I've mentioned before how the general public are very quantitatively literate: we are used to dealing with news containing graphs, percentages, growth rates, and big numbers, and they are common enough that people rarely have trouble engaging with them.
In many fields of studies this is also true for researchers and those who use evidence professionally. They become accustomed to p-values, common statistical tests, and plot charts. Lots of research is based on quantitative data, and there is a training and familiarity in these methods and data presentation techniques which create a lingua-franca of researchers across disciplines and regions.
However, I've found in previous research that many evidence based decision makers are not comfortable with qualitative research. There are many reasons for this, but I frequently hear people essentially say that they don't know how to appraise it. While they can look at a sample size and recruitment technique and a r-square value and get an idea of the limitations of a study, this is much harder for many practitioners to do with qualitative techniques they are less familiar with.
But this needn’t be the case, qualitative research is not rocket science, and there are fundamental common values which can be used to assess the quality of a piece of research. This week, a discussion on appraisal of qualitative research was started on Twitter started by the Mental Health group of the 'National Elf Service’ (@Mental_Elf) - an organisation devoted to collating and summarising health evidence for practitioners.
People contributed many great suggestions of guides and toolkits that anyone can use to examine and critique a qualitative study, even if the user is not familiar with qualitative methodologies. I frequently come across this barrier to promoting qualitative research in public sector organisations, so was halfway through putting together these resources when I realised they might be useful to others!
Lucy Terry (@LucyACTerry) offered specific guidelines for charities from New Philanthropy Capital, with gives five key quality criteria, that the research should be: Valid, Reliable, Confirmable, Reflexive and Responsible.
There’s also an article by Kuper et al (2008) which offers guidance on assessing a study using qualitative evidence. As a starting point, they list 6 questions to ask:
- Was the sample used in the study appropriate to its research question?
- Were the data collected appropriately?
- Were the data analysed appropriately?
- Can I transfer the results of this study to my own setting?
- Does the study adequately address potential ethical issues, including reflexivity?
- Overall: is what the researchers did clear?
The International Centre for Allied Health Evidence at the University of South Australia has a list of critical apprasial tools, including ones specific to qualitative research. From these, I quite like the checklist format of one developed by the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme, I can imagine this going down well with health commissioners.
Another from the Occupational Therapy Evidence-Based Practice Research Group at McMaster University in Canada is more detailed, and is also available in multiple languages and an editable Word document.
Finally, Margaret Roller and Paul Lavrakas have a recent textbook (Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach 2015) that covers many of these issues in research, and detail the Total Quality Framework that can be used for designing, discussing and evaluating qualitative research. The book contains specific chapters on detailing the application of the framework to different projects and methodologies. Margaret Roller also has an article on her excellent blog on weighing the value of qualitative research, which gives an example of the Total Quality Framework.
In short, there are a lot of options to choose from, but the take away message from them is that the questions are simple, short, and largely common sense. However, the process of assessing even just a few pieces of qualitative research in this way will quickly get evidence based practitioners into the habit of asking these questions of most projects they come across, hopefully increasing their comfort level in dealing with qualitative studies.
The tools are also useful for students, even if they are familiar with qualitative methodologies, as it helps facilitate a critical reading that can give focus to paper discussion groups or literature reviews. Adopting one of the appraisal techniques here (or modifying one) would also be a great start to a systematic review or meta-analysis.
Finally, there are a few sources from the Evidence and Ethnicity in Commissioning project I was involved with that might be useful, but if you have any suggestions please let me know, either in the forum or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add these to the list. Don't forget to find out more about using Quirkos for your qualitative analysis and download the free trial.