I work with many different researchers, with varying levels of technical expertise. Students, junior physicians, consultant physicians, academics of all persuasions. Wherever I can I promote a consultative approach to projects, that begins with (ideally) a discussion prior to the research design being decided, but definitely before data collection has started.
I came across this post by Jeff Leek again recently—I have no idea why/what prompted me to read it again—and whilst I agree with pretty much all of what Jeff says, and I definitely feel his pain in receiving horribly ugly datasets, I think that we (statisticians/analysts/whatevers) can do more to help the situation (especially if we are involved at the start of the conversation). And doing more starts with promoting good data capture habits, and if working in an institution, providing access to, and help with the tools to capture data efficiently and tidily.
What is required is a solid database solution that is easy enough for anyone to pick up and run with it. When I say anyone, I’m thinking anyone that has basic computer skills, for example, word processing and spreadsheet skills. We’d like the researcher to be able to enter data into a form, have some form of validation applied to the data, and then have an easy way to extract the data afterwards for analysis.
Now, a lot of people will have access to Microsoft Access, but I’ve found that for your average Joe, it’s too difficult, with too much of a learning curve. As a free solution, I think that EpiData is probably worth a look, especially if you cannot convince your IT folks to provide you with anything else.
If you can get the support of your institution/IT folk, then REDCap is a great solution. You can follow the previous link to read more about it, but briefly, REDCap is a web-based electronic data capture application, that is geared towards research. It makes it easy to set up a project database within your web browser (the tables etc. are created automagically for you on the backend), it’s free for institutions, and has some great features like the ability to run online surveys, full user-access controls, and audit trails.
An alternative geared towards those in the clinical space is OpenClinica, which as I understand it has similar features to REDCap, but I haven’t used it personally, so don’t quote me!