A response to the Editor's note: ‘Introduction to guidelines on reporting qualitative research’ by Christine Webb (2003) Journal of Advanced Nursing 42, 544–545.

  1. Top of page
  2. A response to the Editor's note: ‘Introduction to guidelines on reporting qualitative research’ by Christine Webb (2003) Journal of Advanced Nursing 42, 544–545.
  3. References

Taking up the challenge offered by Christine Webb to discuss her proposed Basic Criteria for Acceptability – Qualitative Research Webb (2003), I would like to make two comments: one on the nature of and need for such criteria, and one specifically about the proposed list.

Barbour (2001) commented in the British Medical Journal that ‘qualitative research is increasingly being influenced by funding and editorial policies’. Those of us using qualitative methods in the UK, in areas such as nursing and midwifery, patient satisfaction or health services research, would probably add the influence of local research ethics committees as a further factor. In addition, there is also the pressure from systematic reviewers to develop such checklists with measurable criteria in order to distinguish between different qualitative studies whilst assessing papers based on qualitative research.

One should bear in mind that there are different views on how to assess the quality of qualitative studies. One NHS R & D Health Technology Assessment report (Ryan et al. 2001) outlined four different views regarding criteria for assessing qualitative techniques:

  • 1
    All research perspectives are unique and each is valid in its own terms. This view rejects the notion of establishing general quality criteria.
  • 2
    Qualitative and quantitative methods can be assessed, but not by the same criteria. For example Lincoln and Guba (1985) suggested four criteria specifically for the evaluation of qualitative methods: credibility, transferability, consistency (or dependability) and confirmability.
  • 3
    Qualitative and quantitative methods can be assessed by the same (or very similar) criteria, such as: acceptability, cost, validity, reliability, generalisability (or relevance) and objectivity.
  • 4
    Finally, an alternative approach to using predefined criteria in assessing the quality of qualitative techniques is the use of checklists of good practice (Blaxter 2000, Mays & Pope 1995, Mays & Pope 2000, Critical Appraisal Skills Programme [CASP] 1998). It is important to note that such checklists focus on how the research is to be (or was) conducted, rather than on the quality of the method itself.

Funding bodies, journal editors and reviewers, policy-makers and research ethics committees have had a considerable influence on the development of guidelines for qualitative methods, not least because there is poor qualitative research around. It is clear to me that the existence of checklists will not only influence journal editors, reviewers, funders, systematic reviewers, ethics committees, but also researchers themselves and, of course, research students. However, as a research community we need to guard the concern which Williams (2001) expressed, namely:

‘…that, although checklists are a quick and easy way of facilitating the appraisal of a paper, they simply set up rules that researchers play to and get around, in rather the same way that they find ways of getting round tax legislation.’

To continue with the taxation example, one could argue that there is nothing wrong in using the tax legislation to one's advantage, but there is something wrong when this is done in such a way that it is illegal (i.e. improper).

It is important that the different stakeholders have some reassurance about the quality of the qualitative research they are funding, publishing in their journals, or quoting in articles and reports. Checklists do exactly that: they give outsiders a chance to evaluate the quality of our work. At the same time it is important to stress that there a many different ways to conduct qualitative research. Whilst some ways are more appropriate than others, at certain times, under certain conditions or for specific target groups, it should be remembered that this does not necessarily mean that the researcher using a different approach or method than her colleague is doing a less satisfactory job.

My more specific comment on this particular proposed list of basic criteria is that it seems to have missed out ‘interviews’. Interviews must surely be the most frequently used qualitative method in nursing research. The criteria mention other methods such as ‘focus groups’ and ‘ethnography’ as well as methodologies such as ‘grounded theory’ and ‘phenomenology’. I recognize here a common mistake in nursing research: namely, to equate conducting qualitative interviews with either grounded theory or phenomenology. My suggestion is to redraft the list adding interviews as a specific method. At the moment the list is too confusing. For example, one nurse researcher might be conducting focus groups using a grounded theory approach, or better, based on the philosophical approach which involves grounded theory while someone else might be conducting interviews using a thematic analysis, based on a fairly positivist approach. Authors wishing to submit to JAN or reviewers for JAN currently would find the former mentioned twice and the latter not at all.


  1. Top of page
  2. A response to the Editor's note: ‘Introduction to guidelines on reporting qualitative research’ by Christine Webb (2003) Journal of Advanced Nursing 42, 544–545.
  3. References
  • Barbour R.S. (2001) Checklists for improving rigour in qualitative research: a case of the tail wagging the dog? British Medical Journal 322, 11151117.
  • Blaxter M. (2000) Criteria for qualitative research. Medical Sociology News 26, 3437.
  • Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) 10 questions to help you make sense of qualitative research (1998)
  • Lincoln Y.S. & Guba E. (1985) Naturalistic Enquiry. Sage, Beverley Hills, CA.
  • Mays N. & Pope C. (2000) Assessing quality in qualitative research. British Medical Journal 320, 5052.
  • Mays N. & Pope C. Rigour and qualitative research. British Medical Journal (1995) 311, 109112.
  • Ryan M. et al. (2001) Eliciting public preferences for healthcare: a systematic review of techniques. Health Technological Assessment 5(5). Also:
  • Webb C. (2003) Editor's note: Introduction to guidelines on reporting qualitative research. Journal of Advanced Nursing 42, 544545.
  • Williams B. (2001) Including personal reflections might help (letter). British Medical Journal 323, 514.