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Using NVivo: An Unofficial and Unauthorized Primer

Shalin Hai-Jew, Author

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Research Journaling in NVivo

Broadly speaking, a research journal is not de rigueur in qualitative and mixed methods research. It is, however, broadly encouraged as a tool because of its potential benefits as an aide de memoire of the work...for decision-making, documentation, for planning, for reportage, and other applications.  The thinking that goes into a research journal may enable the individual to be a stronger researcher over time. 

Internal team benefits; external benefits

If effectively done, research journals enable rich insights for the researcher and the research team. Such journals enable researcher reflection about the work, the capturing and documentation of that thinking process, the recording of the unfolding of the research, and potential deeper insights about the research—both in contemporaneous and future time (in retrospect). Before and during a project, a research journal may complement and enhance the work. After a research project is completed, the research journal may be used to share information about research methodologies and insights for publication and / or presentation.

External to the research group, research journals may provide deeper insights about the personalities of the researchers, the methods of discovery, the actual sequence of certain thinking and discoveries, and other insights. In a sense, research journals contain “metadata” about the core research work.

General structure of a research journal.

A research journal is generally a time-based chronological text that is focused around particular events and milestones. This work may describe the research methodologies, thinking about the work, planning, the work team, and any number of other issues. Research journals are supposed to contain not only what the team thinks is relevant but also the desiderata of the work and the egos related to the work. It may describe changes in attitudes and insights. It may be used as a tool to help researchers think through particular challenges, such as widely disparate research findings (how may that be discussed or even possibly understood or synthesized?). to troubleshoot work-based challenges, and to originate new ideas and insights. Perhaps a research journal is used to think through ways to falsify the research data (and therefore come up with new questions and research approaches). Or it may contain the brainstorms of future research.

A research journal may be kept by any or all (or none) of the researchers. It may be private to the individual and never shared with anyone else (except indirectly in terms of the changes that come about because of the thinking-work put into the research journal). It may be a collective research journal, such as one built on an internal wiki, to which everyone on the team contributes.

In NVivo, a research journal may be built as a series of memos in the Memos folder. Memos are context-sensitive notations linked to various documents or objects inside an NVivo project.  

The contents may go well beyond text-based entries. Maybe a researcher doodles on a tablet PC and uses those drawings as inspiration. Maybe a researcher records his or her ideas on a digital recorder and uploads audio files, which can then be transcribed and coded. Maybe the researcher uses a desktop lecture capture tool to record his or her thinking over time. Maybe another uses tables and charts of data in the research journal to enable analysis or modeling. Spatial diagrams (which may be drawn freehand or which may be drawn with the data, and other means) may be used to brainstorm relationships between variables. All sorts of multimedia may be used for research journaling.

The integration of a research journal inside the project software may encourage more regular contributions by researchers. The software tool enables the memos to queried and searched and analyzed.

For posterity

Other contemporaneous or future researchers may find the research journals of a researcher or research team insightful, as a less formal (gray) literature. 

A never-delete catch-all folder

QSR International trainers have suggested the wisdom of creating a catch-all folder for brainstormed ideas, dis-used nodes, extraneous resources, and other contents. This folder is to be maintained as a repository for contents not thought to be that useful at any point in the research. Instead of just deleting contents, which is a “hard delete” (irrecoverable), it is advisable to hide the work from use in the project but not totally eliminate the contents—in case there is some use later or in retrospect.  The idea to protect data against loss or destruction (as in non-destructive edits). 

One of the tenets of qualitative research is that human coding is variant over time, and even the same human coder will have variance in his / her / their "coding fist."  Having solid records of prior thinking may be beneficial to the work and preserve insights that may not arise again. 

An assumption in qualitative research is that a human coder will engage various subjectivities in their work, and these vary over time and circumstance.  The subjectivities have to be acknowledged.  They may have to be controlled for. They should absolutely be surfaced in the researcher's awareness.  There should be some systematizing in the research and coding to deal with such subjectivities. 


Of course, research journals may be kept in a variety of other digital (and even analog) formats.  The popularization of mobile devices enable access to various audio recorders that often have built-in transcription.  Analog journals may be digitized. 

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