Q: What are the possible problems that may be encountered in Qualitative Research?

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The problem of qualitative research

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Qualitative Research is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied varieties of investigation in science. Often, researchers label as ‘qualitative’ their observational reporting which was not organized to investigate an hypothesis or provide an interpretation using statistics. All too frequently, researchers label their small-scale observational (and often anecdotal) study as qualitative simply because it is insufficiently robust to survive the scrutiny of statistical analysis. Qualitative research has protocols to follow, a requirement for sufficient objectivity so that bias is not unintentionally embedded in the data collection steps and an approach that requires the careful application of a theory-based research design.

Here are some of the problems that, as a journal editor, I have come across in studies that claim to be “qualitative”:

Poor planning: As a journal editor, I have received far too many research reports that describe investigations that occurred with too little preplanning. True qualitative research requires an equal amount of investigative effort prior to initiating the data collection as any robust quantitative study.

Establishing your objectivity: Scientific writing should be sufficiently interesting to persuade the reader to attend to the flow of the author’s argument; however, the author’s persuasion should not rise to the level of advocacy for any specific position. That is, the writing should clearly state what the data disclosed and not lose objectivity by moving beyond what the data actually revealed.

Failing to identify your research typology: It is widely accepted that there are six types of qualitative research: Phenomenological Model, the Ethnographic Model, Grounded Theory, Case Study, Historical Model and the Narrative Model (which includes textual analysis). A journal editor receiving a qualitative manuscript that fails to clearly differentiate which of the typologies the study follows instantly presumes that the researcher is unacquainted with the ‘research guardrails’ and expectations that should be followed in completing robust qualitative research. My main point here is that it is very easy to expose research naivety through failing to clarify which research paradigm, from within the qualitative family of alternatives, to which a researcher is adhering.

Confirmation bias: An editor needs to be wary whenever authors creatively reinterpret their own roadmap for a qualitative investigation … because a primary worry for an editor is that results cannot be replicated or are hiding evidence of confirmation bias imposed by the investigator. Confirmation bias refers to ­­­­ a tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions (that is, a study that sets out to “prove a point.”).

From the perspective of a journal editor receiving a manuscript that identifies itself as qualitative, the author’s greatest obligation is to unambiguously clarify what steps were followed from the beginning to the end of the investigation. Without this information the editor cannot determine whether the investigator has demonstrated enough ‘research discipline’ in following the established protocols for the brand of qualitative research that was studied.

To summarize ~ Editors hold qualitative research to the same high standards as they do for quantitative research. An editor expects an author to: (1) Make clear whether their study was based on an established research-design protocol from within the qualitative family of research typologies; (2) Disclose the theoretical foundation for their qualitative study; (3) Clarify with sufficient specificity what actually happened in the investigation so that replication becomes possible; (4) Reference the ‘guardrails’ that the investigator set up so as to avoid confirmation bias; and (5) Demonstrate an overall level of a research familiarity with established qualitative methodology, so that the editor can feel assured that the researcher followed a sophisticated roadmap to which other researchers can have confidence.


Caven S. Mcloughlin, Ph.D. Emeritus Editor-in-Chief for an Impact Factor journal from a major commercial academic publisher.