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Pre-registration for qualitative research

For anyone who does not think pre-registration could be helpful for qualitative studies, for instance in the fields of Humanities and Law: maybe it is time to reconsider.

As a former researcher in the field of Humanities, I must admit that pre-registration was not a concern at all. Most colleagues and I thought it was only suited for quantitative research projects. In quantitative and empirical projects, it is more likely that scholars use very accurate hypotheses and sharply defined datasets. When this is the case, it definitely makes sense to pre-register your research design. Others will be able to check you preliminary plan, which counters the temptation to manipulate hypotheses during the scientific cycle in such a way they ‘magically’ start to make sense. You do not have to be trained in scientific ethics to understand what happens when scientists reconstruct their hypothesis a posteriori so that it fits seamlessly with the specifically collected dataset, instead of the other way around.

Where the magic happens

In qualitative studies, it is not so much about verifying or falsifying hypotheses with a simple true (H=1) or false (H=0). Theory is not something to be tested, it functions more like a pair of glasses, a lens highlighting a specific part of data (or ‘corpus’) that is under scrutiny, while inevitably obscuring other parts. In Humanities, we understand theory more in the traditional Greek sense of the word: not a truth that is ‘out there’ and just needs disclosure, but ‘a way of seeing’.

Open Science Community - Pre-registration

A continuous process of interpretation

A multiplicity of theories can work at the same time and highlight various aspects of the same object. It is a continuous process of interpretation to see which notion or concept will prove to be most informative and appealing to explain what happens in for instance an artwork, an event, a small community or another singular object. I know PhD students who magically ‘found’ their theory in the final couple of weeks and had to do some frenetic revising before handing their dissertation to the committee.

This magic is not manipulation here, but the crucial, qualitative step that elevates the collection of ideas and discoveries to a whole that is more than just the sum of its parts, a true thesis that changes the way we look at this certain idiosyncratic part of reality.

Arguments for pre-registration in qualitative studies

One might argue that ‘pre-registration’ makes no sense here, but sociologist Leonie van Grootel (Tilburg University) rebutted this during and Open Science Skills Course held recently in the Library of Tilburg University. She confirms that qualitative research typically is more flexible and subjective and that it is not so much about prediction but postdiction. Nonetheless, she does think that pre-registration also renders qualitative research more credible. Making hypotheses explicit is only one feature of pre-registration, but much more important is that there is a certain track record of the major decisions taken by the researcher along the way. When this log can be found in the open, for instance on the Open Science Framework (OSF), others can tap into the discussion, make suggestions, or learn and (re)consider their own choices for theories and concepts. Pre-registration also prevents others from stealing your ideas, because you can ‘claim’ it in a very early stage of your project. Her arguments for pre-registration in qualitative studies can be found in this article (written together with Tamarinde Haven).

Tailor-made pre-registration form

I figured that pre-registering possibly could have disproved the remarks made by a critic of the dissertation I finished a couple of years ago. He argued that the theory I used fitted so neatly that it made him somewhat suspicious. What he did not and could not know, is that I experimented with a whole variety of aesthetical philosophies before getting to this result. If I could do it again, I would have done so with the tailor-made pre-registration form for qualitative studies made by Grootel and Haven.

Open Science Coordinator / scholar in Humanities and Social Sciences

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