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Writing a Qualitative Research Report

Writing a Qualitative Research Report

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Writing a qualitative research report
Philip Burnard PhD, RN (Professor of Nursing)
School of Nursing and Midwifery Studies, University of Wales College of Medicine, Heath Park, Cardiff, UK 
A research project in nursing or nursing education is probably onlycomplete once the findings have been published. This paper offers a format forwriting a qualitative research report for publication. It suggests, at least, thefollowing sections: introduction, aims of the study, review of the literature, sample,data collection methods, data analysis methods, findings, discussion, conclusion,abstract. Each of these sections is addressed along with many written-out examples.In some sections, alternative approaches are suggested. The aim of the paper is tohelp the neophyte researcher to structure his or her report and for the experiencedresearcher to reflect on his or her current practice. References to other sourcematerial on qualitative research are given.
2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Qualitative research;Report writing;Publication
Qualitative research continues to help researchersaddress issues in nursing and nurse education. Thispaper describes a layout of a qualitative researchreport, suitable for publication in a journal. Al-though the paper refers to qualitative accounts,the same principles may be applied to quantitativereports and those with mixed methods (Tashakkoriand Teddlie, 1998).There are, of course, no absolutes in this area.Some types of qualitative research will call for adifferent sort of report. The aim of this paper is toencourage the first-time researcher to write uptheir work in a systematic way. The paper may alsohelp the experienced researcher to think about theissues through a critique of this article.Given the confines of a paper in a journal of thissort, certain conventions have been adoptedthroughout. Examples of text are offered, to illu-minate the points being made. In these text sam-ples, the indicator (Ref) or (refs) is used to showthat references to the literature or research wouldbe placed there. Given that the examples offeredare fictitious, it is not appropriate that ‘real’ ref-erences are offered. Where names of authors havebeen used, they are also fictitious. The subheadingsin this paper (illustrated thus:
Literature review 
)are used to indicate headings that might be used inthe reader’s report.Other accounts of report writing of this sort areavailable (see, for example: Richardson, 1990;Hollaway and Wheeler, 1996; Burnard, 1996; Hol-liday, 2001). As with any writing, some generalprinciples apply: writing should be clear, simpleand accurate (Gillett, 1990; Strong, 1991; Kirkman,1992). The research account should report all as-pects of the work carried out and offer an appro-priate selection from the findings.Key sections of a published, qualitative researchreport are as follows and each will be dealt with inturn.
This article was originally published in Nurse EducationToday, Volume 24, Issue 3, pages 174–179. This article isrepublished with permission from Nurse Education Today.
E-mail address:
burnard@cardiff.ac.uk.0965-2302/$ - see front matter
2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.aaen.2003.11.006Accident and Emergency Nursing (2004)
, 176–181www.elsevierhealth.com/journals/aaen
Accident andEmergencyNursing
Aims of the study
Review of the literature
Data collection methods
Data analysis methods
This sets the scene and puts the research in con-text. If the research was about, for example, stressin nursing, the reader needs to know why the studywas done and how it, broadly, relates to other re-search. It is useful to start with a sentence thatdescribes exactly what the paper is about.
This is an account of a descriptive study of stress in threegroups of 10 nursing students in the UK. The study was aqualitative one involving interviews with a conveniencesample of student nurses. Although there is a consider-able amount of research carried out into whether or notnursing is stressful, there are still few studies of studentnurses and stress (for examples, see Refs).
Aims of the study
Here, the author describes the research question orthe aim of the study. Sometimes these amount tothe same thing (e.g. The aim of this study was toaddress the question: ‘are some student nursesstressed in their clinical and educational worksettings?’) It is important that, at the end of thepaper, the author is able to reflect back on thedegree to which the aim was or was not achieved.More help on writing aims and research questionscan be found in: Denzin and Lincoln (1998a), Hu-berman and Miles (2002).
Review of the literature
Apart from simply offering an account of the re-search that has been carried out previously, theauthor should begin by describing
he or shesearched the literature. This involves describingthe computer search engines used and the key-words entered into those engines. As always, re-views of the research and general literature shouldbe thorough and, if possible, systematic. The re-searcher should also indicate whether or not the‘grey’ literature was reviewed. Grey literature isdefined as:
That which is produced on all levels of government, aca-demics, business and industry in print and electronic for-mats, but which is not controlled by commercialpublishers (GL, 1999 Conference Program).
Something approaching a formula can be usedfor accounting for the researcher. The readerneeds to know
did the research and
What was done
what was found 
? Thus an ex-ample of such reporting might be as follows:
In a small scale study of 12 student nurses in an IrishSchool of Nursing, Davis (Ref) undertook two rounds of in-terviews to establish the factors that those students feltcontributed to their ability to cope with stress. He foundthat most students relied on family or friends for support.Some used stress reduction methods including breathingexercises, physical activities and diary keeping. Few ex-pressed the view that they were unable to cope withstress. Ages and sex of the respondents are not quotedin the account of the study.
Key research reports should be cited in this way.Others can be grouped together. For example, if anumber of studies have been carried out usingsimilar methods, with similar findings, these can bequoted thus:
A number of studies, using the Jones Personal Stress In-ventory (Ref) – a free form reporting instrument – re-ported high levels of stress amongst younger students(Multiple Refs).
It is valuable if the writer can offer short, crit-ical commentary on the studies reported in theliterature. More can be found on the processes ofsearching the literature and doing it systematicallyin (Hill, 1993; Cooper, 1998; Chalmers and Altman,1995; Cooper, 1998).
It is probably the case that convenience sampling isthe most frequently used in qualitative studies.The reader needs to know the size and type ofsample used in the reported study. If an unusualvariant of sampling is used, it is useful to ac-knowledge the nature of it. Other comments aboutthe sampling process may be helpful.
A sample of 20 students, was invited to take part in thestudy. The sample was a convenience one and the snow-ball approach to sampling was adopted (Ref). Each re-spondent was asked to recommend to the researcheranother student who might be able to articulate theirviews about stress. There appears to be no general agree-
177Writing a qualitative research report 177
ment about sample size in qualitative studies. Reportsdescribe single-person studies (Refs). Other commenta-tors suggest sample sizes ranging from 6 (refs) to 30(refs). It was felt that 20 respondents should be able tosupply varied and detailed accounts for the purposes ofthis study.
Henry (1990) offers more details about the pro-cesses of selecting a sample from a total popula-tion and Johnson (1991) discusses the issuesinvolved in sampling for ethnographic research.
Data collection method
At this stage, views vary about what might next bereported. Sometimes, researchers and their su-pervisors suggest that all qualitative researchshould be carried out within a
theoretical frame-work
. Studies approached from this point of viewadopt a particular theoretical position in relationto the data. However, it is just as valid to simplydescribe what the researcher was aiming to findout, how the data were collected and analysed andwhat was found, without locating this in any par-ticular framework. Phillips (1986) commented onthis as follows:
Some purists may regard research which is not based ontheoretical frameworks or conceptual orientations, asproblem-solving rather than scientific research. However,early studies in clinical nursing research tended to beproblem-solving endeavours rather than scientific re-search. More recently, emphasis has been put on theuse of theory as the appropriate grounding, but there isstill room for work to be done in nursing while a theoret-ical base is being discovered (Phillips, 1986).
Arguably, we are still searching for that empir-ically-grounded ‘theoretical base’ of which Phillipswrote about in nursing.Again, in many qualitative studies (but not all)the data collection method is usually the interviewmethod. How the interviews were carried outshould be noted but this is not the place for a de-tailed critique of the interview process. An exam-ple of reporting here, might be:
All students were interviewed by the researcher on twooccasions, for between 30 and 45 min. All interviewswere recorded, with the permission of the students beinginterviewed. After the interviews, the recordings weretranscribed into computer files. Care was taken by the re-searcher to assure the respondents that they and theplace of their work would not be identifiable in any sub-sequent report. Once the final research report was writ-ten, the tapes from the interviews were destroyed.
This example can be adapted for use with otherdata collection methods. The point, in most jour-nals, is for the researcher to report what they didand not to offer a detailed review or critique ofdata collection methods. There is a considerableliterature on the interview method and this andother qualitative data collection methods are dis-cussed in the literature (Weller and Romney, 1988;McCracken, 1988; Thomas, 1993; Coulon, 1995;Holstein and Gubrium, 1995; Morgan, 1997; Stew-art, 1998; Stouthamer-Loeber and van Kammen,1995; Gillham, 2000; Fowler, 2001; Yin, 2001).
Data analysis methods
A variation is to be found in the amount of detail ofreporting in this section. It is possible to describe,in full, how the researcher handled the data or it ispossible to write that ‘The interviews were re-corded and transcribed. The researcher then sor-ted those data into a range of categories and theseare reported below’.A comfortable compromise between these twoextremes is probably achieved by reporting a littleof what happened. Care should be taken with verygeneral terms such as ‘content analysis’, whenreporting data analysis. The term is probably sobroad as to have little meaning. An example of howpart of this section might be written is as follows:
All of the interview transcripts were read by the re-searcher and coded in the style of a grounded theory ap-proach to data analysis (refs). Eight category headingswere generated from the data and under these all ofthe data were accounted for. Two independent research-ers were asked to verify the seeming accuracy of the cat-egory system and after discussion with them, minormodifications were made to it. In the grounded theory lit-erature, a good category system is said to have ‘emerged’from the data (refs). Other commentators have notedthat, in the end, it is always the researcher who findsand generates that system (refs).
Again, there is a considerable literature on thesubject of analysing qualitative data and examplesof this are found in the following (Atkinson, 1992;Feldman, 1994; Altheide, 1996; Phillips and Hardy,2002; Ezzy, 2002).
A decision needs to be made, here, about whetheror not (a) the researcher presents the findings ontheir own, without supporting discussion or (b) if heor she links the findings with the work of otherresearchers. It should be noted that what are foundin a qualitative study are always ‘findings’ and not‘results’.178 P. Burnard

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