literature for participating children, families and settings. To discuss how, if at all, the data from the evaluation study could be archived CDI and the research team met on a number of occasions.
The research team had a number of specific concerns as the study was, at this stage, already well underway. These concerns centred around three key issues, (i) the selection of what data, if any, could be archived, (ii) the ethical issues that archiving raised and (iii) the resources [time and funds] necessary to anonymise the data. Each issue is addressed briefly below.
(i) Selection of data – While the archiving of quantitative data is well established and straightforward the situation is more complex with qualitative data. Qualitative data does not lend itself so readily to archiving and re-use and the challenges can be structural, contextual and ethical (Fink, 2000). There is, for instance, the issue of copyright and ownership of data created in a relational context between the researcher and the researched (Parry and Mauthner, 2004). No discussion of copyright had occurred with respondents in advance of data collection. In addition, given the personal and detailed nature of the qualitative data it was felt that the respondents could be easily recognised. The extensive modifications necessary for it to be effectively anonymised would significantly compromise the usefulness of the data.
It was agreed that only the quantitative data could be considered for archiving.
(ii) Ethical issues – The ethics of retrospectively preparing the quantitative data for archiving was a consideration. A review of the information sheets, consent forms and ethical approval statements confirmed that it would be necessary to seek additional ethical approval from the DIT ethics committee. To this end the team requested and received
(a) ethical approval to pass anonymised quantitative data on children, families and childcare settings to Tallaght West Child Development Initiative once the evaluation ends
(b) ethical approval for Tallaght West Child Development Initiative to archive that anonymised data for the purposes of future research.
(iii) Resources – The original research proposal did not include funding for archival preparation. However, following the conclusion of the study the DIT research team facilitated CDI through the Children's Research Network in preparing the quantitative data from the Early Years evaluation study for archiving. There is restricted access to this data through the Irish Social Science Data Archive.