Good, evocative items lie at the heart of a Q study. In fact, akin to the old computer science adage of “garbage-in / garbage-out”, the quality of the items strictly limits the insights that may be gleaned from the entire study.

Generating and selecting good items is at least half science, half tradecraft. There are some standards and frameworks that can structure your item generation and sampling, but – for now at least – it still requires a lot of experience, intuition and knowledge of the domain in question.

pensieve supports this stage of a Q study in a number of ways:

  1. Items generation and selection can be fully documented inside of pensieve, making the process transparent, reproducible and easy to iterate over.
  2. Items can be professionally typeset, and stored in pensieve, so that participants and researchers alike both see the items in the same, definitive form, be they text or images.
  3. Arbitrary additional information can be stored alongside the items for later “R-way” analysis.

Items and related information are stored in a domain-specific format in pensieve, a tibble of S3 class psItems. You can use the package entirely without psItems, though providing additional information about the items is highly recommended. For example, providing the full item text (or image) enhances some of the downstream plots.


psItemContent is the most important element of psItems. It stores the full wording of items, or, in the case of image items or other assets the paths to the binary sources. psItemContent is easily created from a character vector.

If it is named, these names are retained as item handles. Such handles provide a succinct way to refer to items, and can also be displayed in plots and tables. In contrast to the conventionally used statement numbers (“sta_27”), I recommend short, meaningful labels. The handles are researcher-facing, they are not part of the items and are never shown to participants, lest they influence the sorting.

For an example, let’s take the Lipset items from Brown (1980), with some hand-crafted item handles.

You’ll notice that psItemContent() allows you to specify a language, which can improve the typesetting results later on. To learn more about acceptable language codes, see the help for psItemContent().

Now that we have our canonical psItemContent(), what can we do with it?


First off, we can easily print items inside knitr documents, by using the method for knitr::knit_print(). You can do this by placing an calling knit_print() on some item in a knitr chunk:



Virtue tends to be its own reward in this country, for one’s self and one’s children.

You can also omit the knit_print() call; it is default behavior for knitr to call it on returned objects.


Political goals and methods are relatively moderate in this country – and even conservative.

This will place the item in a quotation environment, as you can see above.

Alternatively, you can also refer to items inline, as you would with an in-text citation. In this case, the item handle will be displayed in your document, with a footnote including the full item wording. To do this, just insert inline R into your prose, such as `r lipset$items["promoting_underdog"]`.

In the output, you will see item promoting_underdog1 in the place of the above inline code, complete with a footnote automatically included. If the output format supports this, the footnote will also be hyperlinked.

You can also knit_print() several items at once.

lipset$items[c("civil_liberties", "self_made")]


There is considerable respect for civil liberties and minority rights in this country.


The worth of a man is judged by what he is – not by whether he has gone to a private college, a state university, or to neither.

This also works inline, for example `r lipset$items[4:5]` yields items expect_fair_treatment2, no_revolutionary_inclinations3.

There are some limitations:

  • Line breaks, new paragraphs and other advanced markdown formatting is ignored inside the footnotes when knit_print() in inline.4
  • If you refer to the same item multiple times inline, there will be multiple (redundant) footnotes. Our knit_print() method does not keep track of multiple mentions of items. Calling item promoting_underdog5 twice promoting_underdog6 causes two footnotes with the same content.
  • Unnamed items are simply reproduced without title, and they easily look out of place. Meaningful item handles are recommended.


    We still believe that the poor on earth will enjoy higher status in after-life.

    If used intext, unnamed items yield a footnote without title such as this unnamed item.7


It is often helpful to have a canonical, typeset version of text items, ready for for printing, web publishing or interpretation. Rendered text items should meet several criteria:

  • For practical reasons, items should fit on the same card size. To emphasize the equal “significance” of items, their fontsize and design should also be equal.
  • They should always look identical, no matter where a participant or researcher encounters them. Even slight variations in, for example, line wrapping, might give an item a slightly different emphasis.
  • Given the central status of text items in the methodology and the package, they should by typeset professionally.

psItemContent() allows you to set the way items are typeset (or rendered) using a variety of options. This defaults to the settings for printing items on standard-issue business cards, but you can provide arbitrary dimensions and margins, as well as other options. Just keep in mind that not all options may meet the requirement that your item text can in fact be typeset to a single page (card), and downstream functions may error out.

You will notice that the fontsize_global option in psItemContent() does not greatly change results; it should be used for tweaking only. Instead, pensieve automatically chooses the largest possible fontsize, which still allows all items to fit on one page. This optimisation takes place behind the scenes, and will be run whenever necessary. However, the process can take several minutes, and will need to rerun whenever you change an item or one of the design parameters. To cut down on waiting time, you may want to finish all your items before ever rendering them, and rely on the (sensible) default design parameters. You can always inspect your items by printing them to the screen using the normal print() method.

All design options are stored as attributes with the psItemContent object, and should only be set using the psItemContent() function. For downstream methods and functions, such as plot() it is important that items always retain all their attributes in the psItemContent object. Divergent from standard R behavior, these attributes are retained on subsetting using the standard '[' operator, but may be lost when you otherwise operate on psItemContent objects. You can always reconstruct the object by running psItemContent() or as_psItemContent() anew. If you frequently use other operations on psItemContent objects and would like to retain attributes, you can suggest it as a feature of pensieve by raising an issue on github.

In addition to setting design options for all items using the arguments in psItemContent(), you can also markup individual items using (basic) Pandoc’s markdown, including italics, and many other options. Just make sure that using Pandoc’s markdown markup does not break the constraint of rendering items on a single page (or card).8

Rendering professionally typeset items, pensieve goes through several steps:

  1. Items are converted from Pandoc’s Markdown (or plain text) to LaTeX via [md2tex_mem()], then
  2. compiled to PDF via [texi2pdf2_mem()], then
  3. converted to SVG via [pdf2svg_mem()], then
  4. imported to R Graphics via [svg2grob_mem()]. Items are now fully available to the R Graphics system and can be used wherever [graphics::plot()] (or, to be precise, [grid::grid.draw()]) works.

At each step of this necessary, but rather long conversion pipeline more (system) dependencies are required and asserted, so you may need to install additional programs on your computer. Step 3 (and later) is currently unavailable on machines running Microsoft Windows.

Once the items are rendered, you can:

  • plot() them using R graphics system. This makes the items available in their final, canonical form wherever the R plotting system is. R graphics devices must offer arbitrary aspect ratios, while items have a fixed aspect ratio equal to that of the cards. As a result, items may be surrounded by additional whitespace in the resulting plots. To avoid this, set the aspect ratio of your R graphics to equal that of the cards as seen in the below code chunk.

    Because it does not make much sense to plot() several items at once, plot() will always default to the first item. You can also subset to your desired item.

  • output_ps() them to your file system in one of several vector formats. Because some of the intermediary formats cannot be easily or fully converted, downstream outputs may be faulty. If you can, always use the earliest possible output from the above conversion pipeline to maximize fidelity to the original.


Brown, Steven R. 1980. Political Subjectivity: Applications of Q Methodology in Political Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  1. ‘High value is placed on activities aimed at protecting and promoting the standing of the “underdog” in this country.’

  2. ‘Men can expect, and within limits receive, fair treatment according to their merits.’

  3. ‘Lower-class individuals and groups do not have revolutionary inclinations.’

  4. This would break the underlying pandoc markdown syntax for pandoc inline_notes.

  5. ‘High value is placed on activities aimed at protecting and promoting the standing of the “underdog” in this country.’

  6. ‘High value is placed on activities aimed at protecting and promoting the standing of the “underdog” in this country.’

  7. ‘We value the “race for success.”’

  8. If you would like to customize the look of your items even further than that, you can always use a typesetting program of your choice and provide items as binary assets for the psItemContentBin class. For now, this class has very limited support in the package.