How to Evaluate Qualitative Research: The Author Explains How to Determine If Research Findings Are Trustworthy

By Williams, Barbara | American Nurse Today, November 2015 | Go to article overview

How to Evaluate Qualitative Research: The Author Explains How to Determine If Research Findings Are Trustworthy


Williams, Barbara, American Nurse Today


Editor's note: This article is a follow-up to "Understanding qualitative research," published in the July issue of American Nurse Today.

HAVE YOU EVER told someone a story and then later heard the listener retell it in a way that made you say, "That's not what I meant!" This happens because as listeners, we filter what we hear through our own experience, knowledge, or preconceptions, which can make us misinterpret the intended meaning.

Similarly, researchers who conduct qualitative studies listen to people's stories about their experiences. These stories form the foundation for the themes that will serve as the basis of the study results. Obviously, researchers need to capture study participants' intended meaning so their results don't merely reflect their own experiences. In other words, the findings must be trustworthy.

How can you evaluate the trustworthiness of a qualitative study? As you read it, ask yourself, "How did the researcher address the issue of potential bias?" Researchers can incorporate strategies into the study design to reduce bias; the published report of the study should describe these strategies.

This article discusses strategies researchers use to make their study findings more trustworthy. They're based on criteria developed by Lincoln and Guba in 1985 (considered the gold standard for evaluating the quality and trustworthiness of qualitative research). The strategies fall into the broad categories of confirmability, credibility, dependability, and transferability.

Confirmability

Confirmability refers to the objectivity of study findings. To achieve objectivity, researchers commonly use reflexivity and an audit trail. (See Following the researcher's audit trail.)

Reflexivity

Through reflexivity, researchers examine their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions on the study topic and remain constantly aware of their preconceptions throughout data collection and analysis. Keeping a reflexive journal can help them identify their preconceptions and see study participants' meanings more clearly.

For example, Pearson (2013) studied cancer nurses' experiences of providing palliative care to children in an acute-care setting. Acknowledging that she came to the study with preconceived notions, she used a reflexive journal to decrease bias potential. In her article, she stated, "The researcher used a reflexive diary [that] provided a consistent and systematic documented account of the participants' interviews... The use of reflexivity was important to consider as the researcher came to the phenomenon with a set of preconceptions and experiences that could have influenced the way the experience was described by the participant and the way the data was collected, interpreted, and analyzed."

Credibility

Credibility refers to how well the study findings represent the data. The most common ways to establish credibility are peer debriefing and member checking.

Peer debriefing

Peer debriefing occurs when two or more researchers analyze the study data and compare results until they reach a common understanding. This step is important because a researcher may be aware of having preconceived ideas on the topic but unaware of when and how these notions might be influencing data interpretation. This is more likely when the researcher is closely involved with the study topic.

For example, Cameron and Waterworth (2014) conducted a study of patients' experiences with palliative chemotherapy for colorectal cancer. In the data analysis section of the published report, they explained how they addressed the possible bias of one of the researchers, a nurse who worked on the unit where patients were treated: "Transcripts were read by SW following initial analysis by JC, and codes and themes were discussed to consider different interpretations and enhance rigor and trustworthiness. This also enabled JC as a nurse with clinical experience working in the day unit to reflect on her experience and how it could influence the interpretation of the data. …

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