REFI: QDAS-XML exchange standard

The QDA-XML exchange standard enables interoperability between Qualitative Data Analysis Software (CAQDAS or QDAS) programs. Its purpose is to enable users to exchange processed data between programs. It is an open standard and any program can implement it, thus increasing the number of software programs that can ‘talk’ to one another.  

Usefulness of the QDA-XML exchange standard

An exchange format allows data to be exported from one software program and then imported into another. This will be useful to users and teachers of QDA software programs for several reasons, including:

  • researchers may need analytic tools not provided by the software they are familiar with, and therefore need to transfer data to another program in order to accomplish those tasks

  • researchers working on collaborative research projects may be in teams where different members use different software programs

  • researchers working at an institution with a site license for one program may move to an institution with a different site license and need to be able to continue working with their data

  • a common standard maximizes the possibility of using project data in the future and for archiving purposes

  • teachers illustrating differences between programs and ways of analysing qualitative data in different methodological contexts need to be able to show the same research project in different programs

More information and additional examples of the utility of the standard in the form of ‘user-stories’ can be found in Evers (2018)

Goals of the initiative

The goals were to create a standardized, common, open exchange format, in order to:

  • Exchange projects in both directions (import and export) between all the software programs included in the Initiative.

  • Create an end product which is software-independent (i.e. open and accessible to other software companies) and is as software-neutral as possible.

  • Disseminate the outcome of the Initiative to different parties who might benefit from an exchange format (i.e. software users, research community, academic community, archives).

The first output is the Codebook Exchange which is now complete and available for use (see below under Products).


All the software programs involved have different features. Therefore – as is the case in any software exchange endeavour – there will be some data loss when exchanging data from one program to another. In developing the standard we have worked hard to minimize data loss whilst reflecting the uniqueness of each software program.  
Information about the elements that may be lost or modified when exchanging to a different program are made available by each QDA software program - either within the program itself or on the software developer website.

Developing the standard: The Rotterdam Exchange Format Initiative (REFI)

The Rotterdam Exchange Format Initiative (REFI) was formed to develop the QDA-XML standard  for exchanging processed qualitative data between QDA software programs. REFI originated in September 2016 at the KWALON Conference: Reflecting on the Future of QDA Software (Erasmus University Rotterdam, in the Netherlands), where the CEOs of eight QDA software companies stated their willingness to work together to create an interoperability standard. These software companies were: ATLAS.ti, Dedoose, f4Analyse, MAXQDA, NVivo, QDAMiner, Quirkos and Transana. Soon after, REFI was formed with a group of expert users/trainers of QDA software and standardization experts acting as a project coordination group.

REFI membership

The core working group consists of representatives from the eight QDA software programs – the developer group – and expert users/trainers of QDA software and standardization – the coordination group. Members with an * by their names have been actively involved in the project throughout, contributing to all stages of the design, implementation and testing of the exchange format up to this point.

The Developer Group


  • Friedrich Markgraf (ATLAS.ti)*

  • Joachim Pfaff (f4Analyse)*

  • Adam Long/ Darren Ford (NVivo)*

  • Normand Peladeau (QDA Miner)*

  • Daniel Turner (Quirkos)*

  • David Woods (Transana)*

  • Eli Lieber (Dedoose)

  • Julia Gerson (MAXQDA)


The Co-ordinating Group


  • Jeanine Evers (KWALON, Erasmus University Rotterdam)*

  • Elias Rizkallah (Université du Québec à Montréal)*

  • Christina Silver (CAQDAS Networking Project)*

  • Fred Van Blommestein (University of Groningen)*

  • Kristi Jackson (QUERI) (retired from the group September 2017)

  • Yves Marcoux (Université de Montréal)


REFI Sponsors

Several sponsors have facilitated the progress of REFI by funding several face-to-face meetings meetings (in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and Montreal, Canada), by partly funding the Coordination Group Chair (Jeanine Evers) and a standardization expert (Fred Van Blommestein), and by partly funding the testing of the standard. Other members of the Coordination Group have volunteered their time to the initiative.

We are much indebted to:

  • Erasmus School of Law (Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands)

  • Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada)

  • Erasmus Trust Fund Rotterdam (The Netherlands)

  • Executive Board of Erasmus University Rotterdam (The Netherlands)

  • Erasmus Studio (Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands)

  • Faculté des Sciences Humaines (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada)

  • EBSI of Faculté des arts et des sciences (Université de Montréal)

  • KWALON (The Netherlands)


For more information about REFI please contact Jeanine Evers, Chair of the Coordination Group.

Products - Codebook Exchange

The first phase was to develop a Codebook Exchange format. A Codebook in a qualitative or mixed-methods project is a list of defined keywords/phrases that represent themes/concepts or other topics of interest to the researcher. These keywords/phrases are usually referred to as ‘codes’. In QDA software programs, codes can be linked to segments of data in the sources where they are identified. As well as listing codes in a Codebook, codes can also be organised in different ways depending on the software program being used.

This means that a Codebook developed in one of these software programs can be exported and then imported into any of the other programs listed above. Because there are differences in how each program functions with respect to codes and their organisation, users may experience some modifications upon importing a Codebook into a different program. For the current version ‘round-tripping’ has not been tested.  Round-tripping means going from software 1 to software 2 and then from software 2 back to software 1.

The QDA-XML Codebook Exchange Standard has been designed and tested, and is now available for use as follows:

Software Tested Implemented
ATLAS.ti Yes Yes
Dedoose No No
f4 Analyse Yes Yes
NVivo Yes Soon
QDA Miner Yes Yes
Quirkos Yes Yes
Transana Yes Yes

Representatives of Dedoose were peripherally involved in developing the Codebook exchange format and are currently implementing and testing the codebook standard. Representatives of MAXQDA were not involved in developing the Codebook exchange format but are intending to implement it in the future.


These documents enable users to understand and other software developers to implement the QDA-XML Codebook Exchange.

  • This picture shows the UML modelization of the REFI codebook exchange

  • XSD file of the REFI codebook exchange

This XML schema of an imported or exported codebook, is a description of a type of XML document (here a .qdc file) expressed in terms of constraints on the structure and content of .qdc files. This means that beyond the basic syntactical constraints imposed by XML itself (a well formed xml file), each .qdc file exported from a software should be valid according to this .xsd file.

Here is a graphical representation of the codebook XSD

The XSD file of the codebook is downloadable here

Future plans

The REFI team is currently working towards developing a whole project exchange standard, that aims to enable processed data to be exported and imported between participating software programs. Information about progress will be posted here when available.
We will be seeking users to contribute to the testing of the project exchange, which is expected to take place in winter 2018. If you are interested in finding out more about project testing please contact Jeanine Evers.