Qualitative Data and Analysis Tools: Coding and Analysis Software

This guide describes workflows and tools for collecting, transcribing, analyzing and sharing qualitative and mixed methods data.

What's a CAQDAS?

CAQDAS (pronounced like cactus) is a common acronym for Coding and Qualitative Data Analysis Software. It describes a range of tools that can be used to apply codes or tags to unstructured data (like text, audio, video, or images) and summarize or analyze the data using some combinations of the data itself and the applied codes.

Some CAQDAS is primarily or exclusively focused on manual coding (highlight a relevant section and select a tag) while others also include options to automatically apply tags based on words, phrases, or machine learning analysis. CAQDAS also vary in the range of mixed methods analysis tools and visualization for codes and text (such as code overlaps), with some also able to integrate data from surveys, citation managers, and other sources in analysis.

This page provides descriptions and links to some of the most common free and commercial CAQDAS tools below. If you are trying to decide on a tool, we recommend reading the box titled "Which CAQDAS is right for me?" first.

Does the Library or Virginia Tech provide access to qualitative software?

As a rule, no. Neither the University Libraries nor general campus computing labs provided licensed access options for paid CAQDAS, including NVivo, Dedoose, atlas.ti, MaxQDA, QDAMiner, or others. The only exception is that short-term access is available by arrangement for research use of atlas.ti in the Media Production Suite on the fourth floor of Newman Library (send inquiries to ndporter@vt.edu).

However, there are free options that are suitable for some users, and most paid CAQDAS provides free trials of 7-30 days for new users to test out the software. More information on licensing is below in the "Which CAQDAS is right for me?" section.

How can I learn more about this software?

The University Libraries offers workshops on NVivo, Dedoose, Atlas.ti and Taguette, as well as qualitative coding principles and collaborative coding in spreadsheets. Resources for self-learning can be found on the Qualitative Training and Consultation tab.

Which CAQDAS is right for me?

If you're new to qualitative data analysis, choosing a tool can be intimidating, particularly since the most widely used tools are commercial and not widely available in campus labs.

The questions below and the chart below can help you narrow your options for tools. Note that most paid tools have free trials available, and introductory workshops and consultation assistance are available for many through Data Services (see "Qualitative Training and Consultation" tab).

Simple projects can sometimes also be accomplished using tools already available to you, such as spreadsheets like Excel or Google Sheets, although they're not included in the chart because they don't share the same basic structure of CAQDAS. Additional tools not in the chart can be found in the sections below with brief descriptions and links.

What kind of sources can I analyze?

All major CAQDAS allows for analyzing text-based documents (Word, plain text, web page text, etc.) and most provide support for PDF files as well, though some do not support images in PDFs or older PDFs without text tagging. Some tools also support coding areas of images or directly coding time segments of audio or video (without first transcribing). Additionally, some tools allow importing spreadsheets, survey data, citation manager bibliographies, or other data types for use in mixed methods analysis (see "Analysis" section in chart).

Some tools also have options to import data directly from specific social media sites (X/Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.), sometimes with special features. These are not listed in the chart because permissions and protocols change frequently and tend to break this functionality. If you are interested in working with qualitative data from a specific social media platform, please reach out to a consultant for assistance.

In most cases, coding and analysis are simplest if multimedia sources are first converted to text before importing to a project (see "Recording and Transcription" or "Qualitative Training and Consultation" tab), unless the visual or audio structure itself is being analyzed, beyond just the surface language.

How can I organize and apply codes?

All tools allow for manual selection and coding or tagging of the surface text of documents and (when the document types are supported) time segments of audio/visual sources and regions of images. Some tools also allow automatic coding of selected words or phrases when they appear in documents, often with tables or word clouds available to help find relevant phrases. Additionally, certain packages provide for automatic coding of text based on formatting or speaker names or even automatic identification of topics, sentiment (positive or negative), and named entities (people, places, groups, etc.) using machine learning or large language models. Both the level of necessary pre-processing and quality of these autocoding features vary widely, but they can be valuable tools to supplement manual coding or work across larger collections of sources.

Can I perform mixed methods analysis (and what kinds)?

All CAQDAS provide some basic functions for analysis, like the ability to count and view the subset of sources or text sections that have a specific tag applied to them. Most also provide for summaries of word counts in the text of one or more documents. However, support for various types of mixed methods analysis is one of the most significant differences between CAQDAS packages, so it is worth checking carefully 

What options are available to collaborate with other users?

Not all CAQDAS are equally good for projects with multiple coders, whether users are divvying up documents or coding each document multiple times. It is always possible to have different users of the same machine (or a cloud backup of the file with a service like OneDrive or Google Drive) open the same file and do work sequentially, but there are also two models that allow for multiple users to work on projects at the same time. Some use a synchronous cloud-based model, where all users can work on the same project simultaneously and changes are reflected in real time. Others have options to create multiple copies of a project that users can work on separately before merging them together at a later time.

Additionally, some packages with collaboration support also include extra features. Some allow for training and testing coders on a standard dataset to ensure pre-defined codes are applied consistently across users. Others also provide the ability to calculate measures of inter-rater reliability or coder agreement to measure how similar the final application of codes was across users. In all cases with collaboration, there are ways to choose a single final code from those applied by multiple users.

It's also worth pointing out that in choosing a CAQDAS package, it is worth consulting with likely collaborators about what (if any) packages they already use or have access to. What interoperability there is for qualitative data is generally limited to moving projects between packages, and currently only works well for the most common aspects of projects, such as textual data sources and code application, but not for unique or complex features such as coding multimedia or mixed methods analysis output. Therefore, it is strongly recommended to agree on a package with your entire research team early in the planning or data collection phases.

What does the software cost?

There are 3 basic licensing models for CAQDAS. Some tools are free and open source, although they tend to have a limited number of options. The remaining tools may be available as subscriptions (monthly or annual, typically with free upgrades), one-time purchases (major upgrades may require an additional fee), or both. Some tools have cloud-based data backup or syncing, either included in all licenses or as a paid add-on. All paid software is licensed by user, although some allow paying based on the number of users at one time, rather than the number of total users.

What if I want to mix and match features?

Each CAQDAS package stores data in its own proprietary project format, with limited or no interchangeability between software. Recently, however, major software companies agreed to support a qualitative interchange format called REFI-QDA (or sometimes QDPX) that allows for moving some elements of projects between tools by exporting text and XML-based files in a special format that the other tools can interpret.

This might allow, for example, coding documents using advanced auto-coding features in one package before exporting to analyze in a different package. However, advance pilot testing is important if you plan this kind of workflow, as even when data exported from one package can be imported to another, there may be losses or changes to structure because of differences in how the packages represent information internally. We recommend reaching out to a qualitative research consultant for help if you think you may need features that are not available in a single tool.

Is CAQDAS accessible for the visually impaired?

All major CAQDAS include at least some accessibility features, most commonly screen reader compatibility and keyboard shortcuts, but vary widely in the range of available options. Atlas.ti also provides public information on WCAG 2.0 compliance. For more assistance with research software accessibility, please contact Accessible Technologies.

CAQDAS Package Features

CAQDAS Features Chart