Reflexive journals in qualitative research

Reflexive journals in qualitative research

It is common practice for researcher to keep a journal or diary during the research process, regardless of discipline or methodology. These are sometimes called reflexive diaries, self-reflexive journals, research journals or research diaries. They are all basically the same thing – a written (or verbal) record written by the researcher during the research process, detailing what they did and why.

Lincoln and Guba (1982) wrote a classic paper detailing reflexive journals as part of an auditing process for research projects, but with the very specific aim of improving the reliability of research and removing bias. Smith (1999) also describes research journals as an important part of ‘enhancing ethical and methodologic rigour’, but there much more to them than this, regardless of the rather positivistic terminology.

Qualitative research projects are complex to design, manage and analyse, and can take many years to complete. Keeping a personal record of the process, key decisions and feelings offers the researcher the opportunity to learn from the research process (Thorpe 2010) and better remember how things came to pass. When writing up, this log can become as a vital a source of data as a participant interview.

There are lots of papers and textbooks that give examples of what research journals look like (eg Silverman 2013 has several from former students), however few detail what they should contain, or how to keep them.

Lincoln and Guba (1982), offers one of the few good published guidelines for what should actually be in a reflexive journal. They define it as “analogous to the anthropologists field journals and is the major means for an inquirer to perform a running check on the biases, which he (sic) carried with him into the context”. The paper lists 4 major things to record in the diary:

1. A log of evolving perceptions

2. A log of day-to-day procedures

3. A log of methodological decision points

4. A log of day-to-day personal introspections

But as Janesick (1998) notes, another important role is to “refine the understanding of the responses of participants in the study, much like a physician or health care worker might do”. In other words, to also record the researchers own observations about the participants and their lives, when doing interviews, focus groups or ethnography, that will enrich and give context to other more ‘formal’ methods of data collection. She defines a different set of 4 roles for research journals which are more focused towards typical qualitative projects and philosophies:

1. Refine the understanding of the role of the researcher through reflection and writing, much like an artist might do;

2. Refine the understanding of the responses of participants in the study, much like a physician or health care worker might do;

3. Use a journal as an interactive tool of communication between the researcher and participants in the study, as a type of interdisciplinary triangulation of data;

4. View journal writing as a type of connoisseurship by which individuals become connoisseurs of their own thinking and reflection patterns, and indeed their own understanding of their work as qualitative researchers.

Reflexive diaries can also be used by those performing research that contains ethnographic methods, and diaries or journals are very commonly used in ethnography. See for example Barry and O’Callaghan (2009), using diaries to record the experiences of student therapists in a hospital setting. Reflexive journals can also be used in autoethnography, or other qualitative research that focuses on the researcher as the participant or main focus of the study or context.

But it’s important to not confuse these with diaries or journals which are given to participants as data collection of the lives and experiences of respondents. There is much more written in the literature on this topic, see our own post on participant diaries, and Janesick (1998) has written about distinguishing and triangulating these in her article.

So what does a reflective journal look like? Many people prefer to write a physical diary, in a paper journal or notebook (eg Nadin and Cassell 2006), or you can just use any standard word-processor like Word. There are advantages to having it digitally: it does make it easier to search, and easier to back up (by saving it in multiple places). Vicary, Young and Hicks (2016) recommend writing a research diary directly in qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS), in their case using Nvivo 10, but any qualitative software has the same basic capability.

The latest version of Quirkos (2.3) contains a new feature which can help with a reflexive journal. For the live collaboration in Quirkos cloud, we added a chat feature so that people can communicate, either in real time, or when working sequentially on their project. But we also added this feature to the offline version as well, not just to keep feature parity, but to give a space to write project wide notes. While you can attach memos to sections of text, and use a source property to have notes attached to a section of text, there wasn’t an designated to write generally in the project file.

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Previously we’ve suggested that people created a blank source and write in there, which gives the advantage that you can treat it like any other data source – coding it and including (or excluding) it from search and query results. However, the chat function works as a great journaling system Even though you are just ‘talking’ to yourself, each entry has a date and time stamp, and you can scroll up and down the list and remove specific entries if needs be. It’s also right there, in the same window you are using to analyse, which makes it very easy to keep quick comments as you work.

If you want to see how intuitive and simple Quirkos makes qualitative analysis, you can try either it with Cloud storage or offline storage for free, for Windows, Mac or Linux. You can also get a good idea of what it’s like to work with Quirkos by watching a short tutorial video right here:


Barry, P., O’Callaghan, 2009, Reflexive Journal Writing: A Tool for Music Therapy Student Clinical Practice Development, Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 17(1)

Janesick, V., 1998, Journal Writing as a Qualitative Research Technique: History, Issues, and Reflections,


Nadin, S., Cassell, C., 2006, The use of a research diary as a tool for reflexive practice: Some reflections from management research, Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management 3:208-217,

Silverman, D., 2013, Doing Qualitative Research, Sage, London

Smith, B., 1999, Ethical and methodologic benefits of using a reflexive journal in hermeneutic-phenomenologic research., Image Journal of Nursing Scholarship. 1999;31(4):359-63.

Thorpe, K. (2010) Reflective learning journals: From concept to practice Reflective Practice; International and multidisciplinary perspectives Vo 5 Issue 3 pp 327-343

Vicary, Young and Hicks, 2016, A reflective journal as learning process and contribution to quality and validity in Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, Qualitative Social Work, 16(4), 550–565.