Writing qualitative research papers

writing qualitative research articles papers

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.
 

 

Reflexivity

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.

 

Quirkos - qualitative analysis software

 


Be persistent!

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.

 

 

Participant diaries for qualitative research

participant diaries

 

I’ve written a little about this before, but I really love participant diaries!


In qualitative research, you are often trying to understand the lives, experiences and motivations of other people. Through methods like interviews and focus groups, you can get a one-off insight into people’s own descriptions of themselves. If you want to measure change over a period, you need to schedule a series of meetings, and each of which will be limited by what a participant will recall and share.


However, using diary methodologies, you can get a longer and much more regular insight into lived experiences, plus you also change the researcher-participant power dynamic. Interviews and focus groups can sometimes be a bit of an interrogation, with the researcher asking questions, and participants given the role of answering. With diaries, participants can have more autonomy to share what they want, as well as where and when (Meth 2003).


These techniques are also called self-report or ‘Contemporaneous assessment methods’, but there are actually a lot of different ways you can collect diary entries. There are some great reviews of different diary based methods, (eg Bolger et al. 2003), but let’s look at some of the different approaches.


The most obvious is to give people a little journal or exercise book to write in, and ask them to record on a regular basis any aspects of their day that are relevant to your research topic. If they are expected to make notes on the go, make it a slim pocket sized one. If they are going to write a more traditional diary at the end of each day, make a nice exercise book to work in. I’ve actually found that people end up getting quite attached to their diaries, and will often ask for them back. So make sure you have some way to copy or transcribe them and consider offering to return them once you have investigated them, or you could give back a copy if you wish to keep hold of the real thing.

 

You can also do voice diaries – something I tried in Botswana. We were initially worried that literacy levels in rural areas would mean that participants would either be unable, or reluctant to create written entries. So I offered everyone a small voice recorder, where they could record spoken notes that we would transcribe at the end of the session. While you could give a group of people an inexpensive (~£20) Dictaphone, I actually brought a bunch of cheap no-brand MP3 players which only cost ~£5 each, had a built in voice recorder and headphones, and could work on a single AAA battery (which was easy to find from local shops, since few respondents had electricity for recharging). The audio quality was not great, but perfectly adequate. People really liked these because they could also play music (and had a radio), and they were cheap enough to be lost or left as thank-you gifts at the end of the research.

 

There is also a large literature on ‘experience sampling’ – where participants are prompted at regular or random intervals to record on what they are doing or how they are feeling at that time. Initially this work was done using pagers, (Larson 1989) when participants would be ‘beeped’ at random times during the day and asked to write down what they were doing at the time. More recent studies have used smartphones to both prompt and directly collect responses (Chen et al. 2014).

 

Secondly, there is now a lot of online journal research, both researcher solicited as part of a qualitative research project (Kaun 2015), or collected from people’s blogs and social media posts. This is especially popular in market research when looking at consumer behaviour (Patterson 2005), project evaluation (Cohen et al. 2006).

 

Diary methods can create detailed, and reliable data. One study found that asking participants to record diary entries three times a day to measure stigmatised behaviour like sexual activities found an 89.7% adherence rate (Hensel et al. 2012), far higher than would be expected from traditional survey methods. There is a lot of diary based research in the sexual and mental health literature: for more discussion on the discrepancies and reliability between diary and recall methods, there is a good overview in Coxon (1999) but many studies like Garry et al. (2002) found that diary based methods generated more accurate responses. Note that these kinds of studies tend to be mixed-method, collecting both discrete quantitative data and open ended qualitative comments.

 

Whatever the method you are choosing, it’s important to set up some clear guidelines to follow. Personally I think either a telephone conversation or face-to-face meeting is a good idea to give a chance for participants to ask questions. If you’ve not done research diaries before, it’s a good idea to pilot them with one or two people to make sure you are briefing people clearly, and they can write useful entries for you. The guidelines, (explained and taped to the inside of the diary) should make it clear:

  • What you are interested in hearing about
  • What it will be used for
  • How often you expect people to write
  • How much they should write
  • How to get in touch with you
  • How long they should be writing entries, and how to return the diary.

 

Even if you expressly specify that your participants should write their journals should be written everyday for three weeks, you should be prepared for the fact that many won’t manage this. You’ll have some that start well but lapse, others that forget until the end and do it all in the last day before they see you, and everything in-between. You need to assume this will happen with some or all of your respondents, and consider how this is going to affect how you interpret the data and draw conclusions. It shouldn’t necessarily mean that the data is useless, just that you need to be aware of the limitations when analysing it. There will also be a huge variety in how much people write, despite your guidelines. Some will love the experience, sharing volumes of long entries, others might just write a few sentences, which might still be revealing.

 

For these reasons, diary-like methodologies are usually used in addition to other methods, such as semi-structured interviews (Meth 2003), or detailed surveys. Diaries can be used to triangulate claims made by respondents in different data sources (Schroder 2003) or provide more richness and detail to the individual narrative. From the researchers point of view, the difference between having data where a respondent says they have been bullied, and having an account of a specific incident recorded that day is significant, and gives a great amount of depth and illumination into the underlying issues.

 

Qualitative software - Quirkos

 

However, you also need to carefully consider the confidentiality and other ethical issues. Often participants will share a lot of personal information in diaries, and you must agree how you will deal with this and anonymise it for your research. While many respondents find keeping a qualitative diary a positive and reflexive process, it can be stressful to ask people in difficult situations to reflect on uncomfortable issues. There is also the risk that the diary could be lost, or read by other people mentioned in it, creating a potential disclosure risk to participants. Depending on what you are asking about, it might be wise to ask participants themselves to create anonymised entries, with pseudo-names and places as they write.

 

Last, but not least, what about your own diary? Many researchers will keep a diary, journal or ‘field notes’ during the research process (Altricher and Holly 2004), which can help provide context and reflexivity as well as a good way of recording thoughts on ideas and issues that arise during the data collection process. This is also a valuable source of qualitative data itself, and it’s often useful to include your journal in the analysis process – if not coded, then at least to remind you of your own reflections and experiences during the research journey.

 

So how can you analyse the text of your participant diaries? In Quirkos of course! Quirkos takes all the basics you need to do qualitative analysis, and puts it in a simple, and easy to use package. Try for yourself with a free trial, or find out more about the features and benefits.