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Longitudinal Study | Definition, Approaches & Examples

Published on May 8, 2020 by Lauren Thomas . Revised on June 22, 2023.

In a longitudinal study, researchers repeatedly examine the same individuals to detect any changes that might occur over a period of time.

Longitudinal studies are a type of correlational research in which researchers observe and collect data on a number of variables without trying to influence those variables.

While they are most commonly used in medicine, economics, and epidemiology, longitudinal studies can also be found in the other social or medical sciences.

Table of contents

How long is a longitudinal study, longitudinal vs cross-sectional studies, how to perform a longitudinal study, advantages and disadvantages of longitudinal studies, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about longitudinal studies.

No set amount of time is required for a longitudinal study, so long as the participants are repeatedly observed. They can range from as short as a few weeks to as long as several decades. However, they usually last at least a year, oftentimes several.

One of the longest longitudinal studies, the Harvard Study of Adult Development , has been collecting data on the physical and mental health of a group of Boston men for over 80 years!

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The opposite of a longitudinal study is a cross-sectional study. While longitudinal studies repeatedly observe the same participants over a period of time, cross-sectional studies examine different samples (or a “cross-section”) of the population at one point in time. They can be used to provide a snapshot of a group or society at a specific moment.

Cross-sectional vs longitudinal studies

Both types of study can prove useful in research. Because cross-sectional studies are shorter and therefore cheaper to carry out, they can be used to discover correlations that can then be investigated in a longitudinal study.

If you want to implement a longitudinal study, you have two choices: collecting your own data or using data already gathered by somebody else.

Using data from other sources

Many governments or research centers carry out longitudinal studies and make the data freely available to the general public. For example, anyone can access data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, which has followed the lives of 17,000 Brits since their births in a single week in 1970, through the UK Data Service website .

These statistics are generally very trustworthy and allow you to investigate changes over a long period of time. However, they are more restrictive than data you collect yourself. To preserve the anonymity of the participants, the data collected is often aggregated so that it can only be analyzed on a regional level. You will also be restricted to whichever variables the original researchers decided to investigate.

If you choose to go this route, you should carefully examine the source of the dataset as well as what data is available to you.

Collecting your own data

If you choose to collect your own data, the way you go about it will be determined by the type of longitudinal study you choose to perform. You can choose to conduct a retrospective or a prospective study.

  • In a retrospective study , you collect data on events that have already happened.
  • In a prospective study , you choose a group of subjects and follow them over time, collecting data in real time.

Retrospective studies are generally less expensive and take less time than prospective studies, but are more prone to measurement error.

Like any other research design , longitudinal studies have their tradeoffs: they provide a unique set of benefits, but also come with some downsides.

Longitudinal studies allow researchers to follow their subjects in real time. This means you can better establish the real sequence of events, allowing you insight into cause-and-effect relationships.

Longitudinal studies also allow repeated observations of the same individual over time. This means any changes in the outcome variable cannot be attributed to differences between individuals.

Prospective longitudinal studies eliminate the risk of recall bias , or the inability to correctly recall past events.

Disadvantages

Longitudinal studies are time-consuming and often more expensive than other types of studies, so they require significant commitment and resources to be effective.

Since longitudinal studies repeatedly observe subjects over a period of time, any potential insights from the study can take a while to be discovered.

Attrition, which occurs when participants drop out of a study, is common in longitudinal studies and may result in invalid conclusions.

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If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Ecological validity

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

Longitudinal studies and cross-sectional studies are two different types of research design . In a cross-sectional study you collect data from a population at a specific point in time; in a longitudinal study you repeatedly collect data from the same sample over an extended period of time.

Longitudinal studies can last anywhere from weeks to decades, although they tend to be at least a year long.

Longitudinal studies are better to establish the correct sequence of events, identify changes over time, and provide insight into cause-and-effect relationships, but they also tend to be more expensive and time-consuming than other types of studies.

The 1970 British Cohort Study , which has collected data on the lives of 17,000 Brits since their births in 1970, is one well-known example of a longitudinal study .

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What is a Longitudinal Study?: Definition and Explanation

What is a longitudinal study and what are it's uses

In this article, we’ll cover all you need to know about longitudinal research. 

Let’s take a closer look at the defining characteristics of longitudinal studies, review the pros and cons of this type of research, and share some useful longitudinal study examples. 

Content Index

What is a longitudinal study?

Types of longitudinal studies, advantages and disadvantages of conducting longitudinal surveys.

  • Longitudinal studies vs. cross-sectional studies

Types of surveys that use a longitudinal study

Longitudinal study examples.

A longitudinal study is a research conducted over an extended period of time. It is mostly used in medical research and other areas like psychology or sociology. 

When using this method, a longitudinal survey can pay off with actionable insights when you have the time to engage in a long-term research project.

Longitudinal studies often use surveys to collect data that is either qualitative or quantitative. Additionally, in a longitudinal study, a survey creator does not interfere with survey participants. Instead, the survey creator distributes questionnaires over time to observe changes in participants, behaviors, or attitudes. 

Many medical studies are longitudinal; researchers note and collect data from the same subjects over what can be many years.

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Longitudinal studies are versatile, repeatable, and able to account for quantitative and qualitative data . Consider the three major types of longitudinal studies for future research:

Types of longitudinal studies

Panel study: A panel survey involves a sample of people from a more significant population and is conducted at specified intervals for a more extended period. 

One of the panel study’s essential features is that researchers collect data from the same sample at different points in time. Most panel studies are designed for quantitative analysis , though they may also be used to collect qualitative data and unit of analysis .

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Cohort Study: A cohort study samples a cohort (a group of people who typically experience the same event at a given point in time). Medical researchers tend to conduct cohort studies. Some might consider clinical trials similar to cohort studies. 

In cohort studies, researchers merely observe participants without intervention, unlike clinical trials in which participants undergo tests.

Retrospective study: A retrospective study uses already existing data, collected during previously conducted research with similar methodology and variables. 

While doing a retrospective study, the researcher uses an administrative database, pre-existing medical records, or one-to-one interviews.

As we’ve demonstrated, a longitudinal study is useful in science, medicine, and many other fields. There are many reasons why a researcher might want to conduct a longitudinal study. One of the essential reasons is, longitudinal studies give unique insights that many other types of research fail to provide. 

Advantages of longitudinal studies

  • Greater validation: For a long-term study to be successful, objectives and rules must be established from the beginning. As it is a long-term study, its authenticity is verified in advance, which makes the results have a high level of validity.
  • Unique data: Most research studies collect short-term data to determine the cause and effect of what is being investigated. Longitudinal surveys follow the same principles but the data collection period is different. Long-term relationships cannot be discovered in a short-term investigation, but short-term relationships can be monitored in a long-term investigation.
  • Allow identifying trends: Whether in medicine, psychology, or sociology, the long-term design of a longitudinal study enables trends and relationships to be found within the data collected in real time. The previous data can be applied to know future results and have great discoveries.
  • Longitudinal surveys are flexible: Although a longitudinal study can be created to study a specific data point, the data collected can show unforeseen patterns or relationships that can be significant. Because this is a long-term study, the researchers have a flexibility that is not possible with other research formats.

Additional data points can be collected to study unexpected findings, allowing changes to be made to the survey based on the approach that is detected.

Disadvantages of longitudinal studies

  • Research time The main disadvantage of longitudinal surveys is that long-term research is more likely to give unpredictable results. For example, if the same person is not found to update the study, the research cannot be carried out. It may also take several years before the data begins to produce observable patterns or relationships that can be monitored.
  • An unpredictability factor is always present It must be taken into account that the initial sample can be lost over time. Because longitudinal studies involve the same subjects over a long period of time, what happens to them outside of data collection times can influence the data that is collected in the future. Some people may decide to stop participating in the research. Others may not be in the correct demographics for research. If these factors are not included in the initial research design, they could affect the findings that are generated.
  • Large samples are needed for the investigation to be meaningful To develop relationships or patterns, a large amount of data must be collected and extracted to generate results.
  • Higher costs Without a doubt, the longitudinal survey is more complex and expensive. Being a long-term form of research, the costs of the study will span years or decades, compared to other forms of research that can be completed in a smaller fraction of the time.

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Longitudinal studies vs. Cross-sectional studies

Longitudinal studies are often confused with cross-sectional studies. Unlike longitudinal studies, where the research variables can change during a study, a cross-sectional study observes a single instance with all variables remaining the same throughout the study. A longitudinal study may follow up on a cross-sectional study to investigate the relationship between the variables more thoroughly.

The design of the study is highly dependent on the nature of the research questions . Whenever a researcher decides to collect data by surveying their participants, what matters most are the questions that are asked in the survey.

Cross-sectional Study vs Longitudinal study

Knowing what information a study should gather is the first step in determining how to conduct the rest of the study. 

With a longitudinal study, you can measure and compare various business and branding aspects by deploying surveys. Some of the classic examples of surveys that researchers can use for longitudinal studies are:

Market trends and brand awareness: Use a market research survey and marketing survey to identify market trends and develop brand awareness. Through these surveys, businesses or organizations can learn what customers want and what they will discard. This study can be carried over time to assess market trends repeatedly, as they are volatile and tend to change constantly.

Product feedback: If a business or brand launches a new product and wants to know how it is faring with consumers, product feedback surveys are a great option. Collect feedback from customers about the product over an extended time. Once you’ve collected the data, it’s time to put that feedback into practice and improve your offerings.

Customer satisfaction: Customer satisfaction surveys help an organization get to know the level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction among its customers. A longitudinal survey can gain feedback from new and regular customers for as long as you’d like to collect it, so it’s useful whether you’re starting a business or hoping to make some improvements to an established brand.

Employee engagement: When you check in regularly over time with a longitudinal survey, you’ll get a big-picture perspective of your company culture. Find out whether employees feel comfortable collaborating with colleagues and gauge their level of motivation at work.

Now that you know the basics of how researchers use longitudinal studies across several disciplines let’s review the following examples:

Example 1: Identical twins

Consider a study conducted to understand the similarities or differences between identical twins who are brought up together versus identical twins who were not. The study observes several variables, but the constant is that all the participants have identical twins.

In this case, researchers would want to observe these participants from childhood to adulthood, to understand how growing up in different environments influences traits, habits, and personality.

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Over many years, researchers can see both sets of twins as they experience life without intervention. Because the participants share the same genes, it is assumed that any differences are due to environmental analysis , but only an attentive study can conclude those assumptions.

Example 2: Violence and video games

A group of researchers is studying whether there is a link between violence and video game usage. They collect a large sample of participants for the study. To reduce the amount of interference with their natural habits, these individuals come from a population that already plays video games. The age group is focused on teenagers (13-19 years old).

The researchers record how prone to violence participants in the sample are at the onset. It creates a baseline for later comparisons. Now the researchers will give a log to each participant to keep track of how much and how frequently they play and how much time they spend playing video games. This study can go on for months or years. During this time, the researcher can compare video game-playing behaviors with violent tendencies. Thus, investigating whether there is a link between violence and video games.

Conducting a longitudinal study with surveys is straightforward and applicable to almost any discipline. With our survey software you can easily start your own survey today. 

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What Is a Longitudinal Study?

Tracking Variables Over Time

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

quantitative research longitudinal study

Amanda Tust is a fact-checker, researcher, and writer with a Master of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

quantitative research longitudinal study

Steve McAlister / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The Typical Longitudinal Study

Potential pitfalls, frequently asked questions.

A longitudinal study follows what happens to selected variables over an extended time. Psychologists use the longitudinal study design to explore possible relationships among variables in the same group of individuals over an extended period.

Once researchers have determined the study's scope, participants, and procedures, most longitudinal studies begin with baseline data collection. In the days, months, years, or even decades that follow, they continually gather more information so they can observe how variables change over time relative to the baseline.

For example, imagine that researchers are interested in the mental health benefits of exercise in middle age and how exercise affects cognitive health as people age. The researchers hypothesize that people who are more physically fit in their 40s and 50s will be less likely to experience cognitive declines in their 70s and 80s.

Longitudinal vs. Cross-Sectional Studies

Longitudinal studies, a type of correlational research , are usually observational, in contrast with cross-sectional research . Longitudinal research involves collecting data over an extended time, whereas cross-sectional research involves collecting data at a single point.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers recruit participants who are in their mid-40s to early 50s. They collect data related to current physical fitness, exercise habits, and performance on cognitive function tests. The researchers continue to track activity levels and test results for a certain number of years, look for trends in and relationships among the studied variables, and test the data against their hypothesis to form a conclusion.

Examples of Early Longitudinal Study Design

Examples of longitudinal studies extend back to the 17th century, when King Louis XIV periodically gathered information from his Canadian subjects, including their ages, marital statuses, occupations, and assets such as livestock and land. He used the data to spot trends over the years and understand his colonies' health and economic viability.

In the 18th century, Count Philibert Gueneau de Montbeillard conducted the first recorded longitudinal study when he measured his son every six months and published the information in "Histoire Naturelle."

The Genetic Studies of Genius (also known as the Terman Study of the Gifted), which began in 1921, is one of the first studies to follow participants from childhood into adulthood. Psychologist Lewis Terman's goal was to examine the similarities among gifted children and disprove the common assumption at the time that gifted children were "socially inept."

Types of Longitudinal Studies

Longitudinal studies fall into three main categories.

  • Panel study : Sampling of a cross-section of individuals
  • Cohort study : Sampling of a group based on a specific event, such as birth, geographic location, or experience
  • Retrospective study : Review of historical information such as medical records

Benefits of Longitudinal Research

A longitudinal study can provide valuable insight that other studies can't. They're particularly useful when studying developmental and lifespan issues because they allow glimpses into changes and possible reasons for them.

For example, some longitudinal studies have explored differences and similarities among identical twins, some reared together and some apart. In these types of studies, researchers tracked participants from childhood into adulthood to see how environment influences personality , achievement, and other areas.

Because the participants share the same genetics , researchers chalked up any differences to environmental factors . Researchers can then look at what the participants have in common and where they differ to see which characteristics are more strongly influenced by either genetics or experience. Note that adoption agencies no longer separate twins, so such studies are unlikely today. Longitudinal studies on twins have shifted to those within the same household.

As with other types of psychology research, researchers must take into account some common challenges when considering, designing, and performing a longitudinal study.

Longitudinal studies require time and are often quite expensive. Because of this, these studies often have only a small group of subjects, which makes it difficult to apply the results to a larger population.

Selective Attrition

Participants sometimes drop out of a study for any number of reasons, like moving away from the area, illness, or simply losing motivation . This tendency, known as selective attrition , shrinks the sample size and decreases the amount of data collected.

If the final group no longer reflects the original representative sample , attrition can threaten the validity of the experiment. Validity refers to whether or not a test or experiment accurately measures what it claims to measure. If the final group of participants doesn't represent the larger group accurately, generalizing the study's conclusions is difficult.

The World’s Longest-Running Longitudinal Study

Lewis Terman aimed to investigate how highly intelligent children develop into adulthood with his "Genetic Studies of Genius." Results from this study were still being compiled into the 2000s. However, Terman was a proponent of eugenics and has been accused of letting his own sexism , racism , and economic prejudice influence his study and of drawing major conclusions from weak evidence. However, Terman's study remains influential in longitudinal studies. For example, a recent study found new information on the original Terman sample, which indicated that men who skipped a grade as children went on to have higher incomes than those who didn't.

A Word From Verywell

Longitudinal studies can provide a wealth of valuable information that would be difficult to gather any other way. Despite the typical expense and time involved, longitudinal studies from the past continue to influence and inspire researchers and students today.

A longitudinal study follows up with the same sample (i.e., group of people) over time, whereas a cross-sectional study examines one sample at a single point in time, like a snapshot.

A longitudinal study can occur over any length of time, from a few weeks to a few decades or even longer.

That depends on what researchers are investigating. A researcher can measure data on just one participant or thousands over time. The larger the sample size, of course, the more likely the study is to yield results that can be extrapolated.

Piccinin AM, Knight JE. History of longitudinal studies of psychological aging . Encyclopedia of Geropsychology. 2017:1103-1109. doi:10.1007/978-981-287-082-7_103

Terman L. Study of the gifted . In: The SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation. 2018. doi:10.4135/9781506326139.n691

Sahu M, Prasuna JG. Twin studies: A unique epidemiological tool .  Indian J Community Med . 2016;41(3):177-182. doi:10.4103/0970-0218.183593

Almqvist C, Lichtenstein P. Pediatric twin studies . In:  Twin Research for Everyone . Elsevier; 2022:431-438.

Warne RT. An evaluation (and vindication?) of Lewis Terman: What the father of gifted education can teach the 21st century . Gifted Child Q. 2018;63(1):3-21. doi:10.1177/0016986218799433

Warne RT, Liu JK. Income differences among grade skippers and non-grade skippers across genders in the Terman sample, 1936–1976 . Learning and Instruction. 2017;47:1-12. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2016.10.004

Wang X, Cheng Z. Cross-sectional studies: Strengths, weaknesses, and recommendations .  Chest . 2020;158(1S):S65-S71. doi:10.1016/j.chest.2020.03.012

Caruana EJ, Roman M, Hernández-Sánchez J, Solli P. Longitudinal studies .  J Thorac Dis . 2015;7(11):E537-E540. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2072-1439.2015.10.63

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

Grad Coach

What (Exactly) Is A Longitudinal Study?

A plain-language explanation & definition (with examples).

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | June 2020

If you’re new to the world of research, or it’s your first time writing a dissertation or thesis, you’re probably feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the technical lingo that’s hitting you. If you’ve landed here, chances are one of these terms is “longitudinal study”, “longitudinal survey” or “longitudinal research”.

Worry not – in this post, we’ll explain exactly:

  • What a longitudinal study is (and what the alternative is)
  • What the main advantages of a longitudinal study are
  • What the main disadvantages of a longitudinal study are
  • Whether to use a longitudinal or cross-sectional study for your research

What is a longitudinal study, survey and research?

What is a longitudinal study?

A longitudinal study or a longitudinal survey (both of which make up longitudinal research) is a study where the same data are collected more than once,  at different points in time . The purpose of a longitudinal study is to assess not just  what  the data reveal at a fixed point in time, but to understand  how (and why) things change  over time.

Longitudinal research involves a study where the same data are collected more than once, at different points in time

Example: Longitudinal vs Cross-Sectional

Here are two examples – one of a longitudinal study and one of a cross-sectional study – to give you an idea of what these two approaches look like in the real world:

Longitudinal study: a study which assesses how a group of 13-year old children’s attitudes and perspectives towards income inequality evolve over a period of 5 years, with the same group of children surveyed each year, from 2020 (when they are all 13) until 2025 (when they are all 18).

Cross-sectional study: a study which assesses a group of teenagers’ attitudes and perspectives towards income equality at a single point in time. The teenagers are aged 13-18 years and the survey is undertaken in January 2020.

From this example, you can probably see that the topic of both studies is still broadly the same (teenagers’ views on income inequality), but the data produced could potentially be very different . This is because the longitudinal group’s views will be shaped by the events of the next five years, whereas the cross-sectional group all have a “2020 perspective”. 

Additionally, in the cross-sectional group, each age group (i.e. 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18) are all different people (obviously!) with different life experiences – whereas, in the longitudinal group, each the data at each age point is generated by the same group of people (for example, John Doe will complete a survey at age 13, 14, 15, and so on). 

There are, of course, many other factors at play here and many other ways in which these two approaches differ – but we won’t go down that rabbit hole in this post.

There are many differences between longitudinal and cross-sectional studies

What are the advantages of a longitudinal study?

Longitudinal studies and longitudinal surveys offer some major benefits over cross-sectional studies. Some of the main advantages are:

Patterns  – because longitudinal studies involve collecting data at multiple points in time from the same respondents, they allow you to identify emergent patterns across time that you’d never see if you used a cross-sectional approach. 

Order  – longitudinal studies reveal the order in which things happened, which helps a lot when you’re trying to understand causation. For example, if you’re trying to understand whether X causes Y or Y causes X, it’s essential to understand which one comes first (which a cross-sectional study cannot tell you).

Bias  – because longitudinal studies capture current data at multiple points in time, they are at lower risk of recall bias . In other words, there’s a lower chance that people will forget an event, or forget certain details about it, as they are only being asked to discuss current matters.

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What are the disadvantages of a longitudinal study?

As you’ve seen, longitudinal studies have some major strengths over cross-sectional studies. So why don’t we just use longitudinal studies for everything? Well, there are (naturally) some disadvantages to longitudinal studies as well.

Cost  – compared to cross-sectional studies, longitudinal studies are typically substantially more expensive to execute, as they require maintained effort over a long period of time.

Slow  – given the nature of a longitudinal study, it takes a lot longer to pull off than a cross-sectional study. This can be months, years or even decades. This makes them impractical for many types of research, especially dissertations and theses at Honours and Masters levels (where students have a predetermined timeline for their research)

Drop out  – because longitudinal studies often take place over many years, there is a very real risk that respondents drop out over the length of the study. This can happen for any number of reasons (for examples, people relocating, starting a family, a new job, etc) and can have a very detrimental effect on the study.

Some disadvantages to longitudinal studies include higher cost, longer execution time  and higher dropout rates.

Which one should you use?

Choosing whether to use a longitudinal or cross-sectional study for your dissertation, thesis or research project requires a few considerations. Ultimately, your decision needs to be informed by your overall research aims, objectives and research questions (in other words, the nature of the research determines which approach you should use). But you also need to consider the practicalities. You should ask yourself the following:

  • Do you really need a view of how data changes over time, or is a snapshot sufficient?
  • Is your university flexible in terms of the timeline for your research?
  • Do you have the budget and resources to undertake multiple surveys over time?
  • Are you certain you’ll be able to secure respondents over a long period of time?

If your answer to any of these is no, you need to think carefully about the viability of a longitudinal study in your situation. Depending on your research objectives, a cross-sectional design might do the trick. If you’re unsure, speak to your research supervisor or connect with one of our friendly Grad Coaches .

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  • What’s a Longitudinal Study? Types, Uses & Examples

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Research can take anything from a few minutes to years or even decades to complete. When a systematic investigation goes on for an extended period, it’s most likely that the researcher is carrying out a longitudinal study of the sample population. So how does this work? 

In the most simple terms, a longitudinal study involves observing the interactions of the different variables in your research population, exposing them to various causal factors, and documenting the effects of this exposure. It’s an intelligent way to establish causal relationships within your sample population. 

In this article, we’ll show you several ways to adopt longitudinal studies for your systematic investigation and how to avoid common pitfalls. 

What is a Longitudinal Study? 

A longitudinal study is a correlational research method that helps discover the relationship between variables in a specific target population. It is pretty similar to a cross-sectional study , although in its case, the researcher observes the variables for a longer time, sometimes lasting many years. 

For example, let’s say you are researching social interactions among wild cats. You go ahead to recruit a set of newly-born lion cubs and study how they relate with each other as they grow. Periodically, you collect the same types of data from the group to track their development. 

The advantage of this extended observation is that the researcher can witness the sequence of events leading to the changes in the traits of both the target population and the different groups. It can identify the causal factors for these changes and their long-term impact. 

Characteristics of Longitudinal Studies

1. Non-interference: In longitudinal studies, the researcher doesn’t interfere with the participants’ day-to-day activities in any way. When it’s time to collect their responses , the researcher administers a survey with qualitative and quantitative questions . 

2. Observational: As we mentioned earlier, longitudinal studies involve observing the research participants throughout the study and recording any changes in traits that you notice. 

3. Timeline: A longitudinal study can span weeks, months, years, or even decades. This dramatically contrasts what is obtainable in cross-sectional studies that only last for a short time. 

Cross-Sectional vs. Longitudinal Studies 

  • Definition 

A cross-sectional study is a type of observational study in which the researcher collects data from variables at a specific moment to establish a relationship among them. On the other hand, longitudinal research observes variables for an extended period and records all the changes in their relationship. 

Longitudinal studies take a longer time to complete. In some cases, the researchers can spend years documenting the changes among the variables plus their relationships. For cross-sectional studies, this isn’t the case. Instead, the researcher collects information in a relatively short time frame and makes relevant inferences from this data. 

While cross-sectional studies give you a snapshot of the situation in the research environment, longitudinal studies are better suited for contexts where you need to analyze a problem long-term. 

  • Sample Data

Longitudinal studies repeatedly observe the same sample population, while cross-sectional studies are conducted with different research samples. 

Because longitudinal studies span over a more extended time, they typically cost more money than cross-sectional observations. 

Types of Longitudinal Studies 

The three main types of longitudinal studies are: 

  • Panel Study
  • Retrospective Study
  • Cohort Study 

These methods help researchers to study variables and account for qualitative and quantitative data from the research sample. 

1. Panel Study 

In a panel study, the researcher uses data collection methods like surveys to gather information from a fixed number of variables at regular but distant intervals, often spinning into a few years. It’s primarily designed for quantitative research, although you can use this method for qualitative data analysis . 

When To Use Panel Study

If you want to have first-hand, factual information about the changes in a sample population, then you should opt for a panel study. For example, medical researchers rely on panel studies to identify the causes of age-related changes and their consequences. 

Advantages of Panel Study  

  • It helps you identify the causal factors of changes in a research sample. 
  • It also allows you to witness the impact of these changes on the properties of the variables and information needed at different points of their existing relationship. 
  • Panel studies can be used to obtain historical data from the sample population. 

Disadvantages of Panel Studies

  • Conducting a panel study is pretty expensive in terms of time and resources. 
  • It might be challenging to gather the same quality of data from respondents at every interval. 

2. Retrospective Study

In a retrospective study, the researcher depends on existing information from previous systematic investigations to discover patterns leading to the study outcomes. In other words, a retrospective study looks backward. It examines exposures to suspected risk or protection factors concerning an outcome established at the start of the study.

When To Use Retrospective Study 

Retrospective studies are best for research contexts where you want to quickly estimate an exposure’s effect on an outcome. It also helps you to discover preliminary measures of association in your data. 

Medical researchers adopt retrospective study methods when they need to research rare conditions. 

Advantages of Retrospective Study

  • Retrospective studies happen at a relatively smaller scale and do not require much time to complete. 
  • It helps you to study rare outcomes when prospective surveys are not feasible.

Disadvantages of Retrospective Study

  • It is easily affected by recall bias or misclassification bias.
  • It often depends on convenience sampling, which is prone to selection bias. 

3. Cohort Study  

A cohort study entails collecting information from a group of people who share specific traits or have experienced a particular occurrence simultaneously. For example, a researcher might conduct a cohort study on a group of Black school children in the U.K. 

During cohort study, the researcher exposes some group members to a specific characteristic or risk factor. Then, she records the outcome of this exposure and its impact on the exposed variables. 

When To Use Cohort Study

You should conduct a cohort study if you’re looking to establish a causal relationship within your data sets. For example, in medical research, cohort studies investigate the causes of disease and establish links between risk factors and effects. 

Advantages of Cohort Studies

  • It allows you to study multiple outcomes that can be associated with one risk factor. 
  • Cohort studies are designed to help you measure all variables of interest. 

Disadvantages of Cohort Studies

  • Cohort studies are expensive to conduct.
  • Throughout the process, the researcher has less control over variables. 

When Would You Use a Longitudinal Study? 

If you’re looking to discover the relationship between variables and the causal factors responsible for changes, you should adopt a longitudinal approach to your systematic investigation. Longitudinal studies help you to analyze change over a meaningful time. 

How to Perform a Longitudinal Study?

There are only two approaches you can take when performing a longitudinal study. You can either source your own data or use previously gathered data.

1. Sourcing for your own data

Collecting your own data is a more verifiable method because you can trust your own data. The way you collect your data is also heavily dependent on the type of study you’re conducting.

If you’re conducting a retrospective study, you’d have to collect data on events that have already happened. An example is going through records to find patterns in cancer patients.

For a prospective study, you collect the data in real-time. This means finding a sample population, following them, and documenting your findings over the course of your study.

Irrespective of what study type you’d be conducting, you need a versatile data collection tool to help you accurately record your data. One we strongly recommend is Formplus . Signup here for free.

2. Using previously gathered data

Governmental and research institutes often carry out longitudinal studies and make the data available to the public. So you can pick up their previously researched data and use them for your own study. An example is the UK data service website .

Using previously gathered data isn’t just easy, they also allow you to carry out research over a long period of time. 

The downside to this method is that it’s very restrictive because you can only use the data set available to you. You also have to thoroughly examine the source of the data given to you. 

Advantages of a Longitudinal Study 

  • Longitudinal studies help you discover variable patterns over time, leading to more precise causal relationships and research outcomes. 
  • When researching developmental trends, longitudinal studies allow you to discover changes across lifespans and arrive at valid research outcomes. 
  • They are highly flexible, which means the researcher can adjust the study’s focus while it is ongoing. 
  • Unlike other research methods, longitudinal studies collect unique, long-term data and highlight relationships that cannot be discovered in a short-term investigation. 
  • You can collect additional data to study unexpected findings at any point in your systematic investigation. 

Disadvantages and Limitations of a Longitudinal Study 

  • It’s difficult to predict the results of longitudinal studies because of the extended time frame. Also, it may take several years before the data begins to produce observable patterns or relationships that can be monitored. 
  • It costs lots of money to sustain a research effort for years. You’ll keep incurring costs every year compared to other forms of research that can be completed in a smaller fraction of the time.
  • Longitudinal studies require a large sample size which might be challenging to achieve. Without this, the entire investigation will have little or no impact. 
  • Longitudinal studies often experience panel attrition. This happens when some members of the research sample are unable to complete the study due to several reasons like changes in contact details, refusal, incapacity, and even death. 

Longitudinal Studies Examples

How does a longitudinal study work in the real world? To answer this, let’s consider a few typical scenarios. 

A researcher wants to know the effects of a low-carb diet on weight loss. So, he gathers a group of obese men and kicks off the systematic investigation using his preferred longitudinal study method. He records information like how much they weigh, the number of carbs in their diet, and the like at different points. All these data help him to arrive at valid research outcomes. 

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A researcher wants to know if there’s any relationship between children who drink milk before school and high classroom performance . First, he uses a sampling technique to gather a large research population. 

Then, he conducts a baseline survey to establish the premise of the research for later comparison. Next, the researcher gives a log to each participant to keep track of predetermined research variables . 

Example 3  

You decide to study how a particular diet affects athletes’ performance over time. First, you gather your sample population , establish a baseline for the research, and observe and record the required data.

Longitudinal Studies Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

  • Are Longitudinal Studies Quantitative or Qualitative?

Longitudinal studies are primarily a qualitative research method because the researcher observes and records changes in variables over an extended period. However, it can also be used to gather quantitative data depending on your research context. 

  • What Is Most Likely the Biggest Problem with Longitudinal Research?

The biggest challenge with longitudinal research is panel attrition. Due to the length of the research process, some variables might be unable to complete the study for one reason or the other. When this happens, it can distort your data and research outcomes. 

  • What is Longitudinal Data Collection?

Longitudinal data collection is the process of gathering information from the same sample population over a long period. Longitudinal data collection uses interviews, surveys, and observation to collect the required information from research sources. 

  • What is the Difference Between Longitudinal Data and a Time Series Analysis?

Because longitudinal studies collect data over a long period, they are often mistaken for time series analysis. So what’s the real difference between these two concepts? 

In a time series analysis, the researcher focuses on a single individual at multiple time intervals. Meanwhile, longitudinal data focuses on multiple individuals at various time intervals. 

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Issue Cover

Article Contents

Questions on conceptual issues, questions on research design, questions on statistical techniques, acknowledgments, longitudinal research: a panel discussion on conceptual issues, research design, and statistical techniques.

All authors contributed equally to this article and the order of authorship is arranged arbitrarily. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Mo Wang, Warrington College of Business, Department of Management, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611. E-mail: [email protected]

Decision Editor: Donald Truxillo, PhD

  • Article contents
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Mo Wang, Daniel J. Beal, David Chan, Daniel A. Newman, Jeffrey B. Vancouver, Robert J. Vandenberg, Longitudinal Research: A Panel Discussion on Conceptual Issues, Research Design, and Statistical Techniques, Work, Aging and Retirement , Volume 3, Issue 1, 1 January 2017, Pages 1–24, https://doi.org/10.1093/workar/waw033

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The goal of this article is to clarify the conceptual, methodological, and practical issues that frequently emerge when conducting longitudinal research, as well as in the journal review process. Using a panel discussion format, the current authors address 13 questions associated with 3 aspects of longitudinal research: conceptual issues, research design, and statistical techniques. These questions are intentionally framed at a general level so that the authors could address them from their diverse perspectives. The authors’ perspectives and recommendations provide a useful guide for conducting and reviewing longitudinal studies in work, aging, and retirement research.

An important meta-trend in work, aging, and retirement research is the heightened appreciation of the temporal nature of the phenomena under investigation and the important role that longitudinal study designs play in understanding them (e.g., Heybroek, Haynes, & Baxter, 2015 ; Madero-Cabib, Gauthier, & Le Goff, 2016 ; Wang, 2007 ; Warren, 2015 ; Weikamp & Göritz, 2015 ). This echoes the trend in more general research on work and organizational phenomena, where the discussion of time and longitudinal designs has evolved from explicating conceptual and methodological issues involved in the assessment of changes over time (e.g., McGrath & Rotchford, 1983 ) to the development and application of data analytic techniques (e.g., Chan, 1998 ; Chan & Schmitt, 2000 ; DeShon, 2012 ; Liu, Mo, Song, & Wang, 2016 ; Wang & Bodner, 2007 ; Wang & Chan, 2011 ; Wang, Zhou, & Zhang, 2016 ), theory rendering (e.g., Ancona et al. , 2001 ; Mitchell & James, 2001 ; Vancouver, Tamanini, & Yoder, 2010 ; Wang et al. , 2016 ), and methodological decisions in conducting longitudinal research (e.g., Beal, 2015 ; Bolger, Davis, & Rafaeli, 2003 ; Ployhart & Vandenberg, 2010 ). Given the importance of and the repeated call for longitudinal studies to investigate work, aging, and retirement-related phenomena (e.g., Fisher, Chaffee, & Sonnega, 2016 ; Wang, Henkens, & van Solinge, 2011 ), there is a need for more nontechnical discussions of the relevant conceptual and methodological issues. Such discussions would help researchers to make more informed decisions about longitudinal research and to conduct studies that would both strengthen the validity of inferences and avoid misleading interpretations.

In this article, using a panel discussion format, the authors address 13 questions associated with three aspects of longitudinal research: conceptual issues, research design, and statistical techniques. These questions, as summarized in Table 1 , are intentionally framed at a general level (i.e., not solely in aging-related research), so that the authors could address them from diverse perspectives. The goal of this article is to clarify the conceptual, methodological, and practical issues that frequently emerge in the process of conducting longitudinal research, as well as in the related journal review process. Thus, the authors’ perspectives and recommendations provide a useful guide for conducting and reviewing longitudinal studies—not only those dealing with aging and retirement, but also in the broader fields of work and organizational research.

Questions Regarding Longitudinal Research Addressed in This Article

Conceptual Issue Question 1: Conceptually, what is the essence of longitudinal research?

This is a fundamental question to ask given the confusion in the literature. It is common to see authors attribute their high confidence in their causal inferences to the longitudinal design they use. It is also common to see authors attribute greater confidence in their measurement because of using a longitudinal design. Less common, but with increasing frequency, authors claim to be examining the role of time in their theoretical models via the use of longitudinal designs. These different assumptions by authors illustrate the need for clarifying when specific attributions about longitudinal research are appropriate. Hence, a discussion of the essence of longitudinal research and what it provides is in order.

Oddly, definitions of longitudinal research are rare. One exception is a definition by Taris (2000) , who explained that longitudinal “data are collected for the same set of research units (which might differ from the sampling units/respondents) for (but not necessarily at) two or more occasions, in principle allowing for intra-individual comparison across time” (pp. 1–2). Perhaps more directly relevant for the current discussion of longitudinal research related to work and aging phenomena, Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010) defined “ longitudinal research as research emphasizing the study of change and containing at minimum three repeated observations (although more than three is better) on at least one of the substantive constructs of interest” (p. 97; italics in original). Compared to Taris (2000) , Ployhart and Vandenberg’s (2010) definition explicitly emphasizes change and encourages the collection of many waves of repeated measures. However, Ployhart and Vandenberg’s definition may be overly restrictive. For example, it precludes designs often classified as longitudinal such as the prospective design. In a prospective design, some criterion (i.e., presumed effect) is measured at Times 1 and 2, so that one can examine change in the criterion as a function of events (i.e., presumed causes) happening (or not) between the waves of data collection. For example, a researcher can use this design to assess the psychological and behavioral effects of retirement that occur before and after retirement. That is, psychological and behavioral variables are measured before and after retirement. Though not as internally valid as an experiment (which is not possible because we cannot randomly assign participants into retirement and non-retirement conditions), this prospective design is a substantial improvement over the typical design where the criteria are only measured at one time. This is because it allows one to more directly examine change in a criterion as a function of differences between events or person variables. Otherwise, one must draw inferences based on retrospective accounts of the change in criterion along with the retrospective accounts of the events; further, one may worry that the covariance between the criterion and person variables is due to changes in the criterion that are also changing the person. Of course, this design does not eliminate the possibility that changes in criterion may cause differences in events (e.g., changes observed in psychological and behavioral variables lead people to decide to retire).

In addition to longitudinal designs potentially having only two waves of data collection for a variable, there are certain kinds of criterion variables that need only one explicit measure at Time 2 in a 2-wave study. Retirement (or similarly, turnover) is an example. I say “explicit” because retirement is implicitly measured at Time 1. That is, if the units are in the working sample at Time 1, they have not retired. Thus, retirement at Time 2 represents change in working status. On the other hand, if retirement intentions is the criterion variable, repeated measures of this variable are important for assessing change. Repeated measures also enable the simultaneous assessment of change in retirement intentions and its alleged precursors; it could be that a variable like job satisfaction (a presumed cause of retirement intentions) is actually lowered after the retirement intentions are formed, perhaps in a rationalization process. That is, individuals first intend to retire and then evaluate over time their attitudes toward their present job. This kind of reverse causality process would not be detected in a design measuring job satisfaction at Time 1 and retirement intentions at Time 2.

Given the above, I opt for a much more straightforward definition of longitudinal research. Specifically, longitudinal research is simply research where data are collected over a meaningful span of time. A difference between this definition and the one by Taris (2000) is that this definition does not include the clause about examining intra-individual comparisons. Such designs can examine intra-individual comparisons, but again, this seems overly restrictive. That said, I do add a restriction to this definition, which is that the time span should be “meaningful.” This term is needed because time will always pass—that is, it takes time to complete questionnaires, do tasks, or observe behavior, even in cross-sectional designs. Yet, this passage of time likely provides no validity benefit. On the other hand, the measurement interval could last only a few seconds and still be meaningful. To be meaningful it has to support the inferences being made (i.e., improve the research’s validity). Thus, the essence of longitudinal research is to improve the validity of one’s inferences that cannot otherwise be achieved using cross-sectional research ( Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002 ). The inferences that longitudinal research can potentially improve include those related to measurement (i.e., construct validity), causality (i.e., internal validity), generalizability (i.e., external validity), and quality of effect size estimates and hypothesis tests (i.e., statistical conclusion validity). However, the ability of longitudinal research to improve these inferences will depend heavily on many other factors, some of which might make the inferences less valid when using a longitudinal design. Increased inferential validity, particularly of any specific kind (e.g., internal validity), is not an inherent quality of the longitudinal design; it is a goal of the design. And it is important to know how some forms of the longitudinal design fall short of that goal for some inferences.

For example, consider a case where a measure of a presumed cause precedes a measure of a presumed effect, but over a time period across which one of the constructs in question does not likely change. Indeed, it is often questionable as to whether a gap of several months between the observations of many variables examined in research would change meaningfully over the interim, much less that the change in one preceded the change in the other (e.g., intention to retire is an example of this, as people can maintain a stable intention to retire for years). Thus, the design typically provides no real improvement in terms of internal validity. On the other hand, it does likely improve construct and statistical conclusion validity because it likely reduces common method bias effects found between the two variables ( Podsakoff et al., 2003 ).

Further, consider the case of the predictive validity design, where a selection instrument is measured from a sample of job applicants and performance is assessed some time later. In this case, common method bias is not generally the issue; external validity is. The longitudinal design improves external validity because the Time 1 measure is taken during the application process, which is the context in which the selection instrument will be used, and the Time 2 measure is taken after a meaningful time interval (i.e., after enough time has passed for performance to have stabilized for the new job holders). Again, however, internal validity is not much improved, which is fine given that prediction, not cause, is the primary concern in the selection context.

Another clear construct validity improvement gained by using longitudinal research is when one is interested in measuring change. A precise version of change measurement is assessing rate of change. When assessing the rate, time is a key variable in the analysis. To assess a rate one needs only two repeated measures of the variable of interest, though these measures should be taken from several units (e.g., individuals, groups, organizations) if measurement and sampling errors are present and perhaps under various conditions if systematic measurement error is possible (e.g., testing effect). Moreover, Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010) advocate at least three repeated measures because most change rates are not constant; thus, more than two observations will be needed to assess whether and how the rate changes (i.e., the shape of the growth curves). Indeed, three is hardly enough given noise in measurement and the commonality of complex processes (i.e., consider the opponent process example below).

Longitudinal research designs can, with certain precautions, improve one’s confidence in inferences about causality. When this is the purpose, time does not need to be measured or included as a variable in the analysis, though the interval between measurements should be reported because rate of change and cause are related. For example, intervals can be too short, such that given the rate of an effect, the cause might not have had sufficient time to register on the effect. Alternatively, if intervals are too long, an effect might have triggered a compensating process that overshoots the original level, inverting the sign of the cause’s effect. An example of this latter process is opponent process ( Solomon & Corbit, 1974 ). Figure 1 depicts this process, which refers to the response to an emotional stimulus. Specifically, the emotional response elicits an opponent process that, at its peak, returns the emotion back toward the baseline and beyond. If the emotional response is collected when peak opponent response occurs, it will look like the stimulus is having the opposite effect than it actually is having.

The opponent process effect demonstrated by Solomon and Corbit (1974).

The opponent process effect demonstrated by Solomon and Corbit (1974) .

Most of the longitudinal research designs that improve internal validity are quasi-experimental ( Shadish et al. , 2002 ). For example, interrupted time series designs use repeated observations to assess trends before and after some manipulation or “natural experiment” to model possible maturation or maturation-by-selection effects ( Shadish et al. , 2002 ; Stone-Romero, 2010 ). Likewise, regression discontinuous designs (RDD) use a pre-test to assign participants to the conditions prior to the manipulation and thus can use the pre-test value to model selection effects ( Shadish et al. , 2002 ; Stone-Romero, 2010 ). Interestingly, the RDD design is not assessing change explicitly and thus is not susceptible to maturations threats, but it uses the timing of measurement in a meaningful way.

Panel (i.e., cohort) designs are also typically considered longitudinal. These designs measure all the variables of interest during each wave of data collection. I believe it was these kinds of designs that Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010) had in mind when they created their definition of longitudinal research. In particular, these designs can be used to assess rates of change and can improve causal inferences if done well. In particular, to improve causal inferences with panel designs, researchers nearly always need at least three repeated measures of the hypothesized causes and effects. Consider the case of job satisfaction and intent to retire. If a researcher measures job satisfaction and intent to retire at Times 1 and 2 and finds that the Time 2 measures of job satisfaction and intent to retire are negatively related when the Time 1 states of the variables are controlled, the researcher still cannot tell which changed first (or if some third variable causes both to change in the interim). Unfortunately, three observations of each variable is only a slight improvement because it might be a difficult thing to get enough variance in changing attitudes and changing intentions with just three waves to find anything significant. Indeed, the researcher might have better luck looking at actual retirement, which as mentioned, only needs one observation. Still, two observations of job satisfaction are needed prior to the retirement to determine if changes in job satisfaction influence the probability of retirement.

Finally, on this point I would add that meaningful variance in time will often mean case-intensive designs (i.e., lots of observations of lots of variables over time per case; Bolger & Laurenceau, 2013 ; Wang et al. , 2016 ) because we will be more and more interested in assessing feedback and other compensatory processes, reciprocal relationships, and how dynamic variables change. In these cases, within-unit covariance will be much more interesting than between-unit covariance.

It is important to point out that true experimental designs are also a type of longitudinal research design by nature. This is because in experimental design, an independent variable is manipulated before the measure of the dependent variable occurs. This time precedence (or lag) is critical for using experimental designs to achieve stronger causal inferences. Specifically, given that random assignment is used to generate experimental and control groups, researchers can assume that prior to the manipulation, the mean levels of the dependent variables are the same across experimental and control groups, as well as the mean levels of the independent variables. Thus, by measuring the dependent variable after manipulation, an experimental design reveals the change in the dependent variable as a function of change in the independent variable as a result of manipulation. As such, the time lag between the manipulation and the measure of the dependent variable is indeed meaningful in the sense of achieving causal inference.

Conceptual Issue Question 2: What is the status of “time” in longitudinal research? Is “time” a general notion of the temporal dynamics in phenomena, or is “time” a substantive variable similar to other focal variables in the longitudinal study?

In longitudinal research, we are concerned with conceptualizing and assessing the changes over time that may occur in one or more substantive variables. A substantive variable refers to a measure of an intended construct of interest in the study. For example, in a study of newcomer adaptation (e.g., Chan & Schmitt, 2000 ), the substantive variables, whose changes over time we are interested in tracking, could be frequency of information seeking, job performance, and social integration. We could examine the functional form of the substantive variable’s change trajectory (e.g., linear or quadratic). We could also examine the extent to which individual differences in a growth parameter of the trajectory (e.g., the individual slopes of a linear trajectory) could be predicted from the initial (i.e., at Time 1 of the repeated measurement) values on the substantive variable, the values on a time-invariant predictor (e.g., personality trait), or the values on another time-varying variable (e.g., individual slopes of the linear trajectory of a second substantive variable in the study). The substantive variables are measures used to represent the study constructs. As measures of constructs, they have specific substantive content. We can assess the construct validity of the measure by obtaining relevant validity evidence. The evidence could be the extent to which the measure’s content represents the conceptual content of the construct (i.e., content validity) or the extent to which the measure is correlated with another established criterion measure representing a criterion construct that, theoretically, is expected to be associated with the measure (i.e., criterion-related validity).

“Time,” on the other hand, has a different ontological status from the substantive variables in the longitudinal study. There are at least three ways to describe how time is not a substantive variable similar to other focal variables in the longitudinal study. First, when a substantive construct is tracked in a longitudinal study for changes over time, time is not a substantive measure of a study construct. In the above example of newcomer adaptation study by Chan and Schmitt, it is not meaningful to speak of assessing the construct validity of time, at least not in the same way we can speak of assessing the construct validity of job performance or social integration measures. Second, in a longitudinal study, a time point in the observation period represents one temporal instance of measurement. The time point per se, therefore, is simply the temporal marker of the state of the substantive variable at the point of measurement. The time point is not the state or value of the substantive variable that we are interested in for tracking changes over time. Changes over time occur when the state of a substantive variable changes over different points of measurement. Finally, in a longitudinal study of changes over time, “time” is distinct from the substantive process that underlies the change over time. Consider a hypothetical study that repeatedly measured the levels of job performance and social integration of a group of newcomers for six time points, at 1-month intervals between adjacent time points over a 6-month period. Let us assume that the study found that the observed change over time in their job performance levels was best described by a monotonically increasing trajectory at a decreasing rate of change. The observed functional form of the performance trajectory could serve as empirical evidence for the theory that a learning process underlies the performance level changes over time. Let us further assume that, for the same group of newcomers, the observed change over time in their social integration levels was best described by a positive linear trajectory. This observed functional form of the social integration trajectory could serve as empirical evidence for a theory of social adjustment process that underlies the integration level changes over time. In this example, there are two distinct substantive processes of change (learning and social adjustment) that may underlie the changes in levels on the two respective study constructs (performance and social integration). There are six time points at which each substantive variable was measured over the same time period. Time, in this longitudinal study, was simply the medium through which the two substantive processes occur. Time was not an explanation. Time did not cause the occurrence of the different substantive processes and there was nothing in the conceptual content of the time construct that could, nor was expected to, explain the functional form or nature of the two different substantive processes. The substantive processes occur or unfold through time but they did not cause time to exist.

The way that growth modeling techniques analyze longitudinal data is consistent with the above conceptualization of time. For example, in latent growth modeling, time per se is not represented as a substantive variable in the analysis. Instead, a specific time point is coded as a temporal marker of the substantive variable (e.g., as basis coefficients in a latent growth model to indicate the time points in the sequence of repeated measurement at which the substantive variable was measured). The time-varying nature of the substantive variable is represented either at the individual level as the individual slopes or at the group level as the variance of the slope factor. It is the slopes and variance of slopes of the substantive variable that are being analyzed, and not time per se. The nature of the trajectory of change in the substantive variable is descriptively represented by the specific functional form of the trajectory that is observed within the time period of study. We may also include in the latent growth model other substantive variables, such as time-invariant predictors or time-varying correlates, to assess the strength of their associations with variance of the individual slopes of trajectory. These associations serve as validation and explanation of the substantive process of change in the focal variable that is occurring over time.

Many theories of change require the articulation of a change construct (e.g., learning, social adjustment—inferred from a slope parameter in a growth model). When specifying a change construct, the “time” variable is only used as a marker to track a substantive growth or change process. For example, when we say, “Extraversion × time interaction effect” on newcomer social integration, we really mean that Extraversion relates to the change construct of social adjustment (i.e., where social adjustment is operationalized as the slope parameter from a growth model of individuals’ social integration over time). Likewise, when we say, “Conscientiousness × time2 quadratic interaction effect” on newcomer task performance, we really mean that Conscientiousness relates to the change construct of learning (where learning is operationalized as the nonlinear slope of task performance over time).

This view of time brings up a host of issues with scaling and calibration of the time variable to adequately assess the underlying substantive change construct. For example, should work experience be measured in number of years in the job versus number of assignments completed ( Tesluk & Jacobs, 1998 )? Should the change construct be thought of as a developmental age effect, historical period effect, or birth cohort effect ( Schaie, 1965 )? Should the study of time in teams reflect developmental time rather than clock time, and thus be calibrated to each team’s lifespan ( Gersick, 1988 )? As such, although time is not a substantive variable itself in longitudinal research, it is important to make sure that the measurement of time matches the theory that specifies the change construct that is under study (e.g., aging, learning, adaptation, social adjustment).

I agree that time is typically not a substantive variable, but that it can serve as a proxy for substantive variables if the process is well-known. The example about learning by Chan is a case in point. Of course, well-known temporal processes are rare and I have often seen substantive power mistakenly given to time: For example, it is the process of oxidation, not the passage of time that is responsible for rust. However, there are instances where time plays a substantive role. For example, temporal discounting ( Ainslie & Haslam, 1992 ) is a theory of behavior that is dependent on time. Likewise, Vancouver, Weinhardt, and Schmidt’s (2010) theory of multiple goal pursuit involves time as a key substantive variable. To be sure, in that latter case the perception of time is a key mediator between time and its hypothetical effects on behavior, but time has an explicit role in the theory and thus should be considered a substantive variable in tests of the theory.

I was referring to objective time when explaining that time is not a substantive variable in longitudinal research and that it is instead the temporal medium through which a substantive process unfolds or a substantive variable changes its state. When we discuss theories of substantive phenomena or processes involving temporal constructs, such as temporal discounting, time urgency, or polychronicity related to multitasking or multiple goal pursuits, we are in fact referring to subjective time, which is the individual’s psychological experience of time. Subjective time constructs are clearly substantive variables. The distinction between objective time and subjective time is important because it provides conceptual clarity to the nature of the temporal phenomena and guides methodological choices in the study of time (for details, see Chan, 2014 ).

Conceptual Issue Question 3: What are the procedures, if any, for developing a theory of changes over time in longitudinal research? Given that longitudinal research purportedly addresses the limitations of cross-sectional research, can findings from cross-sectional studies be useful for the development of a theory of change?

To address this question, what follows is largely an application of some of the ideas presented by Mitchell and James (2001) and by Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010) in their respective publications. Thus, credit for the following should be given to those authors, and consultation of their articles as to specifics is highly encouraged.

Before we specifically address this question, it is important to understand our motive for asking it. Namely, as most succinctly stated by Mitchell and James (2001) , and repeated by, among others, Bentein and colleagues (2005) , Chan (2002 , 2010 ), and Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010) , there is an abundance of published research in the major applied psychology and organizational science journals in which the authors are not operationalizing through their research designs the causal relations among their focal independent, dependent, moderator, and mediator variables even though the introduction and discussion sections imply such causality. Mitchell and James (2001) used the published pieces in the most recent issues (at that time) of the Academy of Management Journal and Administrative Science Quarterly to anchor this point. At the crux of the problem is using designs in which time is not a consideration. As they stated so succinctly:

“At the simplest level, in examining whether an X causes a Y, we need to know when X occurs and when Y occurs. Without theoretical or empirical guides about when to measure X and Y, we run the risk of inappropriate measurement, analysis, and, ultimately, inferences about the strength, order, and direction of causal relationships (italics added, Mitchell & James, 2001 , p. 530).”

When is key because it is at the heart of causality in its simplest form, as in the “cause must precede the effect” ( James, Mulaik, & Brett, 1982 ; Condition 3 of 10 for inferring causality, p. 36). Our casual glance at the published literature over the decade since Mitchell and James (2001) indicates that not much has changed in this respect. Thus, our motive for asking the current question is quite simple—“perhaps it’s ‘time’ to put these issues in front of us once more (pun intended), particularly given the increasing criticisms as to the meaningfulness of published findings from studies with weak methods and statistics” (e.g., statistical myths and urban legends, Lance & Vandenberg, 2009 ).

The first part of the question asks, “what are the procedures, if any, for developing a theory of change over time in longitudinal research?” Before addressing procedures per se, it is necessary first to understand some of the issues when incorporating change into research. Doing so provides a context for the procedures. Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010) noted four theoretical issues that should be addressed when incorporating change in the variables of interest across time. These were:

“To the extent possible, specify a theory of change by noting the specific form and duration of change and predictors of change.

Clearly articulate or graph the hypothesized form of change relative to the observed form of change.

Clarify the level of change of interest: group average change, intraunit change, or interunit differences in intraunit change.

Realize that cross-sectional theory and research may be insufficient for developing theory about change. You need to focus on explaining why the change occurs” (p. 103).

The interested reader is encouraged to consult Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010) as to the specifics underlying the four issues, but they were heavily informed by Mitchell and James (2001) . Please note that, as one means of operationalizing time, Mitchell and James (2001) focused on time very broadly in the context of strengthening causal inferences about change across time in the focal variables. Thus, Ployhart and Vandenberg’s (2010) argument, with its sole emphasis on change, is nested within the Mitchell and James (2001) perspective. I raise this point because it is in this vein that the four theoretical issues presented above have as their foundation the five theoretical issues addressed by Mitchell and James (2001) . Specifically, first, we need to know the time lag between X and Y . How long after X occurs does Y occur? Second, X and Y have durations. Not all variables occur instantaneously. Third, X and Y may change over time. We need to know the rate of change. Fourth, in some cases we have dynamic relationships in which X and Y both change. The rate of change for both variables should be known, as well as how the X – Y relationship changes. Fifth, in some cases we have reciprocal causation: X causes Y and Y causes X . This situation requires an understanding of two sets of lags, durations, and possibly rates. The major point of both sets of authors is that these theoretical issues need to be addressed first in that they should be the key determinants in designing the overall study; that is, deciding upon the procedures to use.

Although Mitchell and James (2001 , see p. 543) focused on informing procedures through theory in the broader context of time (e.g., draw upon studies and research that may not be in our specific area of interest; going to the workplace and actually observing the causal sequence, etc.), our specific question focuses on change across time. In this respect, Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010 , Table 1 in p. 103) identified five methodological and five analytical procedural issues that should be informed by the nature of the change. These are:

“Methodological issues

1. Determine the optimal number of measurement occasions and their intervals to appropriately model the hypothesized form of change.

2. Whenever possible, choose samples most likely to exhibit the hypothesized form of change, and try to avoid convenience samples.

3. Determine the optimal number of observations, which in turn means addressing the attrition issue before conducting the study. Prepare for the worst (e.g., up to a 50% drop from the first to the last measurement occasion). In addition, whenever possible, try to model the hypothesized “cause” of missing data (ideally theorized and measured a priori) and consider planned missingness approaches to data collection.

4. Introduce time lags between intervals to address issues of causality, but ensure the lags are neither too long nor too short.

5. Evaluate the measurement properties of the variable for invariance (e.g., configural, metric) before testing whether change has occurred.

Analytical issues

1. Be aware of potential violations in statistical assumptions inherent in longitudinal designs (e.g., correlated residuals, nonindependence).

2. Describe how time is coded (e.g., polynomials, orthogonal polynomials) and why.

3. Report why you use a particular analytical method and its strengths and weaknesses for the particular study.

4. Report all relevant effect sizes and fit indices to sufficiently evaluate the form of change.

5. It is easy to ‘overfit’ the data; strive to develop a parsimonious representation of change.”

In summary, the major point from the above is to encourage researchers to develop a thorough conceptual understanding of time as it relates to defining the causal relationships between the focal variables of interest. We acknowledge that researchers are generally good at conceptualizing why their x -variables cause some impact on their y -variables. What is called for here goes beyond just understanding why, but forcing ourselves to be very specific about the timing between the variables. Doing so will result in stronger studies and ones in which our inferences from the findings can confidently include statements about causality—a level of confidence that is sorely lacking in most published studies today. As succinctly stated by Mitchell and James (2001) , “With impoverished theory about issues such as when events occur, when they change, or how quickly they change, the empirical researcher is in a quandary. Decisions about when to measure and how frequently to measure critical variables are left to intuition, chance, convenience, or tradition. None of these are particularly reliable guides (p. 533).”

The latter quote serves as a segue to address the second part of our question, “Given that longitudinal research purportedly addresses the limitations of cross-sectional research, can findings from cross-sectional studies be useful for the development of a theory of change?” Obviously, the answer here is “it depends.” In particular, it depends on the design contexts around which the cross-sectional study was developed. For example, if the study was developed strictly following many of the principles for designing quasi-experiments in field settings spelled out by Shadish, Cook, and Campbell (2002) , then it would be very useful for developing a theory of change on the phenomenon of interest. Findings from such studies could inform decisions as to how much change needs to occur across time in the independent variable to see measurable change in the dependent variable. Similarly, it would help inform decisions as to what the baseline on the independent variable needs to be, and what amount of change from this baseline is required to impact the dependent variable. Another useful set of cross-sectional studies would be those developed for the purpose of verifying within field settings the findings from a series of well-designed laboratory experiments. Again, knowing issues such as thresholds, minimal/maximal values, and intervals or timing of the x -variable onset would be very useful for informing a theory of change. A design context that would be of little use for developing a theory of change is the case where a single cross-sectional study was completed to evaluate the conceptual premises of interest. The theory underlying the study may be useful, but the findings themselves would be of little use.

Few theories are not theories of change. Most, however, are not sufficiently specified. That is, they leave much to the imagination. Moreover, they often leave to the imagination the implications of the theory on behavior. My personal bias is that theories of change should generally be computationally rendered to reduce vagueness, provide a test of internal coherence, and support the development of predictions. One immediately obvious conclusion one will draw when attempting to create a formal computational theoretical model is that we have little empirical data on rates of change.

The procedures for developing a computational model are the following ( Vancouver & Weinhardt, 2012 ; also see Wang et al. , 2016 ). First, take variables from (a) existing theory (verbal or static mathematical theory), (b) qualitative studies, (c) deductive reasoning, or (d) some combination of these. Second, determine which variables are dynamic. Dynamic variables have “memory” in that they retain their value over time, changing only as a function of processes that move the value in one direction or another at some rate or some changing rate. Third, describe processes that would affect these dynamic variables (if using existing theory, this likely involves other variables in the theory) or the rates and direction of change to the dynamic variables if the processes that affect the rates are beyond the theory. Fourth, represent formally (e.g., mathematically) the effect of the variables on each other. Fifth, simulate the model to see if it (a) works (e.g., no out-of-bounds values generated), (b) produces phenomena the theory is presumed to explain, (c) produces patterns of data over time (trajectories; relationships) that match (or could be matched to) data, and (d) determine if variance in exogenous variables (i.e., ones not presumably affected by other variables in the model) affect trajectories/relationships (called sensitivity analysis). For example, if we build a computational model to understand retirement timing, it will be critical to simulate the model to make sure that it generates predictions in a realistic way (e.g., the simulation should not generate too many cases where retirement happens after the person is a 90-year old). It will also be important to see whether the predictions generated from the model match the actual empirical data (e.g., the average retirement age based on simulation should match the average retirement age in the target population) and whether the predictions are robust when the model’s input factors take on a wide range of values.

As mentioned above, many theories of change require the articulation of a change construct (e.g., learning, aging, social adjustment—inferred from a slope parameter in a growth model). A change construct must be specified in terms of its: (a) theoretical content (e.g., what is changing, when we say “learning” or “aging”?), (b) form of change (linear vs. quadratic vs. cyclical), and (c) rate of change (does the change process meaningfully occur over minutes vs. weeks?). One salient problem is how to develop theory about the form of change (linear vs. nonlinear/quadratic) and the rate of change (how fast?) For instance, a quadratic/nonlinear time effect can be due to a substantive process of diminishing returns to time (e.g., a learning curve), or to ceiling (or floor) effects (i.e., hitting the high end of a measurement instrument, past which it becomes impossible to see continued growth in the latent construct). Indeed, only a small fraction of the processes we study would turn out to be linear if we used more extended time frames in the longitudinal design. That is, most apparently linear processes result from the researcher zooming in on a nonlinear process in a way that truncates the time frame. This issue is directly linked to the presumed rate of change of a phenomenon (e.g., a process that looks nonlinear in a 3-month study might look linear in a 3-week study). So when we are called upon to theoretically justify why we hypothesize a linear effect instead of a nonlinear effect, we must derive a theory of what the passage of time means. This would involve three steps: (a) naming the substantive process for which time is a marker (e.g., see answers to Question #2 above), (b) theorizing the rate of this process (e.g., over weeks vs. months), which will be more fruitful if it hinges on related past empirical longitudinal research, than if it hinges on armchair speculation about time (i.e., the appropriate theory development sequence here is: “past data → theory → new data,” and not simply, “theory → new data”; the empirical origins of theory are an essential step), and (c) disavowing nonlinear forces (e.g., diminishing returns to time, periodicity), within the chosen time frame of the study.

Research Design Question 1: What are some of the major considerations that one should take into account before deciding to employ a longitudinal study design?

As with all research, the design needs to allow the researcher to address the research question. For example, if one is seeking to assess a change rate, one needs to ask if it is safe to assume that the form of change is linear. If not, one will need more than two waves or will need to use continuous sampling. One might also use a computational model to assess whether violations of the linearity assumption are important. The researcher needs to also have an understanding of the likely time frame across which the processes being examined occur. Alternatively, if the time frame is unclear, the researcher should sample continuously or use short intervals. If knowing the form of the change is desired, then one will need enough waves of data collection in which to comprehensively capture the changes.

If one is interested in assessing causal processes, more issues need to be considered. For example, what are the processes of interest? What are the factors affecting the processes or the rates of the processes? What is the form of the effect of these factors? And perhaps most important, what alternative process could be responsible for effects observed?

For example, consider proactive socialization ( Morrison, 2002 ). The processes of interest are those involved in determining proactive information seeking. One observation is that the rate of proactive information seeking drops with the tenure of an employee ( Chan & Schmitt, 2000 ). Moreover, the form of the drop is asymptotic to a floor (Vancouver, Tamanini et al. , 2010 ). The uncertainty reduction model predicts that proactive information seeking will drop over time because knowledge increases (i.e., uncertainty decreases). An alternative explanation is that ego costs grow over time: One feels that they will look more foolish asking for information the longer one’s tenure ( Ashford, 1986 ). To distinguish these explanations for a drop in information seeking over time, one might want to look at whether the transparency of the reason to seek information would moderate the negative change trend of information seeking. For the uncertainty reduction model, transparency should not matter, but for the ego-based model, transparency and legitimacy of reason should matter. Of course, it might be that both processes are at work. As such, the researcher may need a computational model or two to help think through the effects of the various processes and whether the forms of the relationships depend on the processes hypothesized (e.g., Vancouver, Tamanini et al. , 2010 ).

Research Design Question 2: Are there any design advantages of cross-sectional research that might make it preferable to longitudinal research? That is, what would be lost and what might be gained if a moratorium were placed on cross-sectional research?

Cross-sectional research is easier to conduct than longitudinal research, but it often estimates the wrong parameters. Interestingly, researchers typically overemphasize/talk too much about the first fact (ease of cross-sectional research), and underemphasize/talk too little about the latter fact (that cross-sectional studies estimate the wrong thing). Cross-sectional research has the advantages of allowing broader sampling of participants, due to faster and cheaper studies that involve less participant burden; and broader sampling of constructs, due to the possibility of participant anonymity in cross-sectional designs, which permits more honest and complete measurement of sensitive concepts, like counterproductive work behavior.

Also, when the theoretical process at hand has a very short time frame (e.g., minutes or seconds), then cross-sectional designs can be entirely appropriate (e.g., for factor analysis/measurement modeling, because it might only take a moment for a latent construct to be reflected in a survey response). Also, first-stage descriptive models of group differences (e.g., sex differences in pay; cross-cultural differences in attitudes; and other “black box” models that do not specify a psychological process) can be suggestive even with cross-sectional designs. Cross-sectional research can also be condoned in the case of a 2-study design wherein cross-sectional data are supplemented with lagged/longitudinal data.

But in the end, almost all psychological theories are theories of change (at least implicitly) [Contrary to Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010) , I tend to believe that “cross-sectional theory” does not actually exist— theories are inherently longitudinal, whereas models and evidence can be cross-sectional.]. Thus, longitudinal and time-lagged designs are indispensable, because they allow researchers to begin answering four types of questions: (a) causal priority, (b) future prediction, (c) change, and (d) temporal external validity. To define and compare cross-sectional against longitudinal and time-lagged designs, I refer to Figure 2 . Figure 2 displays three categories of discrete-time designs: cross-sectional ( X and Y measured at same time; Figure 2a ), lagged ( Y measured after X by a delay of duration t ; Figure 2b ), and longitudinal ( Y measured at three or more points in time; Figure 2c ) designs. First note that, across all time designs, a 1 denotes the cross-sectional parameter (i.e., the correlation between X 1 and Y 1 ) . In other words, if X is job satisfaction and Y is retirement intentions, a 1 denotes the cross-sectional correlation between these two variables at t 1 . To understand the value (and limitations) of cross-sectional research, we will look at the role of the cross-sectional parameter ( a 1 ) in each of the Figure 2 models.

Time-based designs for two constructs, X and Y. (a) cross-sectional design (b) lagged designs (c) longitudinal designs.

Time-based designs for two constructs, X and Y . (a) cross-sectional design (b) lagged designs (c) longitudinal designs.

For assessing causal priority , the lagged models and panel model are most relevant. The time-lagged b 1 parameter (i.e., correlation between X 1 and Y 2 ; e.g., predictive validity) aids in future prediction, but tells us little about causal priority. In contrast, the panel regression b 1 ' parameter from the cross-lagged panel regression (in Figure 2b ) and the cross-lagged panel model (in Figure 2c ) tells us more about causal priority from X to Y ( Kessler & Greenberg, 1981 ; Shingles, 1985 ), and is a function of the b 1 parameter and the cross-sectional a 1 parameter [ b 1 ' = ( b 1 − a 1 r Y 1 , Y 2 ) / 1 − a 1 2 ] . For testing theories that X begets Y (i.e., X → Y ), the lagged parameter b 1 ' can be extremely useful, whereas the cross-sectional parameter a 1 is the wrong parameter (indeed, a 1 is often negatively related to b 1 ' ) . That is, a 1 does not estimate X → Y , but it is usually negatively related to that estimate (via the above formula for b 1 ' ) . Using the example of job satisfaction and retirement intentions, if we would like to know about the causal priority from job satisfaction to retirement intentions, we should at least measure both job satisfaction and retirement intentions at t 1 and then measure retirement intentions at t 2 . Deriving the estimate for b 1 ' involves regressing retirement intentions at t 2 on job satisfaction at t 1 , while controlling for the effect of retirement intentions at t 1 .

For future prediction , the autoregressive model and growth model in Figure 2c are most relevant. One illustrative empirical phenomenon is validity degradation, which means the X – Y correlation tends to shrink as the time interval between X and Y increases ( Keil & Cortina, 2001 ). Validity degradation and patterns of stability have been explained via simplex autoregressive models ( Hulin, Henry, & Noon, 1990 ; Humphreys, 1968 ; Fraley, 2002 ), which express the X – Y correlation as r X 1 , Y 1 + k = a 1 g k , where k is the number of time intervals separating X and Y . Notice the cross-sectional parameter a 1 in this formula serves as a multiplicative constant in the time-lagged X – Y correlation, but is typically quite different from the time-lagged X – Y correlation itself. Using the example of extraversion and retirement intentions, validity degradation means that the effect of extraversion at t 1 on the measure of retirement intentions is likely to decrease over time, depending on how stable retirement intentions are. Therefore, relying on a 1 to gauge how well extraversion can predict future retirement intentions is likely to overestimate the predictive effect of extraversion.

Another pertinent model is the latent growth model ( Chan, 1998 ; Ployhart & Hakel, 1998 ), which explains longitudinal data using a time intercept and slope. In the linear growth model in Figure 2 , the cross-sectional a 1 parameter is equal to the relationship between X 1 and the Y intercept, when t 1 = 0. I also note that from the perspective of the growth model, the validity degradation phenomenon (e.g., Hulin et al. , 1990 ) simply means that X 1 has a negative relationship with the Y slope. Thus, again, the cross-sectional a 1 parameter merely indicates the initial state of the X and Y relationship in a longitudinal system, and will only offer a reasonable estimate of future prediction of Y under the rare conditions when g ≈ 1.0 in the autoregressive model (i.e., Y is extremely stable), or when i ≈ 0 in the growth model (i.e., X does not predict the Y -slope; Figure 2c ).

For studying change , I refer to the growth model (where both X and the Y -intercept explain change in Y [or Y -slope]) and the coupled growth model (where X -intercept, Y -intercept, change in X , and change in Y all interrelate) in Figure 2c . Again, in these models the cross-sectional a 1 parameter is the relationship between the X and Y intercepts, when the slopes are specified with time centered at t 1 = 0 (where t 1 refers arbitrarily to any time point when the cross-sectional data were collected). In the same way that intercepts tell us very little about slopes (ceiling and floor effects notwithstanding), the cross-sectional X 1 parameter tells us almost nothing about change parameters. Again, using the example of the job satisfaction and retirement intentions relationship, to understand change in retirement intentions over time, it is important to gauge the effects of initial status of job satisfaction (i.e., job satisfaction intercept) and change in job satisfaction (i.e., job satisfaction slope) on change in retirement intentions (i.e., slope of retirement intentions).

Finally, temporal external validity refers to the extent to which an effect observed at one point in time generalizes across other occasions. This includes longitudinal measurement equivalence (e.g., whether the measurement metric of the concept or the meaning of the concept may change over time; Schmitt, 1982 ), stability of bivariate relationships over time (e.g., job satisfaction relates more weakly to turnover when the economy is bad; Carsten & Spector, 1987 ), the stationarity of cross-lagged parameters across measurement occasions ( b 1 ' = b 2 ' , see cross-lagged panel model in Figure 2c ; e.g., Cole & Maxwell, 2003 ), and the ability to identify change as an effect of participant age/tenure/development—not an effect of birth/hire cohort or historical period ( Schaie, 1965 ). Obviously, cross-sectional data have nothing to say about temporal external validity.

Should there be a moratorium on cross-sectional research? Because any single wave of a longitudinal design is itself cross-sectional data, a moratorium is not technically possible. However, there should be (a) an explicit acknowledgement of the different theoretical parameters in Figure 2 , and (b) a general moratorium on treating the cross-sectional a 1 parameter as though it implies causal priority (cf. panel regression parameter b 1 ' ) , future prediction (cf. panel regression, autoregressive, and growth models), change (cf. growth models), or temporal external validity. This recommendation is tantamount to a moratorium on cross-sectional research papers, because almost all theories imply the lagged and/or longitudinal parameters in Figure 2 . As noted earlier, cross-sectional data are easier to get, but they estimate the wrong parameter.

I agree with Newman that most theories are about change or should be (i.e., we are interested in understanding processes and, of course, processes occur over time). I am also in agreement that cross-sectional designs are of almost no value for assessing theories of change. Therefore, I am interested in getting to a place where most research is longitudinal, and where top journals rarely publish papers with only a cross-sectional design. However, as Newman points out, some research questions can still be addressed using cross-sectional designs. Therefore, I would not support a moratorium on cross-sectional research papers.

Research Design Question 3: In a longitudinal study, how do we decide on the length of the interval between two adjacent time points?

This question needs to be addressed together with the question on how many time points of measurement to administer in a longitudinal study. It is well established that intra-individual changes cannot be adequately assessed with only two time points because (a) a two-point measurement by necessity produces a linear trajectory and therefore is unable to empirically detect the functional form of the true change trajectory and (b) time-related (random or correlated) measurement error and true change over time are confounded in the observed change in a two-point measurement situation (for details, see Chan, 1998 ; Rogosa, 1995 ; Singer & Willett, 2003 ). Hence, the minimum number of time points for assessing intra-individual change is three, but more than three is better to obtain a more reliable and valid assessment of the change trajectory ( Chan, 1998 ). However, it does not mean that a larger number of time points is always better or more accurate than a smaller number of time points. Given that the total time period of study captures the change process of interest, the number of time points should be determined by the appropriate location of the time point. This then brings us to the current practical question on the choice regarding the appropriate length of the interval between adjacent time points.

The correct length of the time interval between adjacent time points in a longitudinal study is critical because it directly affects the observed functional form of the change trajectory and in turn the inference we make about the true pattern of change over time ( Chan, 1998 ). What then should be the correct length of the time interval between adjacent time points in a longitudinal study? Put simply, the correct or optimal length of the time interval will depend on the specific substantive change phenomenon of interest. This means it is dependent on the nature of the substantive construct, its underlying process of change over time, and the context in which the change process is occurring which includes the presence of variables that influence the nature and rate of the change. In theory, the time interval for data collection is optimal when the time points are appropriately spaced in such a way that it allows the true pattern of change over time to be observed during the period of study. When the observed time interval is too short or too long as compared to the optimal time interval, true patterns of change will get masked or false patterns of change will get observed.

The problem is we almost never know what this optimal time interval is, even if we have a relatively sound theory of the change phenomenon. This is because our theories of research phenomena are often static in nature. Even when our theories are dynamic and focus on change processes, they are almost always silent on the specific length of the temporal dimension through which the substantive processes occur over time ( Chan, 2014 ).

In practice, researchers determine their choice of the length of the time interval in conjunction with the choice of number of time points and the choice of the length of the total time period of study. Based on my experiences as an author, reviewer, and editor, I suspect that these three choices are influenced by the specific resource constraints and opportunities faced by the researchers when designing and conducting the longitudinal study. Deviation from optimal time intervals probably occurs more frequently than we would like, since decisions on time intervals between measures in a study are often pragmatic and atheoretical. When we interpret findings from longitudinal studies, we should consider the possibility that the study may have produced patterns of results that led to wrong inferences because the study did not reflect the true changes over time.

Given that our theories of phenomena are not at the stage where we could specify the optimal time intervals, the best we could do now is to explicate the nature of the change processes and the effects of the influencing factors to serve as guides for decisions on time intervals, number of time points, and total time period of study. For example, in research on sense-making processes in newcomer adaptation, the total period of study often ranged from 6 months to 1 year, with 6 to 12 time points, equally spaced at time intervals of 1 or 2 months between adjacent time points. A much longer time interval and total time period, ranging from several months to several years, would be more appropriate for a change process that should take a longer time to manifest itself, such as development of cognitive processes or skill acquisition requiring extensive practice or accumulation of experiences over time. On the other extreme, a much shorter time interval and total time period, ranging from several hours to several days, will be appropriate for a change process that should take a short time to manifest itself such as activation or inhibition of mood states primed by experimentally manipulated events.

Research Design Question 4: As events occur in our daily life, our mental representations of these events may change as time passes. How can we determine the point(s) in time at which the representation of an event is appropriate? How can these issues be addressed through design and measurement in a study?

In some cases, longitudinal researchers will wish to know the nature and dynamics of one’s immediate experiences. In these cases, the items included at each point in time will simply ask participants to report on states, events, or behaviors that are relatively immediate in nature. For example, one might be interested in an employee’s immediate affective experiences, task performance, or helping behavior. This approach is particularly common for intensive, short-term longitudinal designs such as experience sampling methods (ESM; Beal & Weiss, 2003 ). Indeed, the primary objective of ESM is to capture a representative sample of points within one’s day to help understand the dynamic nature of immediate experience ( Beal, 2015 ; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987 ). Longitudinal designs that have longer measurement intervals may also capture immediate experiences, but more often will ask participants to provide some form of summary of these experiences, typically across the entire interval between each measurement occasion. For example, a panel design with a 6-month interval may ask participants to report on affective states, but include a time frame such as “since the last survey” or “over the past 6 months”, requiring participants to mentally aggregate their own experiences.

As one might imagine, there also are various designs and approaches that range between the end points of immediate experience and experiences aggregated over the entire interval. For example, an ESM study might examine one’s experiences since the last survey. These intervals obviously are close together in time, and therefore are conceptually similar to one’s immediate state; nevertheless, they do require both increased levels of recall and some degree of mental aggregation. Similarly, studies with a longer time interval (e.g., 6-months) might nevertheless ask about one’s relatively recent experiences (e.g., affect over the past week), requiring less in terms of recall and mental aggregation, but only partially covering the events of the entire intervening interval. As a consequence, these two approaches and the many variations in between form a continuum of abstraction containing a number of differences that are worth considering.

Differences in Stability

Perhaps the most obvious difference across this continuum of abstraction is that different degrees of aggregation are captured. As a result, items will reflect more or less stable estimates of the phenomenon of interest. Consider the hypothetical temporal break-down of helping behavior depicted in Figure 3 . No matter how unstable the most disaggregated level of helping behavior may appear, aggregations of these behaviors will always produce greater stability. So, asking about helping behavior over the last hour will produce greater observed variability (i.e., over the entire scale) than averages of helping behavior over the last day, week, month, or one’s overall general level. Although it is well-known that individuals do not follow a strict averaging process when asked directly about a higher level of aggregation (e.g., helping this week; see below), it is very unlikely that such deviations from a straight average will result in less stability at higher levels of aggregation.

Hypothetical variability of helping behavior at different levels of aggregation.

Hypothetical variability of helping behavior at different levels of aggregation.

The reason why this increase in stability is likely to occur regardless of the actual process of mental aggregation is that presumably, as you move from shorter to longer time frames, you are estimating either increasingly stable aspects of an individual’s dispositional level of the construct, or increasingly stable features of the context (e.g., a consistent workplace environment). As you move from longer to shorter time frames you are increasingly estimating immediate instances of the construct or context that are influenced not only by more stable predictors, but also dynamic trends, cycles, and intervening events ( Beal & Ghandour, 2011 ). Notably, this stabilizing effect exists independently of the differences in memory and mental aggregation that are described below.

Differences in Memory

Fundamental in determining how people will respond to these different forms of questions is the nature of memory. Robinson and Clore (2002) provided an in-depth discussion of how we rely on different forms of memory when answering questions over different time frames. Although these authors focus on reports of emotion experiences, their conclusions are likely applicable to a much wider variety of self-reports. At one end of the continuum, reports of immediate experiences are direct, requiring only one’s interpretation of what is occurring and minimizing mental processes of recall.

Moving slightly down the continuum, we encounter items that ask about very recent episodes (e.g., “since the last survey” or “in the past 2 hours” in ESM studies). Here, Robinson and Clore (2002) note that we rely on what cognitive psychologists refer to as episodic memory. Although recall is involved, specific details of the episode in question are easily recalled with a high degree of accuracy. As items move further down the continuum toward summaries of experiences over longer periods of time (e.g., “since the last survey” in a longitudinal panel design), the details of particular relevant episodes are harder to recall and so responses are tinged to an increasing degree by semantic memory. This form of memory is based on individual characteristics (e.g., neurotic individuals might offer more negative reports) as well as well-learned situation-based knowledge (e.g., “my coworkers are generally nice people, so I’m sure that I’ve been satisfied with my interactions over this period of time”). Consequently, as the time frame over which people report increases, the nature of the information provided changes. Specifically, it is increasingly informed by semantic memory (i.e., trait and situation-based knowledge) and decreasingly informed by episodic memory (i.e., particular details of one’s experiences). Thus, researchers should be aware of the memory-related implications when they choose the time frame for their measures.

Differences in the Process of Summarizing

Aside from the role of memory in determining the content of these reports, individuals also summarize their experiences in a complex manner. For example, psychologists have demonstrated that even over a single episode, people tend not to base subjective summaries of the episode on its typical or average features. Instead, we focus on particular notable moments during the experience, such as its peak or its end state, and pay little attention to some aspects of the experience, such as its duration ( Fredrickson, 2000 ; Redelmeier & Kahneman, 1996 ). The result is that a mental summary of a given episode is unlikely to reflect actual averages of the experiences and events that make up the episode. Furthermore, when considering reports that span multiple episodes (e.g., over the last month or the interval between two measurements in a longitudinal panel study), summaries become even more complex. For example, recent evidence suggests that people naturally organize ongoing streams of experience into more coherent episodes largely on the basis of goal relevance ( Beal, Weiss, Barros, & MacDermid, 2005 ; Beal & Weiss, 2013 ; Zacks, Speer, Swallow, Braver, & Reynolds, 2007 ). Thus, how we interpret and parse what is going on around us connects strongly to our goals at the time. Presumably, this process helps us to impart meaning to our experiences and predict what might happen next, but it also influences the type of information we take with us from the episode, thereby affecting how we might report on this period of time.

Practical Differences

What then, can researchers take away from this information to help in deciding what sorts of items to include in longitudinal studies? One theme that emerges from the above discussion is that summaries over longer periods of time will tend to reflect more about the individual and the meanings he or she may have imparted to the experiences, events, and behaviors that have occurred during this time period, whereas shorter-term summaries or reports of more immediate occurrences are less likely to have been processed through this sort of interpretive filter. Of course, this is not to say that the more immediate end of this continuum is completely objective, as immediate perceptions are still host to many potential biases (e.g., attributional biases typically occur immediately); rather, immediate reports are more likely to reflect one’s immediate interpretation of events rather than an interpretation that has been mulled over and considered in light of an individual’s short- and long-term goals, dispositions, and broader worldview.

The particular choice of item type (i.e., immediate vs. aggregated experiences) that will be of interest to a researcher designing a longitudinal study should of course be determined by the nature of the research question. For example, if a researcher is interested in what Weiss and Cropanzano (1996) referred to as judgment-driven behaviors (e.g., a calculated decision to leave the organization), then capturing the manner in which individuals make sense of relevant work events is likely more appropriate, and so items that ask one to aggregate experiences over time may provide a better conceptual match than items asking about immediate states. In contrast, affect-driven behaviors or other immediate reactions to an event will likely be better served by reports that ask participants for minimal mental aggregations of their experiences (e.g., immediate or over small spans of time).

The issue of mental representations of events at particular points in time should always be discussed and evaluated within the research context of the conceptual questions on the underlying substantive constructs and change processes that may account for patterns of responses over time. Many of these conceptual questions are likely to relate to construct-oriented issues such as the location of the substantive construct on the state-trait continuum and the timeframe through which short-term or long-term effects on the temporal changes in the substantive construct are likely to be manifested (e.g., effects of stressors on changes in health). On the issue of aggregation of observations across time, I see it as part of a more basic question on whether an individual’s subjective experience on a substantive construct (e.g., emotional well-being) should be assessed using momentary measures (e.g., assessing the individual’s current emotional state, measured daily over the past 1 week) or retrospective global reports (e.g., asking the individual to report an overall assessment of his or her emotional state over the past 1 week). Each of the two measurement perspectives (i.e., momentary and global retrospective) has both strengths and limitations. For example, momentary measures are less prone to recall biases compared to global retrospective measures ( Kahneman, 1999 ). Global retrospective measures, on the other hand, are widely used in diverse studies for the assessment of many subjective experience constructs with a large database of evidence concerning the measure’s reliability and validity ( Diener, Inglehart, & Tay, 2013 ). In a recent article ( Tay, Chan, & Diener, 2014 ), my colleagues and I reviewed the conceptual, methodological, and practical issues in the debate between the momentary and global retrospective perspectives as applied to the research on subjective well-being. We concluded that both perspectives could offer useful insights and suggested a multiple-method approach that is sensitive to the nature of the substantive construct and specific context of use, but also called for more research on the use of momentary measures to obtain more evidence for their psychometric properties and practical value.

Research Design Question 5: What are the biggest practical hurdles to conducting longitudinal research? What are the ways to overcome them?

As noted earlier, practical hurdles are perhaps one of the main reasons why researchers choose cross-sectional rather than longitudinal designs. Although we have already discussed a number of these issues that must be faced when conducting longitudinal research, the following discussion emphasizes two hurdles that are ubiquitous, often difficult to overcome, and are particularly relevant to longitudinal designs.

Encouraging Continued Participation

Encouraging participation is a practical issue that likely faces all studies, irrespective of design; however, longitudinal studies raise special considerations given that participants must complete measurements on multiple occasions. Although there is a small literature that has examined this issue specifically (e.g., Fumagalli, Laurie, & Lynn, 2013 ; Groves et al. , 2006 ; Laurie, Smith, & Scott, 1999 ), it appears that the relevant factors are fairly similar to those noted for cross-sectional surveys. In particular, providing monetary incentives prior to completing the survey is a recommended strategy (though nonmonetary gifts can also be effective), with increased amounts resulting in increased participation rates, particularly as the burden of the survey increases ( Laurie & Lynn, 2008 ).

The impact of participant burden relates directly to the special considerations of longitudinal designs, as they are generally more burdensome. In addition, with longitudinal designs, the nature of the incentives used can vary over time, and can be tailored toward reducing attrition rates across the entire span of the survey ( Fumagalli et al. , 2013 ). For example, if the total monetary incentive is distributed across survey waves such that later waves have greater incentive amounts, and if this information is provided to participants at the outset of the study, then attrition rates may be reduced more effectively ( Martin & Loes, 2010 ); however, some research suggests that a larger initial payment is particularly effective at reducing attrition throughout the study ( Singer & Kulka, 2002 ).

In addition, the fact that longitudinal designs reflect an implicit relationship between the participant and the researchers over time suggests that incentive strategies that are considered less effective in cross-sectional designs (e.g., incentive contingent on completion) may be more effective in longitudinal designs, as the repeated assessments reflect a continuing reciprocal relationship. Indeed, there is some evidence that contingent incentives are effective in longitudinal designs ( Castiglioni, Pforr, & Krieger, 2008 ). Taken together, one potential strategy for incentivizing participants in longitudinal surveys would be to divide payment such that there is an initial relatively large incentive delivered prior to completing the first wave, followed by smaller, but increasing amounts that are contingent upon completion of each successive panel. Although this strategy is consistent with theory and evidence just discussed, it has yet to be tested explicitly.

Continued contact

One thing that does appear certain, particularly in longitudinal designs, is that incentives are only part of the picture. An additional factor that many researchers have emphasized is the need to maintain contact with participants throughout the duration of a longitudinal survey ( Laurie, 2008 ). Strategies here include obtaining multiple forms of contact information at the outset of the study and continually updating this information. From this information, researchers should make efforts to keep in touch with participants in-between measurement occasions (for panel studies) or some form of ongoing basis (for ESM or other intensive designs). Laurie (2008) referred to these efforts as Keeping In Touch Exercises (KITEs) and suggested that they serve to increase belongingness and perhaps a sense of commitment to the survey effort, and have the additional benefit of obtaining updated contact and other relevant information (e.g., change of job).

Mode of Data Collection

General considerations.

In panel designs, relative to intensive designs discussed below, only a limited number of surveys are sought, and the interval between assessments is relatively large. Consequently, there is likely to be greater flexibility as to the particular methods chosen for presenting and recording responses. Although the benefits, costs, and deficiencies associated with traditional paper-and-pencil surveys are well-known, the use of internet-based surveys has evolved rapidly and so the implications of using this method have also changed. For example, early survey design technologies for internet administration were often complex and potentially costly. Simply adding items was sometimes a difficult task, and custom-formatted response options (e.g., sliding scales with specific end points, ranges, and tick marks) were often unattainable. Currently available web-based design tools often are relatively inexpensive and increasingly customizable, yet have maintained or even improved the level of user-friendliness. Furthermore, a number of studies have noted that data collected using paper-and-pencil versus internet-based applications are often comparable if not indistinguishable (e.g., Cole, Bedeian, & Feild, 2006 ; Gosling et al. , 2004 ), though notable exceptions can occur ( Meade, Michels, & Lautenschlager, 2007 ).

One issue related to the use of internet-based survey methods that is likely to be of increasing relevance in the years to come is collection of survey data using a smartphone. As of this writing (this area changes rapidly), smartphone options are in a developing phase where some reasonably good options exist, but have yet to match the flexibility and standardized appearance that comes with most desktop or laptop web-based options just described. For example, it is possible to implement repeated surveys for a particular mobile operating system (OS; e.g., Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android OS), but unless a member of the research team is proficient in programming, there will be a non-negligible up-front cost for a software engineer ( Uy, Foo, & Aguinis, 2010 ). Furthermore, as market share for smartphones is currently divided across multiple mobile OSs, a comprehensive approach will require software development for each OS that the sample might use.

There are a few other options, however, but some of these options are not quite complete solutions. For example, survey administration tools such as Qualtrics now allow for testing of smartphone compatibility when creating web-based surveys. So, one could conceivably create a survey using this tool and have people respond to it on their smartphone with little or no loss of fidelity. Unfortunately, these tools (again, at this moment in time) do not offer elegant or flexible signaling capabilities. For example, intensive repeated measures designs will often try to signal reasonably large (e.g., N = 50–100) number of participants multiple random signals every day for multiple weeks. Accomplishing this task without the use of a built-in signaling function (e.g., one that generates this pattern of randomized signals and alerts each person’s smartphone at the appropriate time), is no small feat.

There are, however, several efforts underway to provide free or low-cost survey development applications for mobile devices. For example, PACO is a (currently) free Google app that is in the beta-testing stage and allows great flexibility in the design and implementation of repeated surveys on both Android OS and iOS smartphones. Another example that is currently being developed for both Android and iOS platforms is Expimetrics ( Tay, 2015 ), which promises flexible design and signaling functions that is of low cost for researchers collecting ESM data. Such applications offer the promise of highly accessible survey administration and signaling and have the added benefit of transmitting data quickly to servers accessible to the research team. Ideally, such advances in accessibility of survey administration will allow increased response rates throughout the duration of the longitudinal study.

Issues specific to intensive designs

All of the issues just discussed with respect to the mode of data collection are particularly relevant for short-term intensive longitudinal designs such as ESM. As the number of measurement occasions increases, so too do the necessities of increasing accessibility and reducing participant burden wherever possible. Of particular relevance is the emphasis ESM places on obtaining in situ assessments to increase the ecological validity of the study ( Beal, 2015 ). To maximize this benefit of the method, it is important to reduce the interruption introduced by the survey administration. If measurement frequency is relatively sparse (e.g., once a day), it is likely that simple paper-and-pencil or web-based modes of collection will be sufficient without creating too much interference ( Green et al. , 2006 ). In contrast, as measurements become increasingly intensive (e.g., four or five times/day or more), reliance on more accessible survey modes will become important. Thus, a format that allows for desktop, laptop, or smartphone administration should be of greatest utility in such intensive designs.

Statistical Techniques Question 1: With respect to assessing changes over time in a latent growth modeling framework, how can a researcher address different conceptual questions by coding the slope variable differently?

As with many questions in this article, an in-depth answer to this particular question is not possible in the available space. Hence, only a general treatment of different coding schemes of the slope or change variable is provided. Excellent detailed treatments of this topic may be found in Bollen and Curran (2006 , particularly chapters 3 & 4), and in Singer and Willett (2003 , particularly chapter 6). As noted by Ployhart and Vandenberg (2010) , specifying the form of change should be an a priori conceptual endeavor, not a post hoc data driven effort. This stance was also stated earlier by Singer and Willett (2003) when distinguishing between empirical (data driven) versus rational (theory driven) strategies. “Under rational strategies, on the other hand, you use theory to hypothesize a substantively meaningful functional form for the individual change trajectory. Although rational strategies generally yield clearer interpretations, their dependence on good theory makes them somewhat more difficult to develop and apply ( Singer & Willett, 2003 , p. 190).” The last statement in the quote simply reinforces the main theme throughout this article; that is, researchers need to undertake the difficult task of bringing in time (change being one form) within their conceptual frameworks in order to more adequately examine the causal structure among the focal variables within those frameworks.

In general, there are three sets of functional forms for which the slope or change variable may be coded or specified: (a) linear; (b) discontinuous; and (c) nonlinear. Sets emphasize that within each form there are different types that must be considered. The most commonly seen form in our literature is linear change (e.g., Bentein et al. , 2005 ; Vandenberg & Lance, 2000 ). Linear change means there is an expectation that the variable of interest should increase or decrease in a straight-line function during the intervals of the study. The simplest form of linear change occurs when there are equal measurement intervals across time and the units of observations were obtained at the same time in those intervals. Assuming, for example, that there were four occasions of measurement, the coding of the slope variable would be 0 (Time 1), 1 (Time 2), 2 (Time 3) and 3 (Time 4). Such coding fixes the intercept (starting value of the line) at the Time 1 interval, and thus, the conceptual interpretation of the linear change is made relative to this starting point. Reinforcing the notion that there is a set of considerations, one may have a conceptual reason for wanting to fix the intercept to the last measurement occasion. For example, there may be an extensive training program anchored with a “final exam” on the last occasion, and one wants to study the developmental process resulting in the final score. In this case, the coding scheme may be −3, −2, −1, and 0 going from Time 1 to Time 4, respectively ( Bollen & Curran, 2006 , p. 116; Singer & Willett, 2003 , p. 182). One may also have a conceptual reason to use the middle of the time intervals to anchor the intercept and look at the change above and below this point. Thus, the coding scheme in the current example may be −1.5, −0.5, 0.5, and 1.5 for Time 1 to Time 4, respectively ( Bollen & Curran, 2006 ; Singer & Willett, 2003 ). There are other considerations in the “linear set” such as the specification of linear change in cohort designs or other cases where there are individually-varying times of observation (i.e., not everyone started at the same time, at the same age, at the same intervals, etc.). The latter may need to make use of missing data procedures, or the use of time varying covariates that account for the differences as to when observations were collected. For example, to examine how retirement influences life satisfaction, Pinquart and Schindler (2007) modeled life satisfaction data from a representative sample of German retirees who retired between 1985 and 2003. Due to the retirement timing differences among the participants (not everyone retired at the same time or at the same age), different numbers of life satisfaction observations were collected for different retirees. Therefore, the missing observations on a yearly basis were modeled as latent variables to ensure that the analyses were able to cover the entire studied time span.

Discontinuous change is the second set of functional form with which one could theoretically describe the change in one’s substantive focal variables. Discontinuities are precipitous events that may cause the focal variable to rapidly accelerate (change in slope) or to dramatically increase/decrease in value (change in elevation) or both change in slope and elevation (see Ployhart & Vandenberg, 2010 , Figure 1 in p. 100; Singer & Willett, 2003 , pp. 190–208, see Table 6.2 in particular). For example, according to the stage theory ( Wang et al. , 2011 ), retirement may be such a precipitous event, because it can create an immediate “honeymoon effect” on retirees, dramatically increasing their energy-level and satisfaction with life as they pursue new activities and roles.

This set of discontinuous functional form has also been referred to as piecewise growth ( Bollen & Curran, 2006 ; Muthén & Muthén, 1998–2012 ), but in general, represents situations where all units of observation are collected at the same time during the time intervals and the discontinuity happens to all units at the same time. It is actually a variant of the linear set, and therefore, could have been presented above as well. To illustrate, assume we are tracking individual performance metrics that had been rising steadily across time, and suddenly the employer announces an upcoming across-the-board bonus based on those metrics. A sudden rise (as in a change in slope) in those metrics could be expected based purely on reinforcement theory. Assume, for example, we had six intervals of measurement, and the bonus announcement was made just after the Time 3 data collection. We could specify two slope or change variables and code the first one as 0, 1, 2, 2, 2, and 2, and code the second slope variable as 0, 0, 0, 1, 2, and 3. The latter specification would then independently examine the linear change in each slope variable. Conceptually, the first slope variable brings the trajectory of change up to the transition point (i.e., the last measurement before the announcement) while the second one captures the change after the transition ( Bollen & Curran, 2006 ). Regardless of whether the variables are latent or observed only, if this is modeled using software such as Mplus ( Muthén & Muthén, 1998–2012 ), the difference between the means of the slope variables may be statistically tested to evaluate whether the post-announcement slope is indeed greater than the pre-announcement slope. One may also predict that the announcement would cause an immediate sudden elevation in the performance metric as well. This can be examined by including a dummy variable which is zero at all time points prior to the announcement and one at all time points after the announcement ( Singer & Willett, 2003 , pp. 194–195). If the coefficient for this dummy variable is statistically significant and positive, then it indicates that there was a sudden increase (upward elevation) in value post-transition.

Another form of discontinuous change is one in which the discontinuous event occurs at varying times for the units of observation (indeed it may not occur at all for some) and the intervals for collecting data may not be evenly spaced. For example, assume again that individual performance metrics are monitored across time for individuals in high-demand occupations with the first one collected on the date of hire. Assume as well that these individuals are required to report when an external recruiter approaches them; that is, they are not prohibited from speaking with a recruiter but need to just report when it occurred. Due to some cognitive dissonance process, individuals may start to discount the current employer and reduce their inputs. Thus, a change in slope, elevation, or both may be expected in performance. With respect to testing a potential change in elevation, one uses the same dummy-coded variable as described above ( Singer & Willett, 2003 ). With respect to whether the slopes of the performance metrics differ pre- versus post-recruiter contact, however, requires the use of a time-varying covariate. How this operates specifically is beyond the scope here. Excellent treatments on the topic, however, are provided by Bollen and Curran (2006 , pp. 192–218), and Singer and Willett (2003 , pp. 190–208). In general, a time-varying covariate captures the intervals of measurement. In the current example, this may be the number of days (weeks, months, etc.) from date of hire (when baseline performance was obtained) to the next interval of measurement and all subsequent intervals. Person 1, for example, may have the values 1, 22, 67, 95, 115, and 133, and was contacted after Time 3 on Day 72 from the date of hire. Person 2 may have the values 1, 31, 56, 101, 141, and 160, and was contacted after Time 2 on Day 40 from date of hire. Referring the reader to the specifics starting on page 195 of Singer and Willett (2003) , one would then create a new variable from the latter in which all of the values on this new variable before the recruiting contact are set to zero, and values after that to the difference in days when contact was made to the interval of measurement. Thus, for Person 1, this new variable would have the values 0, 0, 0, 23, 43, and 61, and for Person 2, the values would be 0, 0, 16, 61, 101, and 120. The slope of this new variable represents the increment (up or down) to what the slope would have been had the individuals not been contacted by a recruiter. If it is statistically nonsignificant, then there is no change in slope pre- versus post-recruiter contact. If it is statistically significant, then the slope after contact differed from that before the contact. Finally, while much of the above is based upon a multilevel approach to operationalizing change, Muthén and Muthén (1998–2012 ) offer an SEM approach to time-varying covariates through their Mplus software package.

The final functional form to which the slope or change variable may be coded or specified is nonlinear. As with the other forms, there is a set of nonlinear forms. The simplest in the set is when theory states that the change in the focal variable may be quadratic (curve upward or downward). As such, in addition to the linear slope/change variable, a second change variable is specified in which the values of its slope are fixed to the squared values of the first or linear change variable. Assuming five equally spaced intervals of measurement coded as 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4 on the linear change variable. The values of the second quadratic change variable would be 0, 1, 4, 9, and 16. Theory could state that there is cubic change as well. In that case, a third cubic change variable is introduced with the values of 0, 1, 8, 27, and 64. One problem with the use of quadratic (or even linear change variables) or other polynomial forms as described above is that the trajectories are unbounded functions ( Bollen & Curran, 2006 ); that is, there is an assumption that they tend toward infinity. It is unlikely that most, if any, of the theoretical processes in the social sciences are truly unbounded. If a nonlinear form is expected, operationalizing change using an exponential trajectory is probably the most realistic choice. This is because exponential trajectories are bounded functions in the sense that they approach an asymptote (either growing and/or decaying to asymptote). There are three forms of exponential trajectories: (a) simple where there is explosive growth from asymptote; (b) negative where there is growth to an asymptote; and (c) logistic where this is asymptote at both ends ( Singer & Willett, 2003 ). Obviously, the values of the slope or change variable would be fixed to the exponents most closely representing the form of the curve (see Bollen & Curren, 2006, p. 108; and Singer & Willett, 2003 , Table 6.7, p. 234).

There are other nonlinear considerations as well that belong to this. For example, Bollen and Curran (2006 , p. 109) address the issue of cycles (recurring ups and downs but that follow a general upward or downward trend.) Once more the values of the change variable would be coded to reflect those cycles. Similarly, Singer and Willett (2003 , p. 208) address recoding when one wants to remove through transformations the nonlinearity in the change function to make it more linear. They provide an excellent heuristic on page 211 to guide one’s thinking on this issue.

Statistical Techniques Question 2: In longitudinal research, are there additional issues of measurement error that we need to pay attention to, which are over and above those that are applicable to cross-sectional research?

Longitudinal research should pay special attention to the measurement invariance issue. Chan (1998) and Schmitt (1982) introduced Golembiewski and colleagues’ (1976) notion of alpha, beta, and gamma change to explain why measurement invariance is a concern in longitudinal research. When the measurement of a particular concept retains the same structure (i.e., same number of observed items and latent factors, same value and pattern of factor loadings), change in the absolute levels of the latent factor is called alpha change. Only for this type of change can we draw the conclusion that there is a specific form of growth in a given variable. When the measurement of a concept has to be adjusted over time (i.e., different values or patterns of factor loadings), beta change happens. Although the conceptual meaning of the factor remains the same over measurements, the subjective metric of the concept has changed. When the meaning of a concept changes over time (e.g., having different number of factors or different correlations between factors), gamma change happens. It is not possible to compare difference in absolute levels of a latent factor when beta and gamma changes happen, because there is no longer a stable measurement model for the construct. The notions of beta and gamma changes are particularly important to consider when conducting longitudinal research on aging-related phenomena, especially when long time intervals are used in data collection. In such situations, the risk for encountering beta and gamma changes is higher and can seriously jeopardize the internal and external validity of the research.

Longitudinal analysis is often conducted to examine how changes happen in the same variable over time. In other words, it operates on the “alpha change” assumption. Thus, it is often important to explicitly test measurement invariance before proceeding to model the growth parameters. Without establishing measurement invariance, it is unknown whether we are testing meaningful changes or comparing apples and oranges. A number of references have discussed the procedures for testing measurement invariance in latent variable analysis framework (e.g., Chan, 1998 ; McArdle, 2007 ; Ployhart & Vandenberg, 2010 ). The basic idea is to specify and include the measurement models in the longitudinal model, with either continuous or categorical indicators (see answers to Statistical Techniques #4 below on categorical indicators). With the latent factor invariance assumption, factor loadings across measurement points should be constrained to be equal. Errors from different measurement occasions might correlate, especially when the measurement contexts are very similar over time ( Tisak & Tisak, 2000 ). Thus, the error variances for the same item over time can also be correlated to account for common influences at the item-level (i.e., autocorrelation between items). With the specification of the measurement structure, the absolute changes in the latent variables can then be modeled by the mean structure. It should be noted that a more stringent definition of measurement invariance also requires equal variance in latent factors. However, in longitudinal data this requirement becomes extremely difficult to satisfy, and factor variances can be sample specific. Thus, this requirement is often eased when testing measurement invariance in longitudinal analysis. Moreover, this requirement may even be invalid when the nature of the true change over time involves changes in the latent variance ( Chan, 1998 ).

It is important to note that the mean structure approach not only applies to longitudinal models with three or more measurement points, but also applies to simple repeated measures designs (e.g., pre–post design). Traditional paired sample t tests and within-subject repeated measures ANOVAs do not take into account measurement equivalence, which simply uses the summed scores at two measurement points to conduct a hypothesis test. The mean structure approach provides a more powerful way to test the changes/differences in a latent variable by taking measurement errors into consideration ( McArdle, 2009 ).

However, sometimes it is not possible to achieve measurement equivalence through using the same scales over time. For example, in research on development of cognitive intelligence in individuals from birth to late adulthood, different tests of cognitive intelligence are administrated at different ages (e.g., Bayley, 1956 ). In applied settings, different domain-knowledge or skill tests may be administrated to evaluate employee competence at different stages of their career. Another possible reason for changing measures is poor psychometric properties of scales used in earlier data collection. Previously, researchers have used transformed scores (e.g., scores standardized within each measurement point) before modeling growth curves over time. In response to critiques of these scaling methods, new procedures have been developed to model longitudinal data using changed measurement (e.g., rescoring methods, over-time prediction, and structural equation modeling with convergent factor patterns). Recently, McArdle and colleagues (2009) proposed a joint model approach that estimated an item response theory (IRT) model and latent curve model simultaneously. They provided a demonstration of how to effectively handle changing measurement in longitudinal studies by using this new proposed approach.

I am not sure these issues of measurement error are “over and above” cross-sectional issues as much as that cross-sectional data provide no mechanisms for dealing with these issues, so they are simply ignored at the analysis stage. Unfortunately, this creates problems at the interpretation stage. In particular, issues of random walk variables ( Kuljanin, Braun, & DeShon, 2011 ) are a potential problem for longitudinal data analysis and the interpretation of either cross-sectional or longitudinal designs. Random walk variables are dynamic variables that I mentioned earlier when describing the computational modeling approach. These variables have some value and are moved from that value. The random walk expression comes from the image of a highly inebriated individual, who is in some position, but who staggers and sways from the position to neighboring positions because the alcohol has disrupted the nerve system’s stabilizers. This inebriated individual might have an intended direction (called “the trend” if the individual can make any real progress), but there may be a lot of noise in that path. In the aging and retirement literature, one’s retirement savings can be viewed as a random walk variable. Although the general trend of retirement savings should be positive (i.e., the amount of retirement savings should grow over time), at any given point, the exact amount added/gained into the saving (or withdrawn/loss from the saving) depends on a number of situational factors (e.g., stock market performance) and cannot be consistently predicted. The random walks (i.e., dynamic variables) have a nonindependence among observations over time. Indeed, one way to know if one is measuring a dynamic variable is if one observes a simplex pattern among inter-correlations of the variable with itself over time. In a simplex pattern, observations of the variable are more highly correlated when they are measured closer in time (e.g., Time 1 observations correlate more highly with Time 2 than Time 3). Of course, this pattern can also occur if its proximal causes (rather than itself) is a dynamic variable.

As noted, dynamic or random walk variables can create problems for poorly designed longitudinal research because one may not realize that the level of the criterion ( Y ), say measured at Time 3, was largely near its level at Time 2, when the presumed cause ( X ) was measured. Moreover, at Time 1 the criterion ( Y ) might have been busy moving the level of the “causal” variable ( X ) to the place it is observed at Time 2. That is, the criterion variable ( Y ) at Time 1 is actually causing the presumed causal variable ( X ) at Time 2. For example, performances might affect self-efficacy beliefs such that self-efficacy beliefs end up aligning with performance levels. If one measures self-efficacy after it has largely been aligned, and then later measures the largely stable performance, a positive correlation between the two variables might be thought of as reflecting self-efficacy’s influence on performance because of the timing of measurement (i.e., measuring self-efficacy before performance). This is why the multiple wave measurement practice is so important in passive observational panel studies.

However, the multiple waves of measurement might still create problems for random walk variables, particularly if there are trends and reverse causality. Consider the self-efficacy to performance example again. If performance is trending over time and self-efficacy is following along behind, a within-person positive correlation between self-efficacy and subsequent performance is likely be observed (even if there is no or a weak negative causal effect) because self-efficacy will be relatively high when performance is relatively high and low when performance is low. In this case, controlling for trend or past performance will generally solve the problem ( Sitzmann & Yeo, 2013 ), unless the random walk has no trend. Meanwhile, there are other issues that random walk variables may raise for both cross-sectional and longitudinal research, which Kuljanin et al. (2011) do a very good job of articulating.

A related issue for longitudinal research is nonindependence of observations as a function of nesting within clusters. This issue has received a great deal of attention in the multilevel literature (e.g., Bliese & Ployhart, 2002 ; Singer & Willett, 2003 ), so I will not belabor the point. However, there is one more nonindependence issue that has not received much attention. Specifically, the issue can be seen when a variable is a lagged predictor of itself ( Vancouver, Gullekson, & Bliese, 2007 ). With just three repeated measures or observations, the correlation of the variable on itself will average −.33 across three time points, even if the observations are randomly generated. This is because there is a one-third chance the repeated observations are changing monotonically over the three time points, which results in a correlation of 1, and a two-thirds chance they are not changing monotonically, which results in a correlation of −1, which averages to −.33. Thus, on average it will appear the variable is negatively causing itself. Fortunately, this problem is quickly mitigated by more waves of observations and more cases (i.e., the bias is largely removed with 60 pairs of observations).

Statistical Techniques Question 3: When analyzing longitudinal data, how should we handle missing values?

As reviewed by Newman (2014 ; see in-depth discussions by Enders, 2001 , 2010 ; Little & Rubin, 1987 ; Newman, 2003 , 2009 ; Schafer & Graham, 2002 ), there are three levels of missing data (item level missingness, variable/construct-level missingness, and person-level missingness), two problems caused by missing data (parameter estimation bias and low statistical power), three mechanisms of missing data (missing completely at random/MCAR, missing at random/MAR, and missing not at random/MNAR), and a handful of common missing data techniques (listwise deletion, pairwise deletion, single imputation techniques, maximum likelihood, and multiple imputation). State-of-the-art advice is to use maximum likelihood (ML: EM algorithm, Full Information ML) or multiple imputation (MI) techniques, which are particularly superior to other missing data techniques under the MAR missingness mechanism, and perform as well as—or better than—other missing data techniques under MCAR and MNAR missingness mechanisms (MAR missingness is a form of systematic missingness in which the probability that data are missing on one variable [ Y ] is related to the observed data on another variable [ X ]).

Most of the controversy surrounding missing data techniques involves two misconceptions: (a) the misconception that listwise and pairwise deletion are somehow more natural techniques that involve fewer or less tenuous assumptions than ML and MI techniques do, with the false belief that a data analyst can draw safer inferences by avoiding the newer techniques, and (b) the misconception that multiple imputation simply entails “fabricating data that were not observed.” First, because all missing data techniques are based upon particular assumptions, none is perfect. Also, when it comes to selecting a missing data technique to analyze incomplete data, one of the above techniques (e.g., listwise, pairwise, ML, MI) must be chosen. One cannot safely avoid the decision altogether—that is, abstinence is not an option. One must select the least among evils.

Because listwise and pairwise deletion make the exceedingly unrealistic assumption that missing data are missing completely at random/MCAR (cf. Rogelberg et al. , 2003 ), they will almost always produce worse bias than ML and MI techniques, on average ( Newman & Cottrell, 2015 ). Listwise deletion can further lead to extreme reductions in statistical power. Next, single imputation techniques (e.g., mean substitution, stochastic regression imputation)—in which the missing data are filled in only once, and the resulting data matrix is analyzed as if the data had been complete—are seriously flawed because they overestimate sample size and underestimate standard errors and p -values.

Unfortunately, researchers often get confused into thinking that multiple imputation suffers from the same problems as single imputation; it does not. In multiple imputation, missing data are filled in several different times, and the multiple resulting imputed datasets are then aggregated in a way that accounts for the uncertainty in each imputation ( Rubin, 1987 ). Multiple imputation is not an exercise in “making up data”; it is an exercise in tracing the uncertainty of one’s parameter estimates, by looking at the degree of variability across several imprecise guesses (given the available information). The operative word in multiple imputation is multiple , not imputation.

Longitudinal modeling tends to involve a lot of construct- or variable-level missing data (i.e., omitting answers from an entire scale, an entire construct, or an entire wave of observation—e.g., attrition). Such conditions create many partial nonrespondents, or participants for whom some variables have been observed and some other variables have not been observed. Thus a great deal of missing data in longitudinal designs tends to be MAR (e.g., because missing data at Time 2 is related to observed data at Time 1). Because variable-level missingness under the MAR mechanism is the ideal condition for which ML and MI techniques were designed ( Schafer & Graham, 2002 ), both ML and MI techniques (in comparison to listwise deletion, pairwise deletion, and single imputation techniques) will typically produce much less biased estimates and more accurate hypothesis tests when used on longitudinal designs ( Newman, 2003 ). Indeed, ML missing data techniques are now the default techniques in LISREL, Mplus, HLM, and SAS Proc Mixed. It is thus no longer excusable to perform discrete-time longitudinal analyses ( Figure 2 ) without using either ML or MI missing data techniques ( Enders, 2010 ; Graham, 2009 ; Schafer & Graham, 2002 ).

Lastly, because these newer missing data techniques incorporate all of the available data, it is now increasingly important for longitudinal researchers to not give up on early nonrespondents. Attrition need not be a permanent condition. If a would-be respondent chooses not to reply to a survey request at Time 1, the researcher should still attempt to collect data from that person at Time 2 and Time 3. More data = more useful information that can reduce bias and increase statistical power. Applying this advice to longitudinal research on aging and retirement, it means that even when a participant fails to provide responses at some measurement points, continuing to make an effort to collect more data from the participant in subsequent waves may still be worthwhile. It will certainly help combat the issue of attrition and allow more usable data to emerge from the longitudinal data collection.

Statistical Techniques Question 4: Most of existing longitudinal research focuses on studying quantitative change over time. What if the variable of interest is categorical or if the changes over time are qualitative in nature?

I think there are two questions here: How to model longitudinal data of categorical variables, and how to model discontinuous change patterns of variables over time. In terms of longitudinal categorical data, there are two types of data that researchers typically encounter. One type of data comes from measuring a sample of participants on a categorical variable at a few time points (i.e., panel data). The research question that drives the data analyses is to understand the change of status from one time point to the next. For example, researchers might be interested in whether a population of older workers would stay employed or switch between employed and unemployed statuses (e.g., Wang & Chan, 2011 ). To answer this question, employment status (employed or unemployed) of a sample of older workers might be measured five or six times over several years. When transition between qualitative statuses is of theoretical interest, this type of panel data can be modeled via Markov chain models. The simplest form of Markov chain models is a simple Markov model with a single chain, which assumes (a) the observed status at time t depends on the observed status at time t –1, (b) the observed categories are free from measurement error, and (c) the whole population can be described by a single chain. The first assumption is held by most if not all Markov chain models. The other two assumptions can be released by using latent Markov chain modeling (see Langeheine & Van de Pol, 2002 for detailed explanation).

The basic idea of latent Markov chains is that observed categories reflect the “true” status on latent categorical variables to a certain extent (i.e., the latent categorical variable is the cause of the observed categorical variable). In addition, because the observations may contain measurement error, a number of different observed patterns over time could reflect the same underlying latent transition pattern in qualitative status. This way, a large number of observed patterns (e.g., a maximum of 256 patterns of a categorical variable with four categories measured four times) can be reduced into reflecting a small number of theoretically coherent patterns (e.g., a maximum of 16 patterns of a latent categorical variable with two latent statuses over four time points). It is also important to note that subpopulations in a larger population can follow qualitatively different transition patterns. This heterogeneity in latent Markov chains can be modeled by mixture latent Markov modeling, a technique integrating latent Markov modeling and latent class analysis (see Wang & Chan, 2011 for technical details). Given that mixture latent Markov modeling is a part of the general latent variable analysis framework ( Muthén, 2001 ), mixture latent Markov models can include different types of covariates and outcomes (latent or observed, categorical or continuous) of the subpopulation membership as well as the transition parameters of each subpopulation.

Another type of longitudinal categorical data comes from measuring one or a few study units on many occasions separated by the same time interval (e.g., every hour, day, month, or year). Studies examining this type of data mostly aim to understand the temporal trend or periodic tendency in a phenomenon. For example, one can examine the cyclical trend of daily stressful events (occurred or not) over several months among a few employees. The research goal could be to reveal multiple cyclical patterns within the repeated occurrences in stressful events, such as daily, weekly, and/or monthly cycles. Another example is the study of performance of a particular player or a sports team (i.e., win, lost, or tie) over hundreds of games. The research question could be to find out time-varying factors that could account for the cyclical patterns of game performance. The statistical techniques typically used to analyze this type of data belong to the family of categorical time series analyses . A detailed technical review is beyond the current scope, but interested readers can refer to Fokianos and Kedem (2003) for an extended overview.

In terms of modeling discontinuous change patterns of variables, Singer and Willett (2003) and Bollen and Curran (2006) provided guidance on modeling procedures using either the multilevel modeling or structural equation modeling framework. Here I briefly discuss two additional modeling techniques that can achieve similar research goals: spline regression and catastrophe models.

Spline regression is used to model a continuous variable that changes its trajectory at a particular time point (see Marsh & Cormier, 2001 for technical details). For example, newcomers’ satisfaction with coworkers might increase steadily immediately after they enter the organization. Then due to a critical organizational event (e.g., the downsizing of the company, a newly introduced policy to weed out poor performers in the newcomer cohort), newcomers’ coworker satisfaction may start to drop. A spline model can be used to capture the dramatic change in the trend of newcomer attitude as a response to the event (see Figure 4 for an illustration of this example). The time points at which the variable changes its trajectory are called spline knots. At the spline knots, two regression lines connect. Location of the spline knots may be known ahead of time. However, sometimes the location and the number of spline knots are unknown before data collection. Different spline models and estimation techniques have been developed to account for these different explorations of spline knots ( Marsh & Cormier, 2001 ). In general, spline models can be considered as dummy-variable based models with continuity constraints. Some forms of spline models are equivalent to piecewise linear regression models and are quite easy to implement ( Pindyck & Rubinfeld, 1998 ).

Hypothetical illustration of spline regression: The discontinuous change in newcomers’ satisfaction with coworkers over time.

Hypothetical illustration of spline regression: The discontinuous change in newcomers’ satisfaction with coworkers over time.

Catastrophe models can also be used to describe “sudden” (i.e., catastrophic) discontinuous change in a dynamic system. For example, some systems in organizations develop from one certain state to uncertainty, and then shift to another certain state (e.g., perception of performance; Hanges, Braverman, & Rentsch, 1991 ). This nonlinear dynamic change pattern can be described by a cusp model, one of the most popular catastrophe models in the social sciences. Researchers have applied catastrophe models to understand various types of behaviors at work and in organizations (see Guastello, 2013 for a summary). Estimation procedures are also readily available for fitting catastrophe models to empirical data (see technical introductions in Guastello, 2013 ).

Statistical Techniques Question 5: Could you speculate on the “next big thing” in conceptual or methodological advances in longitudinal research? Specifically, describe a novel idea or specific data analytic model that is rarely used in longitudinal studies in our literature, but could serve as a useful conceptual or methodological tool for future science in work, aging and retirement.

Generally, but mostly on the conceptual level, I think we will see an increased use of computational models to assess theory, design, and analysis. Indeed, I think this will be as big as multilevel analysis in future years, though the rate at which it will happen I cannot predict. The primary factors slowing the rate of adoption are knowledge of how to do it and ignorance of the cost of not doing it (cf. Vancouver, Tamanini et al. , 2010 ). Factors that will speed its adoption are easy-to-use modeling software and training opportunities. My coauthor and I recently published a tutorial on computational modeling ( Vancouver & Weinhardt, 2012 ), and we provide more details on how to use a specific, free, easy-to-use modeling platform on our web site ( https://sites.google.com/site/motivationmodeling/home ).

On the methodology level I think research simulations (i.e., virtual worlds) will increase in importance. They offer a great deal of control and the ability to measure many variables continuously or frequently. On the analysis level I anticipate an increased use of Bayesian and Hierarchical Bayesian analysis, particularly to assess computational model fits ( Kruschke, 2010 ; Rouder, & Lu, 2005 ; Wagenmakers, 2007 ).

I predict that significant advances in various areas will be made in the near future through the appropriate application of mixture latent modeling approaches. These approaches combine different latent variable techniques such as latent growth modeling, latent class modeling, latent profile analysis, and latent transition analysis into a unified analytical model ( Wang & Hanges, 2011 ). They could also integrate continuous variables and discrete variables, as either predictor or outcome variables, in a single analytical model to describe and explain simultaneous quantitative and qualitative changes over time. In a recent study, my coauthor and I applied an example of a mixture latent model to understand the retirement process ( Wang & Chan, 2011 ). Despite or rather because of the power and flexibility of these advanced mixture techniques to fit diverse models to longitudinal data, I will repeat the caution I made over a decade ago—that the application of these complex models to assess changes over time should be guided by adequate theories and relevant previous empirical findings ( Chan, 1998 ).

My hope or wish for the next big thing is the use of longitudinal methods to integrate the micro and macro domains of our literature on work-related phenomena. This will entail combining aspects of growth modeling with multi-level processes. Although I do not have a particular conceptual framework in mind to illustrate this, my reasoning is based on the simple notion that it is the people who make the place. Therefore, it seems logical that we could, for example, study change in some aspect of firm performance across time as a function of change in some aspect of individual behavior and/or attitudes. Another example could be that we can study change in household well-being throughout the retirement process as a function of change in the two partners’ individual well-being over time. The analytical tools exist for undertaking such analyses. What are lacking at this point are the conceptual frameworks.

I hope the next big thing for longitudinal research will be dynamic computational models ( Ilgen & Hulin, 2000 ; Miller & Page, 2007 ; Weinhardt & Vancouver, 2012 ), which encode theory in a manner that is appropriately longitudinal/dynamic. If most theories are indeed theories of change, then this advancement promises to revolutionize what passes for theory in the organizational sciences (i.e., a computational model is a formal theory, with much more specific, risky, and therefore more meaningful predictions about phenomena—in comparison to the informal verbal theories that currently dominate and are somewhat vague with respect to time). My preferred approach is iterative: (a) authors first collect longitudinal data, then (b) inductively build a parsimonious computational model that can reproduce the data, then (c) collect more longitudinal data and consider its goodness of fit with the model, then (d) suggest possible model modifications, and then repeat steps (c) and (d) iteratively until some convergence is reached (e.g., Stasser, 2000 , 1988 describes one such effort in the context of group discussion and decision making theory). Exactly how to implement all the above steps is not currently well known, but developments in this area can potentially change what we think good theory is.

I am uncertain whether my “next big thing” truly reflects the wave of the future, or if it instead simply reflects my own hopes for where longitudinal research should head in our field. I will play it safe and treat it as the latter. Consistent with several other responses to this question, I hope that researchers will soon begin to incorporate far more complex dynamics of processes into both their theorizing and their methods of analysis. Although process dynamics can (and do) occur at all levels of analysis, I am particularly excited by the prospect of linking them across at least adjacent levels. For example, basic researchers interested in the dynamic aspects of affect recently have begun theorizing and modeling emotional experiences using various forms of differential structural equation or state-space models (e.g. Chow et al. , 2005 ; Kuppens, Oravecz, & Tuerlinckx, 2010 ), and, as the resulting parameters that describe within-person dynamics can be aggregated to higher levels of analysis (e.g., Beal, 2014 ; Wang, Hamaker, & Bergeman, 2012 ), they are inherently multilevel.

Another example of models that capture this complexity and are increasingly used in both immediate and longer-term longitudinal research are multivariate latent change score models ( Ferrer & McArdle, 2010 ; McArdle, 2009 ; Liu et al. , 2016 ). These models extend LGMs to include a broader array of sources of change (e.g., autoregressive and cross-lagged factors) and consequently capture more of the complexity of changes that can occur in one or more variables measured over time. All of these models share a common interest in modeling the underlying dynamic patterns of a variable (e.g., linear, curvilinear, or exponential growth, cyclical components, feedback processes), while also taking into consideration the “shocks” to the underlying system (e.g., affective events, organizational changes, etc.), allowing them to better assess the complexity of dynamic processes with greater accuracy and flexibility ( Wang et al. , 2016 ).

I believe that applying a dynamical systems framework will greatly advance our research. Applying the dynamic systems framework (e.g., DeShon, 2012 ; Vancouver, Weinhardt, & Schmidt, 2010 ; Wang et al. , 2016 ) forces us to more explicitly conceptualize how changes unfold over time in a particular system. Dynamic systems models can also answer the why question better by specifying how elements of a system work together over time to bring about the observed change at the system level. Studies on dynamic systems models also tend to provide richer data and more detailed analyses on the processes (i.e., the black boxes not measured in traditional research) in a system. A number of research design and analysis methods relevant for dynamical systems frameworks are available, such as computational modeling, ESM, event history analyses, and time series analyses ( Wang et al. , 2016 ).

M. Wang’s work on this article was supported in part by the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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ReviseSociology

A level sociology revision – education, families, research methods, crime and deviance and more!

Longitudinal Studies

Longitudinal Studies are studies in which data is collected at specific intervals over a long period of time in order to measure changes over time. This post provides one example of a longitudinal study and explores some the strengths and limitations of this research method.

With a longitudinal study you might start with an original sample of respondents in one particular year (say the year 2000) and then go back to them every year, every five years, or every ten years, aiming to collect data from the same people. One of the biggest problems with Longitudinal Studies is the attrition rate, or the subject dropout rate over time.

The Millennium Cohort Study

One recent example of a Longitudinal study is the Millennium Cohort Study, which stretched from 2000 to 2011, with an initial sample of 19 000 children.

The study tracked children until the age of 11 and has provide an insight into how differences in early socialisation affect child development in terms of health and educational outcomes.

The study also allowed researchers to make comparisons in rates of development between children of different sexes and from different economic backgrounds.

Led by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education , it was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and government departments. The results below come from between 2006 and 2007, when the children were aged five.

Selected Findings

  • The survey found that children whose parents read to them every day at the age of three were more likely to flourish in their first year in primary school, getting more than two months ahead not just in language and literacy but also in maths
  • Children who were read to on a daily basis were 2.4 months ahead of those whose parents never read to them in maths, and 2.8 months ahead in communication, language and literacy.
  • Girls were consistently outperforming boys at the age of five, when they were nine months ahead in creative development – activities like drama, singing and dancing, and 4.2 months ahead in literacy.
  • Children from lower-income families with parents who were less highly educated were less advanced in their development at age five. Living in social housing put them 3.2 months behind in maths and 3.5 months behind in literacy.

The strengths of longitudinal studies

  • They allow researchers to trace developments over time, rather than just taking a one-off ‘snapshot’ of one moment.
  • By making comparisons over time, they can identify causes. The Millennium Cohort study, for example suggests a clear correlation between poverty and its early impact on low educational achievement

The limitations of longitudinal studies

  • Sample attrition – people dropping out of the study, and the people who remain in the study may not end up being representative of the starting sample.
  • People may start to act differently because they know they are part of the study
  • Because they take a long time, they are costly and time consuming.
  • Continuity over many years may be a problem – if a lead researcher retires, for example, her replacement might not have the same rapport with respondents.

Related Posts

Explaining Social Class Differences in Educational Through Longitudinal Studies

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Quantitative research

Affiliation.

  • 1 Faculty of Health and Social Care, University of Hull, Hull, England.
  • PMID: 25828021
  • DOI: 10.7748/ns.29.31.44.e8681

This article describes the basic tenets of quantitative research. The concepts of dependent and independent variables are addressed and the concept of measurement and its associated issues, such as error, reliability and validity, are explored. Experiments and surveys – the principal research designs in quantitative research – are described and key features explained. The importance of the double-blind randomised controlled trial is emphasised, alongside the importance of longitudinal surveys, as opposed to cross-sectional surveys. Essential features of data storage are covered, with an emphasis on safe, anonymous storage. Finally, the article explores the analysis of quantitative data, considering what may be analysed and the main uses of statistics in analysis.

Keywords: Experiments; measurement; nursing research; quantitative research; reliability; surveys; validity.

  • Biomedical Research / methods*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
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Qualitative longitudinal research in health research: a method study

Åsa audulv.

1 Department of Nursing, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden

Elisabeth O. C. Hall

2 Faculty of Health, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

3 Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Faroe Islands, Thorshavn, Faroe Islands Denmark

Åsa Kneck

4 Department of Health Care Sciences, Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College, Stockholm, Sweden

Thomas Westergren

5 Department of Health and Nursing Science, University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway

6 Department of Public Health, University of Stavanger, Stavanger, Norway

Mona Kyndi Pedersen

7 Center for Clinical Research, North Denmark Regional Hospital, Hjørring, Denmark

8 Department of Clinical Medicine, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark

Hanne Aagaard

9 Lovisenberg Diaconale Univeristy of College, Oslo, Norway

Kristianna Lund Dam

Mette spliid ludvigsen.

10 Department of Clinical Medicine-Randers Regional Hospital, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

11 Faculty of Nursing and Health Sciences, Nord University, Bodø, Norway

Associated Data

The datasets used and analyzed in this current study are available in supplementary file  6 .

Qualitative longitudinal research (QLR) comprises qualitative studies, with repeated data collection, that focus on the temporality (e.g., time and change) of a phenomenon. The use of QLR is increasing in health research since many topics within health involve change (e.g., progressive illness, rehabilitation). A method study can provide an insightful understanding of the use, trends and variations within this approach. The aim of this study was to map how QLR articles within the existing health research literature are designed to capture aspects of time and/or change.

This method study used an adapted scoping review design. Articles were eligible if they were written in English, published between 2017 and 2019, and reported results from qualitative data collected at different time points/time waves with the same sample or in the same setting. Articles were identified using EBSCOhost. Two independent reviewers performed the screening, selection and charting.

A total of 299 articles were included. There was great variation among the articles in the use of methodological traditions, type of data, length of data collection, and components of longitudinal data collection. However, the majority of articles represented large studies and were based on individual interview data. Approximately half of the articles self-identified as QLR studies or as following a QLR design, although slightly less than 20% of them included QLR method literature in their method sections.

Conclusions

QLR is often used in large complex studies. Some articles were thoroughly designed to capture time/change throughout the methodology, aim and data collection, while other articles included few elements of QLR. Longitudinal data collection includes several components, such as what entities are followed across time, the tempo of data collection, and to what extent the data collection is preplanned or adapted across time. Therefore, there are several practices and possibilities researchers should consider before starting a QLR project.

Supplementary Information

The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1186/s12874-022-01732-4.

Health research is focused on areas and topics where time and change are relevant. For example, processes such as recovery or changes in health status. However, relating time and change can be complicated in research, as the representation of reality in research publications is often collected at one point in time and fixed in its presentation, although time and change are always present in human life and experiences. Qualitative longitudinal research (QLR; also called longitudinal qualitative research, LQR) has been developed to focus on subjective experiences of time or change using qualitative data materials (e.g., interviews, observations and/or text documents) collected across a time span with the same participants and/or in the same setting [ 1 , 2 ]. QLR within health research may have many benefits. Firstly, human experiences are not fixed and consistent, but changing and diverse, therefore people’s experiences in relation to a health phenomenon may be more comprehensively described by repeated interviews or observations over time. Secondly, experiences, behaviors, and social norms unfold over time. By using QLR, researchers can collect empirical data that represents not only recalled human conceptions but also serial and instant situations reflecting transitions, trajectories and changes in people’s health experiences, personal development or health care organizations [ 3 – 5 ].

Key features of QLR

Whether QLR is a methodological approach in its own right or a design element of a particular study within a traditional methodological approach (e.g., ethnography or grounded theory) is debated [ 1 , 6 ]. For example, Bennett et al. [ 7 ] describe QLR as untied to methodology, giving researchers the flexibility to develop a suitable design for each study. McCoy [ 6 ] suggests that epistemological and ontological standpoints from interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) align with QLR traditions, thus making longitudinal IPA a suitable methodology. Plano-Clark et al. [ 8 ] described how longitudinal qualitative elements can be used in mixed methods studies, thus creating longitudinal mixed methods. In contrast, several researchers have argued that QLR is an emerging methodology [ 1 , 5 , 9 , 10 ]. For example, Thomson et al. [ 9 ] have stated “What distinguishes longitudinal qualitative research is the deliberate way in which temporality is designed into the research process, making change a central focus of analytic attention” (p. 185). Tuthill et al. [ 5 ] concluded that some of the confusion might have arisen from the diversity of data collection methods and data materials used within QLR research. However, there are no investigations showing to what extent QLR studies use QLR as a distinct methodology versus using a longitudinal data collection as a more flexible design element in combination with other qualitative methodologies.

QLR research should focus on aspects of temporality, time and/or change [ 11 – 13 ]. The concepts of time and change are seen as inseparable since change is happening with the passing of time [ 13 ]. However, time can be conceptualized in different ways. Time is often understood from a chronological perspective, and is viewed as fixed, objective, continuous and measurable (e.g., clock time, duration of time). However, time can also be understood from within, as the experience of the passing of time and/or the perspective from the current moment into the constructed conception of a history or future. From this perspective, time is seen as fluid, meaning that events, contexts and understandings create a subjective experience of time and change. Both the chronological and fluid understanding of time influence QLR research [ 11 ]. Furthermore, there is a distinction between over-time, which constitutes a comparison of the difference between points in time, often with a focus on the latter point or destination, and through-time, which means following an aspect across time while trying to understand the change that occurs [ 11 ]. In this article, we will mostly use the concept of across time to include both perspectives.

Some authors assert that QLR studies should include a qualitative data collection with the same sample across time [ 11 , 13 ], whereas Thomson et al. [ 9 ] also suggest the possibility of returning to the same data collection site with the same or different participants. When a QLR study involves data collection in shorter engagements, such as serial interviews, these engagements are often referred to as data collection time points. Data collection in time waves relates to longer engagements, such as field work/observation periods. There is no clear-cut definition for the minimum time span of a QLR study; instead, the length of the data collection period must be decided based upon what processes or changes are the focus of the study [ 13 ].

Most literature describing QLR methods originates from the social sciences, where the approach has a long tradition [ 1 , 10 , 14 ]. In health research, one-time-data collection studies have been the norm within qualitative methods [ 15 ], although health research using QLR methods has increased in recent years [ 2 , 5 , 16 , 17 ]. However, collecting and managing longitudinal data has its own sets of challenges, especially regarding how to integrate perspectives of time and/or change in the data collection and subsequent analysis [ 1 ]. Therefore, a study of QLR articles from the health research literature can provide an insightful understanding of the use, trends and variations of how methods are used and how elements of time/change are integrated in QLR studies. This could, in turn, provide inspiration for using different possibilities of collecting data across time when using QLR in health research. The aim of this study was to map how QLR articles within the existing health research literature are designed to capture aspects of time and/or change.

More specifically, the research questions were:

  • What methodological approaches are described to inform QLR research?
  • What methodological references are used to inform QLR research?
  • How are longitudinal perspectives articulated in article aims?
  • How is longitudinal data collection conducted?

In this method study, we used an adapted scoping review method [ 18 – 20 ]. Method studies are research conducted on research studies to investigate how research design elements are applied across a field [ 21 ]. However, since there are no clear guidelines for method studies, they often use adapted versions of systematic reviews or scoping review methods [ 21 ]. The adaptations of the scoping review method consisted of 1) using a large subsample of studies (publications from a three-year period) instead of including all QLR articles published, and 2) not including grey literature. The reporting of this study was guided by the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR) checklist [ 20 , 22 ] (see Additional file 1 ). A (unpublished) protocol was developed by the research team during the spring of 2019.

Eligibility criteria

In line with method study recommendations [ 21 ], we decided to draw on a manageable subsample of published QLR research. Articles that were eligible for inclusion were health research primary studies written in English, published between 2017 and 2019, and with a longitudinal qualitative data collection. Our operating definition for qualitative longitudinal data collection was data collected at different time points (e.g., repeated interviews) or time waves (e.g., periods of field work) involving the same sample or conducted in the same setting(s). We intentionally selected a broad inclusion criterion for QLR since we wanted a wide variety of articles. The selected time period was chosen because the first QLR method article directed towards health research was published in 2013 [ 1 ] and during the following years the methodological resources for QLR increased [ 3 , 8 , 17 , 23 – 25 ], thus we could expect that researchers publishing QLR in 2017–2019 should be well-grounded in QLR methods. Further, we found that from 2012 to 2019 the rate of published QLR articles were steady at around 100 publications per year, so including those from a three-year period would give a sufficient number of articles (~ 300 articles) for providing an overview of the field. Published conference abstracts, protocols, articles describing methodological issues, review articles, and non-research articles (e.g., editorials) were excluded.

Search strategy

Relevant articles were identified through systematic searches in EBSCOhost, including biomedical and life science research and nursing and allied health literature. A librarian who specialized in systematic review searches developed and performed the searches, in collaboration with the author team (LF, TW & ÅA). In the search, the term “longitudinal” was combined with terms for qualitative research (for the search strategy see Additional file 2 ). The searches were conducted in the autumn of 2019 (last search 2019-09-10).

Study selection

All identified citations were imported into EndNote X9 ( www.endnote.com ) and further imported into Rayyan QCRI online software [ 26 ], and duplicates were removed. All titles and abstracts were screened against the eligibility criteria by two independent reviewers (ÅA & EH), and conflicting decisions were discussed until resolved. After discussions by the team, we decided to include articles published between 2017 and 2019, that selection alone included 350 records with diverse methods and designs. The full texts of articles that were eligible for inclusion were retrieved. In the next stage, two independent reviewers reviewed each full text article to make final decisions regarding inclusion (ÅA, EH, Julia Andersson). In total, disagreements occurred in 8% of the decisions, and were resolved through discussion. Critical appraisal was not assessed since the study aimed to describe the range of how QLR is applied and not aggregate research findings [ 21 , 22 ].

Data charting and analysis

A standardized charting form was developed in Excel (Excel 2016). The charting form was reviewed by the research team and pretested in two stages. The tests were performed to increase internal consistency and reduce the risk of bias. First, four articles were reviewed by all the reviewers, and modifications were made to the form and charting instructions. In the next stage, all reviewers used the charting form on four other articles, and the convergence in ratings was 88%. Since the convergence was under 90%, charting was performed in duplicate to reduce errors in the data. At the end of the charting process, the convergence among the reviewers was 95%. The charting was examined by the first author, who revised the charting in cases of differences.

Data items that were charted included 1) the article characteristics (e.g., authors, publication year, journal, country), 2) the aim and scope (e.g., phenomenon of interest, population, contexts), 3) the stated methodology and analysis method, 4) text describing the data collection (e.g., type of data material, number of participants, time frame of data collection, total amount of data material), and 5) the qualitative methodological references used in the methods section. Extracted text describing data collection could consist of a few sentences or several sections from the articles (and sometimes figures) concerning data collection practices, rational for time periods and research engagement in the field. This was later used to analyze how the longitudinal data collection was conducted and elements of longitudinal design. To categorize the qualitative methodology approaches, a framework from Cresswell [ 27 ] was used (including the categories for grounded theory, phenomenology, ethnography, case study and narrative research). Overall, data items needed to be explicitly stated in the articles in order to be charted. For example, an article was categorized as grounded theory if it explicitly stated “in this grounded theory study” but not if it referred to the literature by Glaser and Strauss without situating itself as a grounded theory study (See Additional file 3 for the full instructions for charting).

All charting forms were compiled into a single Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (see Supplementary files for an overview of the articles). Descriptive statistics with frequencies and percentages were calculated to summarize the data. Furthermore, an iterative coding process was used to group the articles and investigate patterns of, for example, research topics, words in the aims, or data collection practices. Alternative ways of grouping and presenting the data were discussed by the research team.

Search and selection

A total of 2179 titles and abstracts were screened against the eligibility criteria (see Fig.  1 ). The full text of one article could not be found and the article was excluded [ 28 ]. Fifty full text articles were excluded. Finally, 299 articles, representing 271 individual studies, were included in this study (see additional files 4 and 5 respectively for tables of excluded and included articles).

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PRISMA diagram of study selection]

General characteristics and research areas of the included articles

The articles were published in many journals ( n  = 193), and 138 of these journals were represented with one article each. BMJ Open was the most prevalent journal ( n  = 11), followed by the Journal of Clinical Nursing ( n  = 8). Similarly, the articles represented many countries ( n  = 41) and all the continents; however, a large part of the studies originated from the US or UK ( n  = 71, 23.7% and n  = 70, 23.4%, respectively). The articles focused on the following types of populations: patients, families−/caregivers, health care providers, students, community members, or policy makers. Approximately 20% ( n  = 63, 21.1%) of the articles collected data from two or more of these types of population(s) (see Table  1 ).

Characteristics of the included QLR articles

Approximately half of the articles ( n  = 158, 52.8%) articulated being part of a larger research project. Of them, 95 described a project with both quantitative and qualitative methods. They represented either 1) a qualitative study embedded in an intervention, evaluation or implementation study ( n  = 66, 22.1%), 2) a longitudinal cohort study collecting both quantitative and qualitative material ( n  = 23, 7.7%), or 3) qualitative longitudinal material collected together with a cross sectional survey (n = 6, 2.0%). Forty-eight articles (16.1%) described belonging to a larger qualitative project presented in several research articles.

Methodological traditions

Approximately one-third ( n  = 109, 36.5%) of the included articles self-identified with one of the qualitative traditions recognized by Cresswell [ 27 ] (case study: n  = 36, 12.0%; phenomenology: n  = 35, 11.7%; grounded theory: n  = 22, 7.4%; ethnography: n  = 13, 4.3%; narrative method: n = 3, 1.0%). In nine articles, the authors described using a mix of two or more of these qualitative traditions. In addition, 19 articles (6.4%) self-identified as mixed methods research.

Every second article self-identified as having a qualitative longitudinal design ( n  = 156, 52.2%); either they self-identified as “a longitudinal qualitative study” or “using a longitudinal qualitative research design”. However, in some articles, this was stated in the title and/or abstract and nowhere else in the article. Fifty-two articles (17.4%) self-identified both as having a QLR design and following one of the methodological approaches (case study: n  = 8; phenomenology: n  = 23; grounded theory: n  = 9; ethnography: n  = 6; narrative method: n  = 2; mixed methods: n  = 4).

The other 143 articles used various terms to situate themselves in relation to a longitudinal design. Twenty-seven articles described themselves as a longitudinal study (9.0%) or a longitudinal study within a specific qualitative tradition (e.g., a longitudinal grounded theory study or a longitudinal mixed method study) ( n  = 64, 21.4%). Furthermore, 36 articles (12.0%) referred to using longitudinal data materials (e.g., longitudinal data or longitudinal interviews). Nine of the articles (3.0%) used the term longitudinal in relation to the data analysis or aim (e.g., the aim was to longitudinally describe), used terms such as serial or repeated in relation to the data collection design ( n  = 2, 0.7%), or did not use any term to address the longitudinal nature of their design ( n  = 5, 1.7%).

Use of methodological references

The mean number of qualitative method references in the methods sections was 3.7 (range 0 to 16), and 20 articles did not have any qualitative method reference in their methods sections. 1 Commonly used method references were generic books on qualitative methods, seminal works within qualitative traditions, and references specializing in qualitative analysis methods (see Table  2 ). It should be noted that some references were comprehensive books and thus could include sections about QLR without being focused on the QLR method. For example, Miles et al. [ 31 ] is all about analysis and coding and includes a chapter regarding analyzing change.

Most frequently used method references (8 most used) and QLR method references (5 most used). Citations in Google Scholar were used as an indication of how widely used the references are; searches conducted in Google Scholar 2022-01-02

Only approximately 20% ( n  = 58) of the articles referred to the QLR method literature in their methods sections. 2 The mean number of QLR method references (counted for articles using such sources) was 1.7 (range 1 to 6). Most articles using the QLR method literature also used other qualitative methods literature (except two articles using one QLR literature reference each [ 39 , 40 ]). In total, 37 QLR method references were used, and 24 of the QLR method references were only referred to by one article each.

Longitudinal perspectives in article aims

In total, 231 (77.3%) articles had one or several terms related to time or change in their aims, whereas 68 articles (22.7%) had none. Over one hundred different words related to time or change were identified. Longitudinally oriented terms could focus on changes across time (process, trajectory, transition, pathway or journey), patterns of how something changed (maintenance, continuity, stability, shifts), or phenomena that by nature included change (learning or implementation). Other types of terms emphasized the data collection time period (e.g., over 6 months) or a specific changing situation (e.g., during pregnancy, through the intervention period, or moving into a nursing home). The most common terms used for the longitudinal perspective were change ( n  = 63), over time ( n  = 52), process ( n  = 36), transition ( n  = 24), implementation ( n  = 14), development ( n  = 13), and longitudinal (n = 13). 3

Furthermore, the articles varied in what ways their aims focused on time/change, e.g., the longitudinal perspectives in the aims (see Table  3 ). In 71 articles, the change across time was the phenomenon of interest of the article : for example, articles investigating the process of learning or trajectories of diseases. In contrast, 46 articles investigated change or factors impacting change in relation to a defined outcome : for example, articles investigating factors influencing participants continuing in a physical activity trial. The longitudinal perspective could also be embedded in an article’s context . In such cases, the focus of the article was on experiences that happened during a certain time frame or in a time-related context (e.g., described experiences of the patient-provider relationship during 6 months of rehabilitation).

Different longitudinal perspectives in the articles’ aims and objectives

Types of data and length of data collection

The QLR articles were often large and complex in their data collection methods. The median number of participants was 20 (range from one to 1366, the latter being an article with open-ended questions in questionnaires [ 46 ]). Most articles used individual interviews as the data material ( n  = 167, 55.9%) or a combination of data materials ( n  = 98, 32.8%) (e.g., interviews and observations, individual interviews and focus group interviews, or interviews and questionnaires). Forty-five articles (15.1%) presented quantitative and qualitative results. The median number of interviews was 46 (range three to 507), which is large in comparison to many qualitative studies. The observation materials were also comprehensive and could include several hundred hours of observations. Documents were often used as complementary material and included official documents, newspaper articles, diaries, and/or patient records.

The articles’ time spans 4 for data collection varied between a few days and over 20 years, with 60% of the articles’ time spans being 1 year or shorter ( n  = 180) (see Fig.  2 ). The variation in time spans might be explained by the different kinds of phenomena that were investigated. For example, Jensen et al. [ 47 ] investigated hospital care delivery and followed each participant, with observations lasting between four and 14 days. Smithbattle [ 48 ] described the housing trajectories of teen mothers, and collected data in seven waves over 28 years.

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Number of articles in relation to the time span of data collection. The time span of data collection is given in months

Three components of longitudinal data collection

In the articles, the data collection was conducted in relation to three different longitudinal data collection components (see Table  4 ).

Components of longitudinal data collection

Entities followed across time

Four different types of entities were followed across time: 1) individuals, 2) individual cases or dyads, 3) groups, and 4) settings. Every second article ( n  = 170, 56.9%) followed individuals across time, thus following the same participants through the whole data collection period. In contrast, when individual cases were followed across time, the data collection was centered on the primary participants (e.g., people with progressive neurological conditions) who were followed over time, and secondary participants (e.g., family caregivers) might provide complementary data at several time points or only at one-time point. When settings were followed over time, the participating individuals were sometimes the same, and sometimes changed across the data collection period. Typical settings were hospital wards, hospitals, smaller communities or intervention trials. The type of collected data corresponded with what kind of entities were followed longitudinally. Individuals were often followed with serial interviews, whereas groups were commonly followed with focus group interviews complemented with individual interviews, observations and/or questionnaires. Overall, the lengths of data collection periods seemed to be chosen based upon expected changes in the chosen entities. For example, the articles following an intervention setting were structured around the intervention timeline, collecting data before, after and sometimes during the intervention.

Tempo of data collection

The data collection tempo differed among the articles (e.g., the frequency and mode of the data collection). Approximately half ( n  = 154, 51.5%) of the articles used serial time points, collecting data at several reoccurring but shorter sequences (e.g., through serial interviews or open-ended questions in questionnaires). When data were collected in time waves ( n  = 50, 16.7%), the periods of data collection were longer, usually including both interviews and observations; often, time waves included observations of a setting and/or interviews at the same location over several days or weeks.

When comparing the tempo with the type of entities, some patterns were detected (see Fig.  3 ). When individuals were followed, data were often collected at time points, mirroring the use of individual interviews and/or short observations. For research in settings, data were commonly collected in time waves (e.g., observation periods over a few weeks or months). In studies exploring settings across time, time waves were commonly used and combined several types of data, particularly from interviews and observations. Groups were the least common studied entity ( n  = 9, 3.0%), so the numbers should be interpreted with caution, but continuous data collection was used in five of the nine studies. The continuous data collection mode was, for example, collecting electronic diaries [ 62 ] or minutes from committee meetings during a time period [ 63 ].

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Tempo of data collection in relation to entities followed over time

Preplanned or adapted data collection

A large majority ( n  = 224, 74.9%) of the articles used preplanned data collection (e.g., in preplanned data collection, all participants were followed across time according to the same data collection plan). For example, all participants were interviewed one, six and twelve months’ post-diagnosis. In contrast to the preplanned data collection approach, 44 articles had a participant-adapted data collection (14.7%), and participants were followed at different frequencies and/or over various lengths of time depending on each participant’s situation. Participant-adapted data collection was more common among articles following individuals or individual cases (see Fig.  4 ). To adapt the data collection to the participants, the researchers created strategies to reach participants when crucial events were happening. Eleven articles used a participant entry approach to data collection ( n  = 11, 6.7%), and the whole or parts of the data were independently sent in by participants in the form of diaries, questionnaires, or blogs. Another approach to data collection was using theoretical or analysis-driven ideas to guide the data collection ( n  = 19, 6.4%). In these articles, the analysis and data collection were conducted simultaneously, and ideas arising in the analysis could be followed up, for example, returning to some participants, recruiting participants with specific experiences, or collecting complementary types of data materials. This approach was most common in the articles following settings across time, which often included observations and interviews with different types of populations. Articles using theoretical or analysis driven data collection were not associated with grounded theory to a greater extent than the other articles in the sample (e.g., did not self-identify as grounded theory or referred to methodological literature within grounded theory traditions to a greater proportion).

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Preplanned or adapted data collection in relation to entities followed over time

According to our results, some researchers used QLR as a methodological approach and other researchers used a longitudinal qualitative data collection without aiming to investigate change. Adding to the debate on whether QLR is a methodological approach in its own right or a design element in a particular study we suggest that the use of QLR can be described as layered (see Fig.  5 ). Namely, articles must fulfill several criteria in order to use QLR as a methodological approach, and that is done in some articles. In those articles QLR method references were used, the aim was to investigate change of a phenomenon and the longitudinal elements of the data collection were thoroughly integrated into the method section. On the other hand, some articles using a longitudinal qualitative data collection were just collecting data over time, without addressing time and/or change in the aim. These articles can still be interesting research studies with valuable results, but they are not using the full potential of QLR as a methodological approach. In all, around 40% of the articles had an aim that focused on describing or understanding change (either as phenomenon or outcome); but only about 24% of the articles set out to investigate change across time as their phenomenon of interest.

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The QLR onion. The use of QLR design can be described as layered, where researchers use more or less elements of a QLR design. The two inmost layers represents articles using QLR as a methodological approach

Regarding methodological influences, about one-third of the articles self-identify with any of the traditional qualitative methodologies. Using a longitudinal qualitative data collection as an element integrated with another methodological tradition can therefore be seen as one way of working with longitudinal qualitative materials. In our results, the articles referring to methodologies other than QLR preferably used case study, phenomenology and grounded theory methodologies. This was surprising since Neale [ 10 ] identified ethnography, case studies and narrative methods as the main methodological influences on QLR. Our findings might mirror the profound impacts that phenomenology and grounded theory have had on the qualitative field of health research. Regarding phenomenology, the findings can also be influenced by more recent discussions of combining interpretative phenomenological analysis with QLR [ 6 ].

Half of the articles self-identified as QLR studies, but QLR method references were used in less than 20% of the identified articles. This is both surprising and troublesome since use of appropriate method literature might have supported researchers who were struggling with for example a large quantity of materials and complex analysis. A possible explanation for the lack of use of QLR method literature is that QLR as a methodological approach is not well known, and authors might not be aware that method literature exists. It is quite understandable that researchers can describe a qualitative project with longitudinal data collection as a qualitative longitudinal study, without being aware that QLR is a specific form of study. Balmer [ 64 ] described how their group conducted serial interviews with medical students over several years before they became aware of QLR as a method of study. Within our networks, we have met researchers with similar experiences. Likewise, peer reviewers and editorial boards might not be accustomed to evaluating QLR manuscripts. In our results, 138 journals published one article between 2017 and 2019, and that might not be enough for editorial boards and peer reviewers to develop knowledge to enable them to closely evaluate manuscripts with a QLR method.

In 2007, Holland and colleagues [ 65 ] mapped QLR in the UK and described the following four categories of QLR: 1) mixed methods approaches with a QLR component; 2) planned prospective longitudinal studies; 3) follow-up studies complementing a previous data collection with follow-up; and 4) evaluation studies. Examples of all these categories can be found among the articles in this method study; however, our results do paint a more complex picture. According to our results, Holland’s categories are not multi-exclusive. For example, studies with intentions to evaluate or implement practices often used a mixed methods design and were therefore eligible for both categories one and four described above. Additionally, regarding the follow-up studies, it was seldom clearly described if they were planned as a two-time-point study or if researchers had gained an opportunity to follow up on previous data collection. When we tried to categorize QLR articles according to the data collection design, we could not identify multi-exclusive categories. Instead, we identified the following three components of longitudinal data collection: 1) entities followed across time; 2) tempo; and 3) preplanned or adapted data collection approaches. However, the most common combination was preplanned studies that followed individuals longitudinally with three or more time points.

The use of QLR differs between disciplines [ 14 ]. Our results show some patterns for QLR within health research. Firstly, the QLR projects were large and complex; they often included several types of populations and various data materials, and were presented in several articles. Secondly, most studies focused upon the individual perspective, following individuals across time, and using individual interviews. Thirdly, the data collection periods varied, but 53% of the articles had a data collection period of 1 year or shorter. Finally, patients were the most prevalent population, even though topics varied greatly. Previously, two other reviews that focused on QLR in different parts of health research (e.g., nursing [ 4 ] and gerontology [ 66 ]) pointed in the same direction. For example, individual interviews or a combination of data materials were commonly used, and most studies were shorter than 1 year but a wide range existed [ 4 , 66 ].

Considerations when planning a QLR project

Based on our results, we argue that when health researchers plan a QLR study, they should reflect upon their perspective of time/change and decide what part change should play in their QLR study. If researchers decide that change should play the main role in their project, then they should aim to focus on change as the phenomenon of interest. However, in some research, change might be an important part of the plot, without having the main role, and change in relation to the outcomes might be a better perspective. In such studies, participants with change, no change or different kinds of change are compared to explore possible explanations for the change. In our results, change in relation to the outcomes was often used in relation to intervention studies where participants who reached a desired outcome were compared to individuals who did not. Furthermore, for some research studies, change is part of the context in which the research takes place. This can be the case when certain experiences happen during a period of change; for example, when the aim is to explore the experience of everyday life during rehabilitation after stroke. In such cases a longitudinal data collection could be advisable (e.g., repeated interviews often give a deep relationship between interviewer and participants as well as the possibility of gaining greater depth in interview answers during follow-up interviews [ 15 ]), but the study might not be called a QLR study since it does not focus upon change [ 13 ]. We suggest that researchers make informed decisions of what kind of longitudinal perspective they set out to investigate and are transparent with their sources of methodological inspiration.

We would argue that length of data collection period, type of entities, and data materials should be in accordance with the type of change/changing processes that a study focuses on. Individual change is important in health research, but researchers should also remember the possibility of investigating changes in families, working groups, organizations and wider communities. Using these types of entities were less common in our material and could probably grant new perspectives to many research topics within health. Similarly, using several types of data materials can complement the insights that individual interviews can give. A large majority of the articles in our results had a preplanned data collection. Participant-adapted data collection can be a way to work in alignment with a “time-as-fluid” conceptualization of time because the events of subjective importance to participants can be more in focus and participants (or other entities) change processes can differ substantially across cases. In studies with lengthy and spaced-out data collection periods and/or uncertainty in trajectories, researchers should consider participant-adapted or participant entry data collection. For example, some participants can be followed for longer periods and/or with more frequency.

Finally, researchers should consider how to best publish and disseminate their results. Many QLR projects are large, and the results are divided across several articles when they are published. In our results, 21 papers self-identified as a mixed methods project or as part of a larger mixed methods project, but most of these did not include quantitative data in the article. This raises the question of how to best divide a large research project into suitable pieces for publication. It is an evident risk that the more interesting aspects of a mixed methods project are lost when the qualitative and quantitative parts are analyzed and published separately. Similar risks occur, for example, when data have been collected from several types of populations but are then presented per population type (e.g., one article with patient data and another with caregiver data). During the work with our study, we also came across studies where data were collected longitudinally, but the results were divided into publications per time point. We do not argue that these examples are always wrong, there are situations when these practices are appropriate. However, it often appears that data have been divided without much consideration. Instead, we suggest a thematic approach to dividing projects into publications, crafting the individual publications around certain ideas or themes and thus using the data that is most suitable for the particular research question. Combining several types of data and/or several populations in an analysis across time is in fact what makes QLR an interesting approach.

Strengths and limitations

This method study intended to paint a broad picture regarding how longitudinal qualitative methods are used within the health research field by investigating 299 published articles. Method research is an emerging field, currently with limited methodological guidelines [ 21 ], therefore we used scoping review method to support this study. In accordance with scoping review method we did not use quality assessment as a criterion for inclusion [ 18 – 20 ]. This can be seen as a limitation because we made conclusions based upon a set of articles with varying quality. However, we believe that learning can be achieved by looking at both good and bad examples, and innovation may appear when looking beyond established knowledge, or assessing methods from different angles. It should also be noted that the results given in percentages hold no value for what procedures that are better or more in accordance with QLR, the percentages simply state how common a particular procedure was among the articles.

As described, the included articles showed much variation in the method descriptions. As the basis for our results, we have only charted explicitly written text from the articles, which might have led to an underestimation of some results. The researchers might have had a clearer rationale than described in the reports. Issues, such as word restrictions or the journal’s scope, could also have influenced the amount of detail that was provided. Similarly, when charting how articles drew on a traditional methodology, only data from the articles that clearly stated the methodologies they used (e.g., phenomenology) were charted. In some articles, literature choices or particular research strategies could implicitly indicate that the researchers had been inspired by certain methodologies (e.g., referring to grounded theory literature and describing the use of simultaneous data collection and analysis could indicate that the researchers were influenced by grounded theory), but these were not charted as using a particular methodological tradition. We used the articles’ aims and objectives/research questions to investigate their longitudinal perspectives. However, as researchers have different writing styles, information regarding the longitudinal perspectives could have been described in surrounding text rather than in the aim, which might have led to an underestimation of the longitudinal perspectives.

The experience and diversity of the research team in our study was a strength. The nine authors on the team represent ten universities and three countries, and have extensive experience in different types of qualitative research, QLR and review methods. The different level of experiences with QLR within the team (some authors have worked with QLR in several projects and others have qualitative experience but no experience in QLR) resulted in interesting discussions that helped drive the project forward. These experiences have been useful for understanding the field.

Based on a method study of 299 articles, we can conclude that QLR in health research articles published between 2017 and 2019 often contain comprehensive complex studies with a large variation in topics. Some research was thoroughly designed to capture time/change throughout the methodology, focus and data collection, while other articles included a few elements of QLR. Longitudinal data collection included several components, such as what entities were followed across time, the tempo of data collection, and to what extent the data collection was preplanned or adapted across time. In sum, health researchers need to be considerate and make informed choices when designing QLR projects. Further research should delve deeper into what kind of research questions go well with QLR and investigate the best practice examples of presenting QLR findings.

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to acknowledge Ellen Sejersted, librarian at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway, who conducted the literature searches and Julia Andersson, research assistant at the Department of Nursing, Umeå University, Sweden, who supported the data management and took part in the initial screening phases of the project.

Authors’ contributions

ÅA conceived the study. ÅA, EH, TW, LF, MKP, HA, and MSL designed the study. ÅA, TW, and LF were involved in literature searches together with the librarian. ÅA and EH performed the screening of the articles. All authors (ÅA, EH, TW, LF, ÅK, MKP, KLD, HA, MSL) took part in the data charting. ÅA performed the data analysis and discussed the preliminary results with the rest of the team. ÅA wrote the 1st manuscript draft, and ÅK, MSL and EH edited. All authors (ÅA, EH, TW, LF, ÅK, MKP, KLD, HA, MSL) contributed to editing the 2nd draft. MSL and LF provided overall supervision. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Authors’ information

All authors represent the nursing discipline, but their research topics differ. ÅA and ÅK have previously worked together with QLR method development. ÅA, EH, TW, LF, MKP, HA, KLD and MSL work together in the Nordic research group PRANSIT, focusing on nursing topics connected to transition theory using a systematic review method, preferably meta synthesis. All authors have extensive experience with qualitative research but various experience with QLR.

Open access funding provided by Umea University. This project was conducted within the authors’ positions and did not receive any specific funding.

Availability of data and materials

Declarations.

Not applicable.

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

1 Qualitative method references were defined as a journal article or book with a title that indicated an aim to guide researchers in qualitative research methods and/or research theories. Primary studies, theoretical works related to the articles’ research topics, protocols, and quantitative method literature were excluded. References written in a language other than English was also excluded since the authors could not evaluate their content.

2 QLR method references were defined as a journal article or book that 1) focused on qualitative methodological questions, 2) used terms such as ‘longitudinal’ or ‘time’ in the title so it was evident that the focus was on longitudinal qualitative research. Referring to another original QLR study was not counted as using QLR method literature.

3 Words were charted depending on their word stem, e.g., change, changes and changing were all charted as change.

4 It should be noted that here time span refers to the data collection related to each participant or case. Researchers could collect data for 2 years but follow each participant for 6 months.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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    Longitudinal Studies are studies in which data is collected at specific intervals over a long period of time in order to measure changes over time. This post provides one example of a longitudinal study and explores some the strengths and limitations of this research method. With a longitudinal study you might start with an original.

  20. Quantitative research

    Experiments and surveys - the principal research designs in quantitative research - are described and key features explained. The importance of the double-blind randomised controlled trial is emphasised, alongside the importance of longitudinal surveys, as opposed to cross-sectional surveys.

  21. Qualitative longitudinal research in health research: a method study

    Qualitative longitudinal research (QLR) comprises qualitative studies, with repeated data collection, that focus on the temporality (e.g., time and change) of a phenomenon. ... a longitudinal cohort study collecting both quantitative and qualitative material (n = 23, 7.7%), or 3) qualitative longitudinal material collected together with a cross ...

  22. Tea consumption and attenuation of biological aging: a longitudinal

    Introduction. From 2020 to 2050, the number of people aged 60 years and older is expected to double, reaching 2.1 billion, or 22% of the world's population. 1 Since population aging has become one of the most significant global challenges, determining how to extend human health and longevity has emerged as a critical research issue. Despite the fact that everyone ages chronologically at the ...