Presenting and Evaluating Qualitative Research

Claire Anderson PhD, BPharm


Am J Pharm Educ. 2010;74(8):1-7. 

In This Article

Guidance for Publishing Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is becoming increasingly accepted and published in pharmacy and medical journals. Some journals and publishers have guidelines for presenting qualitative research, for example, the British Medical Journal[9] and Biomedcentral.[10] Medical Education published a useful series of articles on qualitative research.[11] Some of the important issues that should be considered by authors, reviewers and editors when publishing qualitative research are discussed below.

Introduction. A good introduction provides a brief overview of the manuscript, including the research question and a statement justifying the research question and the reasons for using qualitative research methods. This section also should provide background information, including relevant literature from pharmacy, medicine, and other health professions, as well as literature from the field of education that addresses similar issues. Any specific educational or research terminology used in the manuscript should be defined in the introduction.

Methods. The methods section should clearly state and justify why the particular method, for example, face to face semistructured interviews, was chosen. The method should be outlined and illustrated with examples such as the interview questions, focusing exercises, observation criteria, etc. The criteria for selecting the study participants should then be explained and justified. The way in which the participants were recruited and by whom also must be stated. A brief explanation/description should be included of those who were invited to participate but chose not to. It is important to consider "fair dealing," ie, whether the research design explicitly incorporates a wide range of different perspectives so that the viewpoint of 1 group is never presented as if it represents the sole truth about any situation. The process by which ethical and or research/institutional governance approval was obtained should be described and cited.

Sampling. The study sample and the research setting should be described. Sampling differs between qualitative and quantitative studies. In quantitative survey studies, it is important to select probability samples so that statistics can be used to provide generalizations to the population from which the sample was drawn. Qualitative research necessitates having a small sample because of the detailed and intensive work required for the study. So sample sizes are not calculated using mathematical rules and probability statistics are not applied. Instead qualitative researchers should describe their sample in terms of characteristics and relevance to the wider population. Purposive sampling is common in qualitative research. Particular individuals are chosen with characteristics relevant to the study who are thought will be most informative. Purposive sampling also may be used to produce maximum variation within a sample. Participants being chosen based for example, on year of study, gender, place of work, etc. Representative samples also may be used, for example, 20 students from each of 6 schools of pharmacy. Convenience samples involve the researcher choosing those who are either most accessible or most willing to take part. This may be fine for exploratory studies; however, this form of sampling may be biased and unrepresentative of the population in question. Theoretical sampling uses insights gained from previous research to inform sample selection for a new study. The method for gaining informed consent from the participants should be described, as well as how anonymity and confidentiality of subjects were guaranteed. The method of recording, eg, audio or video recording, should be noted, along with procedures used for transcribing the data.

Data Analysis. A description of how the data were analyzed also should be included. Was computer-aided qualitative data analysis software such as NVivo (QSR International, Cambridge, MA) used? Arrival at "data saturation" or the end of data collection should then be described and justified. A good rule when considering how much information to include is that readers should have been given enough information to be able to carry out similar research themselves.

One of the strengths of qualitative research is the recognition that data must always be understood in relation to the context of their production.[1] The analytical approach taken should be described in detail and theoretically justified in light of the research question. If the analysis was repeated by more than 1 researcher to ensure reliability or trustworthiness, this should be stated and methods of resolving any disagreements clearly described. Some researchers ask participants to check the data. If this was done, it should be fully discussed in the paper.

An adequate account of how the findings were produced should be included A description of how the themes and concepts were derived from the data also should be included. Was an inductive or deductive process used? The analysis should not be limited to just those issues that the researcher thinks are important, anticipated themes, but also consider issues that participants raised, ie, emergent themes. Qualitative researchers must be open regarding the data analysis and provide evidence of their thinking, for example, were alternative explanations for the data considered and dismissed, and if so, why were they dismissed? It also is important to present outlying or negative/deviant cases that did not fit with the central interpretation.

The interpretation should usually be grounded in interviewees or respondents' contributions and may be semi-quantified, if this is possible or appropriate, for example, "Half of the respondents said …" "The majority said…" "Three said…" Readers should be presented with data that enable them to "see what the researcher is talking about."[1] Sufficient data should be presented to allow the reader to clearly see the relationship between the data and the interpretation of the data. Qualitative data conventionally are presented by using illustrative quotes. Quotes are "raw data" and should be compiled and analyzed, not just listed. There should be an explanation of how the quotes were chosen and how they are labeled. For example, have pseudonyms been given to each respondent or are the respondents identified using codes, and if so, how? It is important for the reader to be able to see that a range of participants have contributed to the data and that not all the quotes are drawn from 1 or 2 individuals. There is a tendency for authors to overuse quotes and for papers to be dominated by a series of long quotes with little analysis or discussion. This should be avoided.

Participants do not always state the truth and may say what they think the interviewer wishes to hear. A good qualitative researcher should not only examine what people say but also consider how they structured their responses and how they talked about the subject being discussed, for example, the person's emotions, tone, nonverbal communication, etc. If the research was triangulated with other qualitative or quantitative data, this should be discussed.

Discussion. The findings should be presented in the context of any similar previous research and or theories. A discussion of the existing literature and how this present research contributes to the area should be included. A consideration must also be made about how transferrable the research would be to other settings. Any particular strengths and limitations of the research also should be discussed. It is common practice to include some discussion within the results section of qualitative research and follow with a concluding discussion.

The author also should reflect on their own influence on the data, including a consideration of how the researcher(s) may have introduced bias to the results. The researcher should critically examine their own influence on the design and development of the research, as well as on data collection and interpretation of the data, eg, were they an experienced teacher who researched teaching methods? If so, they should discuss how this might have influenced their interpretation of the results.

Conclusion. The conclusion should summarize the main findings from the study and emphasize what the study adds to knowledge in the area being studied. Mays and Pope suggest the researcher ask the following 3 questions to determine whether the conclusions of a qualitative study are valid:[12] How well does this analysis explain why people behave in the way they do? How comprehensible would this explanation be to a thoughtful participant in the setting? How well does the explanation cohere with what we already know?


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