Sarah Nettleton

Why read this account

To find out about the experiences on one researcher and the ethics of researching healthcare professionals

From research to use

This case study illustrates the life cycle of a research project, from the process of archiving the data with the UK Data Service to its subsequent use.

It presents the experiences of the Principal Investigator, Sarah Nettleton in sharing the qualitative data generated from the project and examines the account of how these data have been used in a taught module for third year sociology students at Cardiff University, run by Sara MacBride-Stewart.

About the research

Nettleton’s research project can be found in the UK Data Service’s catalogue at: Being a Doctor: a Sociological Analysis, 2005-2006.

The study brought a sociological perspective to an exploration of the views and experiences of medical clinicians in the National Health Service (NHS), at a time of evolving socio-political, technological and organisational changes that some were calling a “cultural revolution”. It sought to understand how day-to-day experiences and perspectives of doctors were influenced by these shifts in their working environment.

Research questions focused on issues such as: What do doctors make of the changes in health care? Are they aware of calls for changes to their values and practices? Do contemporary developments affect how they feel about themselves? By addressing the lived experiences of doctors working in a range of NHS settings during this time, the study offered detailed insights that enhanced an appreciation of how clinicians were reviewing their chosen careers in light of radical shifts in UK healthcare.

About the data

Qualitative interviews were conducted with fifty-two doctors; twenty-eight men and nineteen women. They were located in the North of England; the majority in hospital settings, although five (four men and one woman) were GPs. They were representative of a range of medical specialties, ages, ethnicities, and seniority.

The dataset deposited, Being a Doctor: a Sociological Analysis, 2005-2006 (SN6124) consists of fifty of these interviews, from those who had given consent. In addition to the data, the collection provides access to a number of research reports exploring the methodology and the participant information
sheet and consent form are also available.

Archiving challenges

The researchers were alert to the sensitive themes arising in these in-depth interviews and requested that they would be available under a safeguarded license. Sarah Nettleton, as lead investigator for this study, made it clear when interviewed that she felt that there were occasions when the researcher may have a duty of care to participants, even when they have given consent for data sharing. In fact, she noted that for this study most of the participants were “pretty dismissive of the whole ethical procedure and just said ‘Oh, another form…’”. This may be surprising when the participants are healthcare
practitioners, but this perhaps reinforces Professor Nettleton’s sense about the researcher’s responsibilities around consent for sharing data. The option for
safeguarding access to data once archived can help alleviate such concerns.

An appropriate and balanced approach to anonymisation is also another safeguard, but Professor Nettleton wanted to raise awareness of the time consuming nature of it. She was conscious that although research assistants may be costed as part of the research budget, the preparation of data and documentation for archiving may be scheduled at a time when their contracts are coming to an end, particularly, as is so often the case, if longer term data management was not adequately planned at the start of the project.

This means that the possibly daunting task is left solely with the investigator, who is likely to have many other responsibilities, especially drafting outputs from the funded project. This can impact on the capacity to prepare materials for deposit, in this case, in response to the requirements of the funder’s (ESRC) Research Data Policy. For example, in this project it meant that background documentation, such as field notes, were not deposited because of the cost in terms of time. Professor Nettleton advocates for a more transparent earmarked cost requirement for preparation for archiving when budgeting
for research funding.

The UK Data service does provide cost advice on managing and sharing data. She has also further presented, in 2018 at a session on ‘Show me the data: research reproducibility for qualitative methods on her experience of archiving.


Sarah Nettleton and her colleagues now have plans to review the original data from the Being a Doctor study in preparation for a new research project. She was also pleased to hear that her data from this project had been reused in a number of academic settings, particularly for teaching qualitative data analysis. They have been utilised predominantly in sociology, but also in medicine and health studies, psychology, education, anthropology, politics and international studies.

For four years now, Cardiff University have drawn on these interviews in a third year sociology of health module that is structured around two themes: professionalism and patient experience. These data neatly match the focus. When interviewed about her experiences teaching with these data, Sara MacBride-Stewart acknowledged that there is often a high level of anxiety amongst students around analysing secondary qualitative data, as they have typically not encountered the approach before. However, the module is structured so that each seminar takes the students through secondary data analysis stage by stage.

Having undertaken research in similar fields before, Dr. MacBride-Stewart found that incorporating her own experiences into the teaching helped to elucidate the content and context of the material for students, who are not familiar with these kinds of doctors’ accounts. Her course utilises seminars to provide opportunities for ‘scaffolding’, where students, often challenged by the content and size of the material, can be best supported. For example, one seminar focuses on data and consent issues. Students are encouraged to include this aspect in their summative assignment – a two and a half-thousand
word report. Those who do so receive higher marks. According to Dr Macbride-Stewart, the best pieces of work are publishable, but students who did not attend the seminars were inclined to fail the assignment (accordingly, students are now advised on this).

Overall, despite the steep learning curve, feedback from students is very positive, and it is helpful in beginning to understand how to move from data to theory. Furthermore, this experience is good preparation for their third year undergraduate dissertation. Cardiff have plans to develop a new module, also incorporating these data, that hopes to build on teaching from the first and second year to ensure that students can feel more secure in theoretical foundations; thus helping them to move beyond description.


Nettleton, S. (2009). Being a Doctor: a Sociological Analysis, 2005-2006. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 6124 DOI: 10.5255/UKDA-SN-6124-1.

Watt, I., Nettleton, S., & Burrows, R. (2008). The views of doctors on their working lives: a qualitative study. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 101(1
2), 592-7. DOI: 10.1258/jrsm.2008.080195

Nettleton, S (2018) ‘Crisis what crisis: can qualitative data archiving enhance transparency?’ – Transparency in Qualitative Research, ESRC Research Methods Festival, Bath July 2018.

At-a-glance: Lessons learnt from Sarah Nettleton's project:

  • The option for safeguarding access to data once archived can help alleviate concerns around data sharing.
  • There are occasions when the researcher may have a duty of care to participants, even when they have given consent for data sharing.
  • Budget and manpower may run out if longer term data management is not adequately planned in at the start of the project.