Interpreting a Qualitative Research Paper

Original Editor - Mariam Hashem

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Qualitative research aims to study things in their natural setting to make sense of a phenomenon in terms of meanings people bring to them[1][2] Qualitative research involves the studied use of a variety of methods – case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts [3]

Interpreting a qualitative research paper is an analysis of the quality of the material. It allows you to understand the reliability of the research and the construction of the paper[4].

Characteristics of qualitative research[5]:

  • Explores meanings
  • Acknowledges the researcher’s point of view (reflexivity)
  • Uses interpretative methods of analysis
  • Iterative process
  • Contextual: concerned with the individual's perspective
  • Inductive

Critical Appraisal of Qualitative Research[edit | edit source]

The qualitative researcher must[5]:

  • Eliminate subjectivity
  • Acknowledge their relationship with the study/participants/data and question implications on study findings
  • Discuss varied viewpoints to gain a greater range of perspectives
  • Examine deviant participants and multiple coding that challenge assumptions

Trustworthiness or rigour of a study refers to the degree of confidence in data, interpretation, and methods used to ensure the quality of a study. Researchers should discuss the methods and procedures necessary for a study to be considered credible [6]

Credibility is how confident we are in the truth of a particulars studies findings. Lincoln and Guba[7] suggested that the trustworthiness of a study depends on 4 factors: credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability.

This table was adopted from Cochrane library supplemental handbook guidance[8]

Aspect Qualitative Term Quantitative Term
Truth value Credibility Internal Validity
Applicability Transferability External Validity or generalisability
Consistency Dependability Reliability
Neutrality Confirmability Objectivity

Techniques for imposing rigour[5]

  • Triangulation: is defined as the use of varied methods, data sources, and multiple researchers
  • Reflexivity: refers to the position of the researchers in relation to the research and their interaction with the participants
  • Multiple coding: refers to the use of independent researchers, calculate inter-rater reliability and idea generation
  • Respondent validation: involving participants to give their opinion and interpretations to provide an overview and generate further data
  • Deviant case analysis: exploring participants who might seem to be deviant from the norm and involve them in the study

Step by Step Guide to Interpreting A Qualitative Research Paper[edit | edit source]

The CASP is the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme checklists which are often used in health research. They cover many research methods, including qualitative research. They are designed to prompt the reader to reflect on different aspects of a research paper and are typically structured around three core domains[4]:

  1. The validity of the results
  2. The findings of the study
  3. The transferability

Analyzing the Introduction[edit | edit source]

The introduction to a research paper should give the context and reflect the importance of the research question leading up to the rationale of the research. It should also discuss the gap in the area that's been researched as well as the angle of focus.

Previous research should also be discussed and highlight similarities and limitations to explain why this research should take place and it's significance to find answers[4],

When interpreting the introduction, a good question to ask is whether the use of qualitative research was appropriate for this type of study or not? Qualitative methods are typically used for illuminating the actions, or subjective experiences, of participants or when looking to gain an in-depth understanding of a phenomenon.

Questions to ask when interpreting the research question:

  • Is there a clear statement of the aims of the study?
  • What are the goals of the study?
  • What was the rationale for this research?
  • How relevant is this?
  • Is the research question clearly formulated? Is it important?

Sample size and participants[edit | edit source]

Check the following[5]:

  • Was the sample used appropriately for its research questions?
  • What were the methods of the participants' selection and recruitment?
  • Was the recruitment strategy relevant to the research question?
  • Was the sampling strategy justified?
  • Was the sampling purposive/ theoretical?
  • Was it a convenience sample?
  • Ths inclusion and exclusion criteria of the study

Data Collection[edit | edit source]

It is important to analyse whether the data collection methods were appropriate for the research objectives and settings? This involves an in-depth analysis of the methods and how did the methods influence the findings?

The study should justify the data collection method used to meet the criteria of the research question [4]

Data saturation is the point at which new information or themes stop to emerge. This is often under-reported by researchers in qualitative research[4].

Data Analysis[edit | edit source]

Characteristics of proper data analysis:

  • Transparency in the analysis and interpretations
  • Uses a systematic approach
  • Discusses contradicted data and divergent findings
  • Multiple coding
  • Credibility of results
  • Justified conclusion

Reflexivity[edit | edit source]

Reflexivity is a self-awareness of one’s role in the research process. It is when a researcher reflects on their own position within the research and they consider their own biases. COREQ is a checklist of the criteria for authors which contains a whole section dedicated to reflexivity[4].

It is unlikely that a researcher would remain completely neutral towards a topic with no opinion or viewpoint towards it at all. Reflexivity is sometimes confused with reflection. Hibbert et al [9] offer a useful distinction between the two terms, suggesting that reflection is like a mirror image that gives the opportunity to observe and examine our ways of doing. Reflexivity, on the other hand, involves thinking about our experiences and questioning our ways of doing.

Transferability[edit | edit source]

Can the results of the study be transferred or applied to the practice?

Transferability refers to the extent that the findings of a particular qualitative study can be applied to other situations. This should be reflected in the large and variant sample size, depending on the research question.[10]

Clarity and transparency of data analysis[edit | edit source]

By looking into the steps to ensure the study is clear of bias through looking into:

  • The in-depth description and the type of analysis
  • How the data were selected from the original sample?
  • Is there enough data to support the findings? In qualitative research that might be in the form of quotes[4]

The main findings should be discussed clearly in the discussion section with evidence both for and against their argument agreeing or contradicting previous literature[4].

Ethics[edit | edit source]

Components of the ethical research relationship[5]

  • Acknowledgement of bias
  • Rigour
  • Rapport and managing distress
  • Respect for autonomy
  • Confidentiality
  • Avoidance of exploitation (being aware of power relationships


Other Checklists:[edit | edit source]

QARI software developed by the Joanna Briggs Institute,

Quality Framework UK Cabinet Office

Evaluation Tool for Qualitative Studies by Salford University

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Denkin NK & Lincoln YS (Eds.) Handbook of qualitative research. London: Sage. 1994. 
  2. Yates J, Leggett T. Qualitative research: An introduction. Radiologic technology. 2016 Nov 1;88(2):225-31.
  3. Aspers P, Corte U. What is qualitative in qualitative research. Qualitative Sociology. 2019 Jun 1;42(2):139-60.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 Algeo N. Interpreting a Qualitative Research Paper. Physioplus Course 2020
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Samsi K. Critical appraisal of qualitative research. Lecture, from King’s College London. 2012.
  6. Connelly LM. Trustworthiness in qualitative research. Medsurg Nursing. 2016 Nov 1;25(6):435-7.
  7. Lincoln, YS. & Guba, EG. Naturalistic Inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. (1985).
  8. Hannes K. Chapter 4: Critical appraisal of qualitative research. In: Noyes J, Booth A, Hannes K, Harden A, Harris J, Lewin S, Lockwood C (editors), Supplementary Guidance for Inclusion of Qualitative Research in Cochrane Systematic Reviews of Interventions. Version 1 (updated August 2011). Cochrane Collaboration Qualitative Methods Group, 2011. Available from URL
  9. Hibbert P, Coupland C, MacIntosh R. Reflexivity: Recursion and relationality in organizational research processes. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal. 2010 May 11.
  10. Probyn J, Howarth M, Maz J. The ‘middle bit’: how to appraise qualitative research. British Journal of Cardiac Nursing. 2016 May 2;11(5):248-54.
  11. Introduction to critical appraisal. Available from:[last accessed 01/11/2020]