Authenticity and Scientific Integrity in Qualitative Research


Jacqueline Jones, PhD, RN FRCNA, College of Nursing University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus Building P28, ED2 North, 13120 E. 19th Avenue, Aurora, CO 80045.


Jacqueline Jones

Scholarship for the care of women, childbearing families, and newborns demands attention to detail, creativity, and purpose in inquiry. A perplexing question is often raised by nurse scientists: Is qualitative research relevant today? A brief survey of a funding search engine, RePORTer, provided a resounding answer in the affirmative (1,470 hits with the term qualitative). Qualitative research makes a contribution to the contemporary development of health-related knowledge for individuals, families, communities, and populations. Qualitative research can help identify facilitators and barriers to intervention and can assist in the development of health care policy (Sandelowski & Leeman, 2012). It helps bring richness, context, and dimension to the study of human beings and their environments.

Quantitative research has an established place in the scientific landscape; therefore a further question arises: How do we know and thus rely on the scholarship in qualitative research? Qualitative research can be conducted as an independent, in-depth study generating a new hypothesis or explanatory theory, or it can be carried out as part of a mixed-methods design with greater or lesser emphasis. It has rigor and strategies to enhance research integrity so that its place in knowledge development and scholarship is not lost. For example, Tong, Sainsbury, and Craig (2007) provided guidance for the publication of qualitative research, and the National Institutes of Health encourages grant reviewers to rely on the recommendations of Creswell, Klassen, Plano Clark, and Clegg Smith (2011) for mixed-methods design evaluation. Power, sociopolitical differences, and epistemic cultures further influence team science and the production of interdisciplinary knowledge (Lunde, Heggen, & Strand, 2013).

With the need to publish or perish and for dissemination of research findings to inform and guide practice, researchers are expected to produce cogent, tangible, evidence-based contributions to the field. Unfortunately, in an effort to publish qualitative work, some of the rigor or scientific integrity can be lost. There is evidence of slippage between the intended nuance of qualitative analysis and the lineage of assumptions to which techniques and methods are connected. As with other forms of research, it is important to consider the unit of analysis, the intended outcome, and the platform of ideas upon which the analytic framework rests. Components such as how the sample was obtained, what type of data were used, and the distribution of those data inform the assumptions that underpin choice of appropriate statistical tests in quantitative research. This then informs what statistical approach(es) will yield meaningful outcomes that are important to the determination of scientific value of a study (Newton & Rudestam, 2013). Although qualitative research is supported by different assumptions related to knowledge development, scientific value remains the researcher's goal.

In qualitative scholarship, it is important to determine if the data are generated through individual or group interviews and if the unit of analysis is the individual, an aggregated theme, or group dynamic(s). Importantly, what is the intended end product of the research inquiry: theory, hypotheses, concepts and processes; descriptive or explanatory frameworks; or themes of illustration? An accepted norm is the use of the phrase constant comparative method and a tentative link to grounded theory. A flaw here is the naïve application of the analytic efforts that are used in grounded theory to identify theoretical relationships between concepts and infer more abstract knowledge beyond codes to a basic social process or core category. Many published qualitative studies stop at the first phase of analysis, the identification of codes, and thus could be considered too premature and lacking theoretical depth. Similarly, one might publish statistical output without interpretation or further analysis. Another example is the term lived experience, which is used with abundance in many published qualitative studies, yet very few authors make any connection to its meaning or to its ancestry in phenomenology. Sample size should also be considered in terms of epistemology, knowledge claims, and intended purpose. For authenticity qualitative researchers need to present a clear argument beyond saturation as a criterion for the final sample size used.

A less-than-thoughtful approach to the type of qualitative content analysis or to secondary analysis of existing qualitative data is fraught with incongruences. When using a superficial approach, authors risk producing findings that are abstracted from the context of data and are not fully developed, which results in interpretations that lack the richness expected of qualitative research. Secondary analysis relies on data that were generated for a different purpose and the key or focused topic of this new analysis may lead to missing qualitative data (Cutcliffe & Harder, 2012). Regardless of the declared orientation or approach to the research purpose and questions, the end product of many published qualitative studies is a list of themes or labels that link segments of data or codes together. There are legitimate reasons for this type of organization, but only when the qualitative researcher has paid sufficient attention to epistemology, theoretical orientation, or provided deliberate justification of analytic steps that are borrowed from another research method. The outcome of such superficial qualitative research is of less utility over time.

With more than 15 qualitative approaches and 32 analytic approaches within a qualitative researcher's toolkit (Saldaña, 2013), it is timely to reconsider the scholarship in qualitative research rather than the rote application of comfortable terminology and published norms. Although there are varying positions on this argument, one concern remains: good science equals credible findings, authentic research, trustworthiness, and ethical integrity. Scholarship in qualitative research demands thoughtful attention to good science.


  • Jacqueline Jones PhD RN FRCNA, is an associate professor in the Division of Informatics, Health Systems & Leadership, College of Nursing, University of Colorado, Aurora, CO.