ARTICLE 85: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Written Documents

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I guess many of us were conditioned from the day we started school to regard what is written on paper or what we can see on our computer monitors or cell phones as knowledge.

And as we grew older, we were taught to write things.

Probably most teachers and, later, lecturers, teach pupils and students that there are other sources of data apart from written documents.

But somehow, when we need to write a report of any kind, we fall back on written documents as our main, sometimes only, sources of data.

It is a good starting point.

Just keep in mind that what is written on paper or electronically is already old.

And the world is dynamic.

And we must be able to adapt to changes in the environment rapidly.

And especially on doctoral level, we need to develop new knowledge.

And existing knowledge is sometimes an obstacle in the way of progress.

I discuss the use of written documents as a data source in this article.

Almost all research projects involve, to a greater or lesser extent, the use and analysis of documents. You are expected to read, understand and critically analyse the writing of others, whether fellow researchers, practitioners or policymakers. For some research projects the focus of data collection is wholly or almost entirely, on documents of various kinds.

Documents are records of past events that are written or printed; they may be anecdotal notes, letters, diaries, reports and, of course, books. Official documents include internal papers, communications to various public, student and personal files, programme descriptions, and institutional statistical data.

In interactive data collection techniques, you can find these documents at the site or a participant may offer to share these personal records with you. Documents are the most important data source in concept analysis and historical studies. Documents are usually catalogued and preserved in archives, manuscript collection repositories, or libraries. Documents might, for example:

  1. Be library-based, aimed at producing a critical synopsis of an existing area of research writing.
  2. Be computer-based, consisting largely of the analysis of previously collected data sets.
  3. Be work-based, drawing on material produced within an organisation.
  4. Have a policy focus, examining material relevant to a particular set of policy decisions.
  5. Have a historical orientation, making use of available archival and other surviving documentary evidence.

Using documents can be a relatively unobtrusive form of research, one which does not necessarily require you to approach respondents directly. Reading documents is usually supplemented by other data collection methods. You will probably make considerable use of secondary data, i.e. data which has already been collected, and possibly also analysed, by somebody else. Technically speaking most documents are secondary data, the most common forms of which are official statistics collected by governments and government agencies.

One needs to be cautious when analysing secondary data. The questions you need to ask of any existing document are:

  1. What were the conditions of its production? For example, why, and when, was the document written and for whom?
  2. If you are using statistical data sets, have the variables changed over time?
  3. Have the indicators of statistical data sets that you used to measure variables changed? For example, the measurement of unemployment has undergone many changes in the past two decades, and even today different research agencies use different definitions of unemployment as well as different statistical models, so that they produce different figures for what should be the same thing. This makes comparison of figures difficult and sometimes unrealistic.

You will invariably make use of written documents, including books and your own notes taken during interviews and fieldwork (observation), as sources of information. You will already have used such documents when you prepared your study proposal. Another important data collection activity where you will extensively use written documents will be when you do your literature review. 

The notes taken during interviews need to be a true and accurate reflection of what has been said by the interviewees. You need to distinguish between capturing the exact words and paraphrasing. This is important for showing proof that you did not commit plagiarism and that the way you used the data is accurate, valid and consistent.

Notes that you take can be rather voluminous. However, you should still pay attention to taking accurate notes. You should also note the names of people who you interviewed or spoke to, who said what during focus group meetings and the time, dates and places where the interviews or discussions took place.

Treat the opportunity to review any material as if it were your only opportunity to access and read the documents. By doing so, you will reduce the frustration created by having to return to the material later. You will also minimise inconveniencing any people who may have had to retrieve the material for you.

People whom you interviewed will not always be available or willing to repeat the interview, should you lose your notes. It is always a good idea to make duplicates of written documents. This, of course, is easier if you could just make a backup of an electronic version of the documents. Also type a copy of a voice recording as soon as you have an opportunity to do so. Check that the recorder is working before you do an interview or focus group.


Almost all research projects use written documents as a source of data.

A document can be anything that is written or printed.

Documents can be found in libraries, personal collections, in bookshops, archives and many more.

The contents of documents are often supplemented by other sources of data.

Most documents are secondary data.

You must corroborate written data.

Be careful of not committing plagiarism when using documents as a source of data.

Make sure that your notes and other documents that you prepare are accurate and relevant to your research.

It is advisable to store your notes electronically or to make printed or written duplicates.


The requirements for the collection and use of documents as sources of data are in many ways the same as for most data collection methods.

  1. All data should be corroborated, regardless of how it was collected.
  2. All data that you collect, and use must be relevant to your research.
  3. You must acknowledge the origin of data that you use in your thesis or dissertation.
  4. You must be able to provide evidence of the data that you refer to in your thesis or dissertation, should your study leader, an external evaluator or any other stakeholder question it.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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