We’ve actually talked about communicating qualitative research and data to the public before, but never covered writing journal articles based on qualitative research. This can often seem daunting, as the prospect of converting dense, information rich studies into a fairly brief and tightly structured paper takes a lot of work and refinement. However, we’ve got some tips below that should help demystify the process, and let you break it down into manageable steps.
Choose your journal
The first thing to do is often what left till last: choose the journal you want to submit your article to. Since each journal will have different style guidelines, types of research they publish and acceptable lengths, you should actually have a list of a few journals you want to publish with BEFORE you start writing.
To make this choice, there are a few classic pointers. First, make sure your journal will publish qualitative research. Many are not interested in qualitative methodologies, see debates about the BMJ recently to see how contested this continues to be. It’s a good idea to choose a journal that has other articles you have referenced, or are on a similar topic. This is a good sign that the editors (and reviewers) are interested in, and understand this area.
Secondly, there are some practical considerations. For those looking for tenure or to one day be part of schemes that assess the quality of academic institutions by their published work such as the REF (in the UK) or PBRF (in New Zealand) you should consider ‘high impact’ or ‘high tier’ journals. These are considered to be the most popular journals in certain areas, but will also be the most competitive to get into.
Before you start writing, you should also read the guidance for authors from the journal, which will give you information about length, required sections, how they want the summary and keywords formatted, and the type of referencing. Many are based on the APA style guidelines, so it is a good idea to get familiar with these.
Describing your methodology, literature review, theoretical underpinnings
When I am reviewing qualitative articles, the best ones describe why the research is important, and how it fits in with the existing literature. They then make it clear how the researcher(s) chose their methods, who they spoke to and why they were chosen. It’s then clear throughout the paper which insights came from respondent data, and when claims are made how common they were across respondents.
To make sure you do this, make sure you have a separate section to detail your methods, recruitment aims and detail the people you spoke to – not just how many, but what their background was, how they were chosen, as well as eventually noting any gaps and what impact that could have on your conclusion. Just because this is a qualitative paper doesn’t mean you don’t have to say the number of people you spoke to, but there is no shame in that number being as low as one for a case study or autoethnography!
Secondly, you must situate your paper in the existing literature. Read what has come before, critique it, and make it clear how your article contributes to the debate. This is the thing that editors are looking for most – make the significance of your research and paper clear, and why other people will want to read it.
Finally, it’s very important in qualitative research papers to clearly state your theoretical background and assumptions. So you need to reference literature that describes your approach to understanding the world, and be specific about the interpretation you have taken. Just saying ‘grounded theory’ for example is not enough – there are a dozen different conceptualisations of this one approach.
It’s not something that all journals ask for, but if you are adopting many qualitative epistemologies, you are usually taking a stance on positivism, impartibility, and the impact of the researcher on the collection and interpretation of the data. This sometimes leads to the need for the person(s) who conducted the research to describe themselves and their backgrounds to the reader, so they can understand the world view, experience and privilege that might influence how the data was interpreted. There is a lot more on reflexivity in this blog post.
How to use quotations
Including quotations and extracts from your qualitative data is a great feature, and a common way to make sure that you back up your description of the data with quotes that support your findings. However, it’s important not to make the text too dense with quotations. Try and keep to just a few per section, and integrate them into your prose as much as possible rather than starting every one with ‘participant x said’. I also like to try and show divergence in the respondents, so have a couple of quotes that show alternative view points.
On a practical note, make sure any quotations are formatted according to the journal’s specifications. However, if they don’t have specific guidelines, try and make them clear by always giving them their own indented paragraph (if more than a sentence) and clearly label them with a participant identifier, or significant anonymised characteristic (for example School Administrator or Business Leader). Don’t be afraid to shorten the quotation to keep it relevant to the point you are trying to make, while keeping it an accurate reflection of the participant’s contribution. Use ellipsis (…) to show where you have removed a section, and insert square brackets to clarify what the respondent is talking about if they refer to ‘it’ or ‘they’, for example [the school] or [Angela Merkel].
Don’t forget visualisations
If you are using qualitative analysis software, make sure you don’t just use it as a quotation finder. The software will also help you do visualisations and sub-set analysis, and these can be useful and enlightening to include in the paper. I see a lot of people use an image of their coding structure from Quirkos, as this quickly shows the relative importance of each code in the size of the bubble, as well as the relationships between quotes. Visual outputs like this can get across messages quickly, and really help to break up text heavy qualitative papers!
Describe your software process!
No, it’s not enough to just say ‘We used Nvivo’. There are a huge number of ways you could have used qualitative analysis software, and you need to be more specific about what you used the software for, how you did the analysis (for example framework / emergent) and how you got outputs from the software. If you did coding with other people, how did this work? Did you sit together and code at one time? Did you each code different sources or go over the same ones? Did you do some form of inter-rater reliability, even if it was not a quantitative assessment? Finally, make sure you include your software in the references – see the APA guides for how to format this. For Quirkos this would look something like:
Quirkos Software (2017). Quirkos version 1.4.1 [Computer software]. Edinburgh: Quirkos Limited.
Journal publication is a slow process. Unless you get a ‘desk rejection’, where the editor immediately decides that the article is not the right fit for the journal, hearing back from the reviewers could take months or even a year. Ask colleagues and look at the journal information to get an idea of how long the review process takes for each journal. Finally, when you get some feedback it might be negative (a rejection) or unhelpful (when the reviewers don’t give constructive feedback). This can be frustrating, especially when it is not clear how the article can be made better. However, there are excellent journals such as The Qualitative Report that take a collaborative rather than combatitative approach to reviewing articles. This can be really helpful for new authors.
Remember that a majority of articles are rejected at any paper, and some top-tier journals have acceptance rates of 10% or less. Don’t be disheartened; try and read the comments, keep on a cycle of quickly improving your paper based on the feedback you can get, and either send it back to the journal or find a more appropriate home for it.
Good luck, and don’t forget to try out Quirkos for your qualitative analysis. Our software is easy to use, and makes it really easy to get quotes into Word or other software for writing up your research. Learn more about the features, and download a free, no-obligation trial.