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Qualitative data sharing and synthesis for sustainability science


Socio–environmental synthesis as a research approach contributes to broader sustainability policy and practice by reusing data from disparate disciplines in innovative ways. Synthesizing diverse data sources and types of evidence can help to better conceptualize, investigate and address increasingly complex socio–environmental problems. However, sharing qualitative data for re-use remains uncommon when compared to sharing quantitative data. We argue that qualitative data present untapped opportunities for sustainability science, and discuss practical pathways to facilitate and realize the benefits from sharing and reusing qualitative data. However, these opportunities and benefits are also hindered by practical, ethical and epistemological challenges. To address these challenges and accelerate qualitative data sharing, we outline enabling conditions and suggest actions for researchers, institutions, funders, data repository managers and publishers.

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Fig. 1: Qualitative data sharing for re-use.

image courtesy of Sofia Jain-Schlaepfer,


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S.M.A., K.J., R.D.H., N.M. and H.R. were supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875. S.M.A. was also supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. S.K. and N.W. were supported, in part, by an Alfred P. Sloan Grant (2018-11217). J.A.S. was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation (BCS-1042888; BCS-0746528; BCS-1413999) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NNX13AB72G).

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S.M.A. and K.J. designed and performed the research, led the collaborative work and the writing of the manuscript. All other authors contributed to the research, analysis and writing based upon their specific expertise, and they are listed alphabetically in the author list following N.J.B.

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Correspondence to Steven M. Alexander or Kristal Jones.

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Alexander, S.M., Jones, K., Bennett, N.J. et al. Qualitative data sharing and synthesis for sustainability science. Nat Sustain 3, 81–88 (2020).

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