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Big moment for CAQDAS: QDA-XML exchange

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

It's finally here - the ability to exchange analysed qualitative data between CAQDAS packages! Since September 2016 the developers of several CAQDAS packages have been working together to produce an open-source exchange standard, that we call the QDA-XML exchange format.

Today the first version was released by the Rotterdam Exchange Exchange Format Initiative (REFI) - a big moment in the history of computer-assisted qualitative data analysis, and something that will change the way that researchers and teachers work.

Find out more at and start exchanging CAQDAS projects!

Also, see a post by Daniel Turner on the Quirkos blog who has launched a new version of Quirkos (v.2.1) with the QDA-XML exchange implemented today

Lots of CAQDAS choices 

CAQDAS packages have been around for more than 30 years, and there are many to choose between. For an overview of options, grouped according to focus, see the Text Analysis Info website, and for reviews of selected packages see the CAQDAS Networking Project website

It's good for the qualitative and mixed-methods community that we have so many software options - the variety in analytic needs across our vast field means it would be almost impossible to expect one software program to be able to meet all our idiosyncratic needs. 

Why we need an exchange standard 

And that’s why we need a common, open-source exchange standard - to go from one program to another, in order to fulfil our analytic tasks when a tool we need isn’t available in our software of choice.

Organisations, teams and individuals usually have to make the choice to purchase and learn one program. Sometimes licenses are available for more than one CAQDAS program within an organisation, but this is the expectation rather than the norm. And where there's a site licence for a specific program, there may not actually be many choices, unless budgets exist to purchase an alternative.

This has been a significant issue for many researchers, especially those working collaboratively, where different team members have access to and/or experience in/preference towards particular products. 

Today is the beginning of the end of this issue! 

A long time coming

The QDA-XML exchange standard that REFI has published today is not the first attempt to address the issue. For example, back in 2007 at the ‘Advances in Qualitative Computing' conference organised by the CAQDAS Networking Project, Louise Corti from the UK Data Archive facilitated a discussion about developing an exchange format. However, there was only limited engagement at that time from CAQDAS developers.

Unique bottom-up approach

The UK Data Archive subsequently developed the Qualitative Data Exchange Schema (QuDEx) but that standard focused on archiving needs.

The difference with the QDA-XML standard is that CAQDAS developers and qualitative researchers, methodologists and teachers were involved in its development from the outset and throughout. This means that the standard takes explicit account of the specificities of CAQDAS packages, and the myriad of ways in which users work with qualitative data and use digital tools. 

In March 2018 in Montreal REFI launched its first product - the Codebook Exchange, which enabled a Codebook developed in one CAQDAS package to be exported and then imported into another package. 

Credit where credit is due

Jeanine Evers (Kwalon, Erasmus University Rotterdam) gets all the credit for initiating the process that has led to today. In September 2016, at the "Reflecting on the future of QDA software" conference that she co-organised in Rotterdam, Jeanine facilitated the lead-developers and CEOs of several major CAQDAS developers to agree to start working together on this exchange standard. During the final session of the conference, she clearly outlined the need for an exchange standard and facilitated a video-recorded discussion between developers, that resulted in them signing an agreement to start collaborating to this end. Kudos, Jeanine. 

Since then, most of those who then publicly agreed to the endeavour have been working closely together - and today we have seen the remarkable result. 

Reflections on the process

REFI co-ordination group, Codebook Launch, Montreal March 2018I was honoured to be involved in the coordination group, along with Élias Rizkallah (Université du Québec à Montréal), Fred Van Blommestein (University of Groningen), Yves Marcoux (Université de Montréal), and Kristi Jackson (QUERI, who retired from the group in September 2017). 

The process was incredibly interesting. Having worked in the CAQDAS field since 1998, I found it fascinating to learn more about the technical back-end of each program. Understanding something about the technicality of architectural structures has contributed to my appreciation of the logic, functioning and flexibility of CAQDAS programs. 

In addition, it has been incredibly exciting, inspiring, and somewhat mind-blowing to witness developers from competing products collaborate in this way. Many CAQDAS packages started off life within universities, as researchers worked with software developers to design tools to support their analytic needs. Many were developed as free and open-source products, and some remain so, but many became commercial and proprietary.

CAQDAS developers actively involved in developing the QDA-XML exchange standardThe developers that were actively involved in the development of the QDA-XML exchange format put aside commercial interests and shared hitherto largely secret details about their software, in the knowledge that the standard will enable their customers to move to another product. The willingness of these developers to do this illustrates very clearly that they hold the interests of the research community in high regard.

Remember, that in many cases these are relatively small companies - this is not the equivalent of the Microsoft's and Apple's of this world developing exchange standards. These guys potentially have something very concrete to lose. That they collaborated in such an open and productive way, getting to the point of releasing the first version of the project exchange standard according to the planned time-frame, is to be applauded.  

That said, this isn't before time. 

What researchers have to gain

The QDA-XML exchange format enables researchers and other users of CAQDAS packages to transfer data from one CAQDAS package to another in order to accomplish an analytic task not supported by tools in the host software work collaboratively even when team members are using different CAQDAS packages take data with them and continue analytic work when moving to an institution with a site license for a different CAQDAS package re-use and archive data in a common standard  The introduction of the QDA-XML specification details the requirements that were identified in developing the exchange standard. 

Why teachers should be excited

There are also several benefits of the QDA-XML standard for teachers of qualitative methods and tools. Being able to transfer analysed data to other CAQDAS packages means that differences between packages can be concretely illustrated using the same dataset when for example making recommendations about which software packages are appropriate for particular analytic strategies ways of analysing the same set of qualitative data using different strategies can be illustrated in different CAQDAS packages.

Teachers have previously either had to use different research data in each CAQDAS package they illustrate, or recreate an analysis multiple times. Now we will be able to take an analysis done in one package and transfer it to another when we need to illustrate different tools and approaches, saving us a lot of time! 

What's next...?

Any CAQDAS package can implement the QDA-XML standard. Just let REFI know by emailing Jeanine Evers in order to be added to the list of packages that are using the standard. 

We are already working on the next version of the standard, and discussing with data archives from around the world, what needs to be added to the standard in order to comply with their needs. 

Keep an eye on for updates...and let REFI know how you get on if you use the standard.  


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