There are large number of options for free and open-source software tools for qualitative data analysis. They can help you explore, analyse and manage qualitative data, but each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
But first, let’s be honest. When you ask for Free, do you mean Free as in Freedom, or Free as in beer? Open-source software means that the programming and software that makes the software work are available for anyone to look at, change and improve on. You can see and trust how the programme works, and if you have the technical know-how, adjust it to do exactly what you need it to. That’s the free as in freedom.
But that doesn’t mean that they are all free as in beer. Some software packages charge a fee to download, and this helps pay for their development and support, just like commercial software. This article will cover both types of open-source software, but also discuss the benefits of some of the commercial options. It may seem a bit strange that I want to write about open-source alternatives to Quirkos, but I genuinely believe in open-source, and also that qualitative researchers have such diverse needs from their software that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I also see people asking all the time 'Why isn't there a free alternative to Nvivo?' but there are many!
There have been a lot of open-source qualitative software options in the past, but many of them have not been updated in a while or can be difficult to get going, so I am going to cover six that are still current (as of end 2019). I’ve used most of them, and will give my opinion of their pros and cons below:
Aquad is probably the most conventional option in terms of interface and operation, even if it looks a little dated. It covers the basic code and retrieve functions for text, but also includes multimedia support. Aquad focuses on a few niche approaches such as their implementation of sequential analysis, implicant analysis and what they call ‘paraphrases’. Getting into these mindsets might take some researchers some time. Originally developed in German, there is also an English translation, although there is less documentation in English. It’s one of the few that is still fairly current, but will install on Windows without having to install a lot of other software to support it. There is no current Mac or Linux version.
This is a plugin for the R open-source statistical software package and programming language, a very powerful alternative to SPSS. RQDA adds a basic interface that lets you bring in text sources and perform basic coding operations to mark up the text. It’s a very powerful tool if you want to do statistical analysis of your coded data, since it allows you to use any part of the R programming language to do text analysis and quantitative tests. However, the purer qualitative elements are a little lacking, and it has a lot of requirements to install. You will need to have R installed on your computer, as well as GTK+ and some of these packages can be very tricky to get working on Windows at the moment. It’s a little easier for Mac and Linux, but a lot of the documentation is out of date.
These are two powerful software packages that are based around a server that hosts your data and runs the programme. That means that you need to install the software on a computer that you can log in and access to, usually from another computer, and keep running. It’s not like a traditional desktop piece of software. Both are a little more focused on text analytics and data mining, rather than manual qualitative analysis and coding. Cassandre doesn’t have a lot of documentation in English, but has neat conceptualisations and unique was of working with the data. CAT also has a commercial front end called DiscoverText, but at $24 a month for students, is pretty pricey unless you need very powerful text analytic tools.
Transana was originally designed for analysing video data, but has developed into a very powerful tool for all kinds of qualitative analysis, as it has recently added support for coding text data. At first glance, it can seem a little intimidating, and the way it organises data and codes/tags is unique to Transana but flexible once you get your head around it. For video analysis, there is nothing more capable around: commercial or otherwise, it’s support for multiple video streams and transcripts is unparalleled. It’s actively developed and works on Windows and Mac, but while it is open-source, there is a significant one off fee.
This is the newest option, and while essentially another server based software package, since it works in the browser, it’s easy to work with and also has a free hosted version on their website. At the moment it only provides very basic functionality, with very little in the way of outputs or visualisation. However, it is in active development and has great potential with a lovely clear interface. The team are very engaged on Twitter taking suggestions, so it’s definitely one to watch.
The Wikipedia page for qualitative analysis software (CAQDAS) lists another couple of options (including QualCoder which I’ve not tried), but quite a few of these are either quantitative text analytic tools, or haven’t been updated in some time. This means that they frequently won’t install properly on modern operating systems. All these free tools also don’t offer support, so if you get stuck or run into a bug, you can get very stuck.
However, it’s also worth considering the standard commercial options like Quirkos, Nvivo and Atlas.ti. Although they may require an up front fee, they also offer support and much simpler installation and operation than many of these options. I love open-source software, and use it everyday. However, I feel that at the moment most of the qualitative analysis software options are lacking in some important way.
Realistically, open-source software works best when the people using it are able to contribute and add to the development of the code. However, for qualitative analysis (not quantitative text analytics), there are few social scientists or those in the humanities using qualitative methods who also are able to develop software code. This means that almost all these software packages have only ever been developed by one person – the original founder. They haven’t managed to grow a community around them, and that leaves them abandoned when the original founder moves on. This happened to the excellent WeftQDA.
That was the reason that I made the decision not to make Quirkos free and open-source. Charging a fee for the software (even the lowest one of any paid software package) allows us to hire a full time software developer, who keeps Quirkos working when operating systems are updated, fix bugs and adds new features that our users request. It also allows us to offer 7 day a week support, so that when people get stuck, or have questions about how to use Quirkos we can help them. That means that researchers can trust that their work won’t get lost and they will have support to finish their analysis.
Since Quirkos is also easier to learn than many of these options, it can save valuable time using the software, letting you spend more time on your data. Our aim was always to make the most accessible qualitative data analysis software, and for me that meant having a professional service with a low cost to entry that is reliable and dependable. You can download Quirkos for free, try it for 14 days and see how Quirkos and our Quirkos cloud lets you easily work with your qualitative data.