The Rotterdam Exchange Format Initiative (REFI) launches standard for sharing qualitative data across qualitative data analysis software.

By: Liliana Melgar and Marijn Koolen (CLARIAH project)

The Rotterdam Exchange Format Initiative (REFI) consists of a group of software developers and expert qualitative researchers who decided to join efforts in creating a standard for the exchange of data between qualitative data analysis software packages, also called CAQDAS or QDAS.

QDA software packages are designed to facilitate qualitative data analysis. This type of software has existed for more than thirty years ( Silver and Patashnick, 2011 ). According to SoSciSo , an inventory of software used in social science research, there may be more than thirty packages of this type in the market. This makes it difficult for qualitative researchers to choose a package for their research, but also even more difficult to move their data out of or across these packages.

Representing CLARIAH, we attended the launching event of the project exchange format produced by the REFI group, and joined the discussions about the implications and next steps.

The REFI initiative and standard

The REFI initiative originated with the aim to solve the difficulties in exchanging data between QDA software. As Fred van Blommestein explains, the main reasons to facilitate exchange were to make it possible for users to switch to other software packages, exchange data with colleagues, leave a software package to choose another one (not to be locked-in) thus getting the benefits from using the best features of each specific software, and also for result verification (comparing results between packages). An extra reason for creating an exchange format, which was extensively discussed during the launching event, is research data archiving.

The idea to facilitate data exchange between QDA packages began during the KWALON conference in 2010. KWALON is an independent organization of researchers and lecturers at universities, colleges, research agencies and other organizations that deal with the methodology of qualitative social science research. In 2010, the so-called “KWALON experiment” was the first attempt to identify the issues in exchanging qualitative data between these applications, The KWALON Experiment consisted of five developers of Qualitative Data Analysis (QDA) software, all analysing the same dataset regarding the financial crisis in the time period 2008-2009, provided by the conference organisers ( an article about this experiment was published in the KWALON journal, FQS, “Forum: Qualitative Social Research” in 2011. Each developer used their own software for the analysis.

During the second KWALON conference, which took place in Rotterdam in 2016, Jeanine Evers, an active member of KWALON since 1995, asked the developers of the QDA packages if they were willing to work on an exchange format. The REFI group was then created and started working right after this conference. Developers from ATLAS.ti , F4 analyse , NVivo , QDA miner , Quirkos , and Transana have been actively working on the standard; also with some participation by developers from Dedoose and MAXQDA . The coordination of the REFI group is done by Fred van Blommestein, Jeanine Evers, Yves Marcoux, Elias Rizkallah, and Christina Silver (see photo).

The REFI initiative has produced two standards:

  • The first product was a “codebook exchange” format, launched in Montreal in March 2018. This format allows users of QDA packages to export their codebooks and import them into any of the programs that implement the format (more about codebooks and the list of software packages which are compatible is at the REFI website ).
  • The second product, launched on March 18, 2019 in Rotterdam (see photo with the proud group) is the “project exchange” format, which facilitates the exporting and importing of the main components of a research project done by a researcher with one of the participating software packages. As explained in the REFI website , those components include, among others: the source documents that are analyzed, the segments in those documents that researchers have identified and annotated, the codes and annotations they have assigned to these segments, memos with analytical notes, the links between codes, segments or memos, the cases, the sets/groups of entities, the visual representations of linked entities in the project, and user information.


(Source: REFI website)

The launching event

The project exchange format was launched during a workshop event on March 20-21, 2019 in Rotterdam, where besides the REFI group members, other participants from the archival community and infrastructure projects were invited to present and discuss the implications of these exchange formats.

Presenters included:

  • Ron Dekker from Director of CESSDA , the Consortium of European Social Science Data Archives, who pointed to the limitation of some european projects which end up with tools that cannot be sustained in the long term. He argued in favor of an integrated approach to research data infrastructures which provides a “minimum viable ecosystem” for federating existing initiatives and structures within a single, consolidated and seamless platform that would facilitate data provision and exchange between the four major stakeholders: member states, service providers, data producers, and data users.
  • Sebastian Karcher , from the Qualitative Data repository at Syracuse University, introduced us to the QDR repository, which curates, stores, preserves, publishes, and enables the download of digital data generated through qualitative and multi-method research in the social sciences. Sebastian presented the requirements and challenges in providing high quality data services to researchers, which involve not only curation, but also good documentation, assistance, and training.
  • Louise Corti from the UK Data archive founded at the University of Essex in 1967 introduced the collections, users, and main processes of the archive. She highlighted the importance of the QDA exchange standard, since now QDA packages could offer a “deposit” or “archive” button to their users.
  • Rico Simke , a software engineer from the Center for Digital Systems (CeDiS) of the library of Free University Berlin, described the rich qualitative collections that they host, among others, the “Visual history archive”, which contains 52,000 interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust, and the “Forced labor” collection , which contains 583 interviews with survivors of Nazi forced labor. Rico explained the curation processes to facilitate fine-grained access to these collections, and we all discussed the tension between software for editing and publishing these collections, versus the software to perform qualitative analyses with those collections.
  • René van Horik , from DANS, the Dutch institute for permanent access to digital research resources guided us through the existing certifications for data repositories, he highlighted the importance of the QDA exchange standard, since it facilitates the creation of data management plans for researchers.
  • Steve McEachern , from the Australian Data Archive , and the ANU Center for Social Research and Methods and Qualitative Data, which collects and preserve Australian Social Science data, including 5000 datasets and 1500 studies (including a small set of qualitative research datasets of e.g. election studies, public opinion polls, censuses, administrative data), talked about Dataverse, and the future directions in processing qualitative data. He also discussed the difficulties to separate what is data and what is analysis, and their efforts to try to come up with a process model of qualitative research.
  • Julian Hocker : Ph.D student in Information science at the Leibniz-Institute for research and information in education (DIPF) in Germany, presented his research on a metadata model for qualitative research, which will encourage researchers to share qualitative data, mostly their coding schemes.

Discussion and next steps

At the launching event, the implications of the exchange formats were discussed, mostly focusing at this stage on the requirements for the format to be compatible with the requirements for data deposit at repositories. The participants actively listed the elements required for the standard to be more suitable to this aim. A second version of the exchange format, as well as the dissemination activities among the involved communities and the users of the QDAS packages were listed as the main actions to take by the REFI group in the near future.