Declarations of informed consent as typically used in qualitative social science research usually do not allow for archiving and dissemination of data, since they usually guarantee to research participants the use of research data only in the context of a particular research project.
The simplest solution for ensuring the long-term preservation of research data would be to include archiving and reuse in the consent form. In practice, however, this can lead to a reduction of the research participants’ willingness to participate in the research process or to give less complete information. This could alter the findings.
Under German law, research data on the basis of which a personal identification can be produced must be deleted as soon as the research purpose has been achieved, unless otherwise agreed. However such an agreement is revocable by research participants at any time (see section 35, 2 no. 3 of the Federal data protection act).
Under the current data protection legislation in Germany, qualitative research data of the social sciences can be archived without the explicit consent of those concerned and made available for further scientific use as long as it has been anonymised.
However, existing good-practice solutions for the anonymization of qualitative research data can include data-altering measures, which may result in a loss of analytical content. Reusability of the data for replication or further research is therefore only possible with considerable limitations in content and methods.
Overall, the prerequisites for professional, long-term archiving and reuse of qualitative research data can be met under current data protection conditions. However, it requires careful conceptualisation at the point of project planning, especially while drafting the data management plan and writing the declarations of consent.
Data centres and research repositories are playing an ever increasing role, internationally as well as in Germany. These infrastructural facilities work as service providers for research and support the professional handling of qualitative research data as well as its digital preservation.
This overview outlines the conflict between data protection regulations and the archiving, transfer and possible re-use of qualitative research data as is required by some research funders. This had led to uncertainty on the part of scholars of qualitative social research.
An interdisciplinary dialogue between researchers, legal representatives, and representatives of data centres and information services is needed to foster an awareness of its rights and obligations in the digital preservation of qualitative research data.
The Research Data Management Workshop 2018 at the University of Bayreuth organised by the Specialised Information Service for African Studies will present an opportunity to engage in such a dialogue, especially tailored to subject-specific concerns. Watch this space for dates and the full programme!