Confronting the myth of the lone researcher

There is a myth that qualitative researchers work alone. Lyn Richards, co-developer of NUD*IST and the early versions of NVivo, pointed this out nearly twenty years ago and more recently so did Judy Davidson. As Davidson says, this myth has shaped the instruction given to new researchers, instructional materials and also the technologies that are used in research. I will be discussing some of the key points from Judy’s webinar and her book – Davidson, J. (2018) Qualitative Research and Complex Teams, Oxford University Press.

Forming a Team

Davidson points out that there are two positions qualitative research can occupy in a complex team:
Solely qualitative research teams where there may be limited use of descriptive statistics but overall, the data collected and analyzed are qualitative in nature.
Mixed methods teams where there is a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. The sequence and use of the two forms of data will vary according to the research design of the project.


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In a mixed-methods team, it is important to question the assumptions about the role of qualitative research in the team. There are different forms of mixed methods study and it is important to clarify how the qualitative findings will be used and how integrated or not the quantitative and qualitative members are in terms of working together and understanding each other’s perspectives.

Even in purely qualitative teams, members can vary in terms of discipline and methodological orientation. Other differences can include culture, gender, race, ethnicity, language and political orientation. Other variations in the team are due to how they are organized – from highly stratified in terms of status and position to highly communal. It is important to acknowledge the differences in the team and to establish trust. Go in with a positive attitude and value any strengths in the differences.

Davidson advocates that one of the first tasks of a team is to set up a charter describing how team members will work together and negotiate differences and statuses. She identifies three rules when developing such a charter:

  • Don’t assume everyone is working on the same set of principles
  • Don’t assume that communication about these issues have been transparent to all
  • Don’t assume that everyone is speaking their mind openly

You will need a safe space to understand each member’s assumptions and to dig deeper to uncover any misunderstandings. You should assume that the team’s charter will be continually revised as you get to know each other better and as the research project develops.


A Digital Toolkit

Teams generate far more materials than the singleton researcher. It is important to have a digital toolkit where the research materials are well organized and accessible to all members. Judy describes the components of a digital toolkit as containing:

  • Communication and project management tools
  • Data and literature collection tools
  • Qualitative Research data and organization management tools


Communication and project management tools

Communication tools can be synchronous (same time) or asynchronous (gap in time). Examples are email, Slack, Skype, Zoom, Google Teams and MS Teams. Project planning tools include Asana and Trello. These tools are important to track who is doing what, what has been done and what needs to be done. It is important that data is stored in a secure place accessible to all members of a team. If the team is located in the same institution, they are likely to use their institution’s server. But if they are located across institutions, they may use commercial solutions such as Dropbox, Google Drive or MS Onedrive. For collaborative writing, you can use Word’s track changes in documents which you can then email or if you are using OneDrive, team members will have automatic access. Another option is to use Google Docs. There are also tools specifically designed for writing such as Scrivener.


Data and literature collection tools

There is a whole range of digital data and literature collection tools. For surveys, these include SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics, Google Forms, SurveyGizmo and MS Forms. Zoom and Skype can be used for online interviews. For face to face interviews dedicated video or audio recorders are commonly used although increasingly mobile phones are now being adopted. There are also specific note-taking tools which can take multimedia notes such as Evernote and OneNote. Scopus, World of Science, and ProQuest are examples of abstract and citation databases. The most common tools for managing literature are EndNote, Mendeley and Zotero.


Qualitative Research data and organization management tools

NVivo is the qualitative research tool most used by researchers. (An analysis of academic publications as collected in Scopus reveals that NVivo has been used in more than double the number of published scholarly research than its nearest competitor.)

NVivo, like its main competitors, has always been able to support team research but the new NVivo cloud-based platform takes collaboration to a new level. There are two types of workspace roles – the workspace manager who can invite users to the platform and manage the ‘master project’; and collaborators who can download a project, do their portion of the work and upload it to the platform and mark it ‘ready to merge’ so the workspace manager can merge the collaborator’s work into the master project.

The new cloud collaboration option ensures that team members are always in control of the version of the project they are working on and can go back to a previous version if necessary. In addition, this cloud-based tool can be accessed by team members spread out in different institutions and different parts of the world. It is fully GDPR and HIIPA compliant and with servers based in the USA, Canada, Singapore, and Europe it complies with regional regulations.

A successful team has streamlined communication processes, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and has the tools to do their work. Are there any gaps in your digital toolkit?

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