Trustworthiness and Ethics in Qualitative Research Designs

Trustworthiness and Ethics in Qualitative Research Designs

Trustworthiness and Ethics in Qualitative Research Designs

Gianina Petre, Adventus University (Romania)

1. Introduction

Several potential problems can arise in the design of a qualitative study methodology. Qualitative research is typically focused on understanding the complexity and richness of a particular phenomenon, and the findings are often based on a smaller sample of participants who are selected for their ability to provide rich and detailed information related to the research question. The goal is to generate insights and understanding that can be used to inform theory or practice rather than to make predictions about a larger population.

While qualitative research is not designed to achieve statistical generalisation, researchers still need to consider issues related to representativeness. It can impact the transferability and applicability of the findings to other contexts or populations. Researchers often use purposive sampling in qualitative research to select participants who can provide unique and diverse perspectives on the research question. The goal is to achieve a range of perspectives and insights that can help to build a prosperous and nuanced understanding of the phenomenon under study. The researcher may feel more uncomfortable when the development of methodological skills crosses with the development of computational skills. The effort and balance between the two dimensions lead many researchers to give up using tools, essentially digital, transversal to the entire research project. In qualitative studies, the researcher is the primary tool for collecting and analysing data (Wa-Mbaleka 2020).

The other dimension is the lack of trustworthiness. Qualitative research is often criticised for being subjective. To address this, researchers can use established methods to analyse the data, maintain detailed study design and implementation records, and use multiple coders to analyse the data…

2. How to assure trustworthiness in qualitative methodology?

Qualitative researchers are interested in ensuring the quality of their studies. Researchers refer to a qualitative research study’s quality as trustworthiness. It emphasises whether a study and investigation relied upon considering its conclusions and interpretations (Lincoln and Guba 2013). Unfortunately, there is still disagreement among authors over the best phrases to use to describe the qualitative research quality criteria (Roller and Lavrakas 2015). Nonetheless, we favour the elements of trustworthiness—credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability (Lincoln and Guba 2013). However, they need careful attention as qualitative research employs a constructivist approach. Nevertheless, all four were successfully applied in practice (Petre 2021).

2.1. Credibility

In qualitative research, the credibility of a study is analogous to internal validity in positivism. Credibility denotes assurance in a study’s findings and interpretations (Lincoln and Guba 2013). Many methods can be used to verify credibility. We provide below descriptions of some of these methods, applicable irrespective of use or not technology in research:

  • Triangulation: refers to using more than two sources of data, methodologies, theories, and researchers to ensure the credibility of a qualitative study (Lincoln and Guba 2013). Furthermore, these data sources ought to agree with one another or not be at odds with one another (Miles, Huberman, and Saldaña 2014). A triangulation matrix demonstrates how the study uses several data sources and data collection techniques to address each research question (see Appendix A). Based on the research objectives and the data sources, this matrix aids in centralising all data-gathering technologies. The triangulation matrix may also assist readers in gaining a thorough understanding of the data-gathering procedure and recognising connections among the study questions, data collection methods, and participants.
  • Member check: generally, the researcher sends the data back to participants for an accuracy check after transcribing, analysing, and interpreting the data (Creswell and Poth 2018). Digital tools like email or online surveys can be used to perform member checking. When data collection occurs in the participants’ language rather than the language in which the study is written, researchers may send participant checks after transcribing the interviews or focus group discussions. After participant input, the data can be translated into the study’s language, reviewed for accuracy, and coded and analysed.
  • Peer examination: entails having other researchers review and comment on a study’s findings (Merriam and Tisdell 2016). Digital tools like online collaboration platforms or video conferencing can be used to facilitate the review. For example, the research committee members can guarantee peer review when there is a thesis or dissertation. They read the results and provided input, confirming the study’s authenticity. Likewise, when there is research other than a thesis or dissertation, the research team or other specialists might vouch for it.
  • Adequate engagement in data collection: this method facilitates academic data collection by generating a picture of the preponderant evidence through data saturation (Patton 2015). In addition, researchers may consider including experts as participants in the data collection process to enrich the findings. When participants, for instance, have a packed academic calendar during the photovoice step where pictures are taken, they may add extra time for them.
  • Researcher reflexivity: the researcher’s involvement is crucial in qualitative research for gathering, analysing, and presenting the findings. So, by being reflective, researchers inform readers of the study’s standpoint (Holliday 2016; Cornish, Gillepsie, and Zittoun 2014). Since it can be challenging to be completely neutral and objective, researchers consider their roles and share any personal beliefs that may impact the study process (Merriam and Tisdell 2016).

2.2. Dependability/Consistency

Dependability in qualitative research refers to reliability in positivism. A qualitative research study is dependable when “the findings are consistent with the data presented” (Merriam and Tisdell 2016, p. 252). Triangulation, peer review, researcher reflexivity, and audit trails are a few approaches used by researchers to increase the dependability of a study. For example, an audit trail describes the data collecting procedure, coding and categorisation, and theme development in detail. In addition to writing a research journal to record ideas, notes, reflections, questions, and methodological information, researchers may also describe their decisions while conducting the study.

2.3. Transferability

In qualitative research, transferability is the term that corresponds to the external validity or generalizability of positivism. It is up to the reader (Lincoln and Guba, 2013). A particular qualitative research study’s suitability for the setting of the study the reader wants to perform can only be determined by the reader. However, researchers address the problem of transferability by giving detailed and in-depth descriptions of the research site, participants, methodology, and study results. According to Merriam and Tisdell (2016), detailed and in-depth study descriptions improve its transferability.

2.4. Confirmability

Confirmability in qualitative research is consonant with objectivity in positivism. Data collection, findings, and interpretations supported by a dependable research procedure are referred to as confirmability (Lincoln and Guba 2013). For example, researchers use triangulation, a reflective journal, or an audit trail to ensure the confirmability of a study.

3. How to ensure ethical considerations in qualitative research?

Researchers demonstrate that they conduct the qualitative study ethically by addressing the ethical concerns raised. Several factors include permissions and approvals, informed consent, the researcher-participant relationship, confidentiality, and data gathering, reporting, and storing (Hollway and Jefferson 2013; Leavy 2017).In the following paragraphs, we offer a few ethical concerns that could cause issues for qualitative researchers.

3.1. Approval and Permission

Researchers need approvals from the (a) dissertation committee for a thesis or dissertation; (b) ethical research board approval. After the approval, researchers may start the data collection process; (c) participating institution approval and participants’ consent. Next, participants receive an informed consent form with information about the purpose of the study, procedures, risks, benefits, voluntary participation, confidentiality, a copy of the consent, and information about the researcher (Saldaña and Omasta 2018). The first approval is unnecessary in regular studies but needed for a thesis or dissertation. A positive aspect of this discussion is that technology facilitates obtaining approvals and permissions. That option became approachable during the COVID-19 pandemic when it was imperative to use technology in online spaces to continue the research studies (Gerber 2023).

3.2. Participants’ and Researcher’s Safety

A study’s participants should not suffer any bodily or psychological harm. Individuals must have the choice of participating or not in a study, and they must be treated with respect throughout the entire study. The safety of the researchers is also crucial in qualitative research since they often work in dangerous environments. As participants from various socioeconomic classes and groups are involved in their interactions (O’Reilly and Kiyimba 2015), it is crucial to consider the researcher’s safety.

3.3. Voluntary Participation and Confidentiality

Participants must know that participation is entirely up to them. At any time during the research process, they can withdraw without repercussions. In addition, participants should have confidence that their information will be kept private. By utilising pseudonyms for each of them, researchers can reassure them that they retain the data securely and promise to disclose it by keeping confidentiality (O’Reilly and Kiyimba 2015). The informed consent must also expressly state these confidentiality terms. For this aspect of research, we mention that technology may also support researchers as some participants are willing to participate in a study if the interviews or focus groups are conducted online, via Zoom, or other platforms. Therefore, researchers may evaluate the advantages and drawbacks of that option and make informed decisions.

3.4. Transparency and Honesty

The participants must know that the information gathered will only be utilised for the study. Individuals are free to ask questions regarding the study at any time, and researchers must answer them. Researchers shall not withhold any study-related information from participants. When face-to-face meetings are not possible, they may employ technology to develop a platform where participants and researchers may communicate about the study and its stages.

In short, values must be demanded of the researcher, such as 1) honesty or integrity to stick to the facts, 2) not manipulating the testimonies, 3) the veracity of the data, 4) describing the results free of personal values and 5) not consenting to fraud in data collection, data reduction, coding, and analysis. Likewise, plagiarism should not be used (Zapata-Sepúlveda, López-Sánchez, and Sánchez-Gómez 2012).

6. Conclusions

There are several skills that a researcher needs to make a good design of qualitative study methodology (Baxter and Jack 2015), including knowledge of qualitative research methods. Understand various qualitative research methods, such as case studies, ethnography, grounded theory, and phenomenology. This knowledge will help the researcher select the most appropriate method for the study. A researcher should understand the relevant literature in the field of study. Help the researcher to identify research gaps and design research questions that can be addressed through qualitative research. A researcher should have good communication skills, including communicating clearly and effectively with study participants and presenting research findings clearly and concisely. Should have strong analytical skills to analyse and interpret the qualitative data collected from the study. At this point, the researcher should be flexible and open to changing the study design as new insights and data emerge during the research process. As previously mentioned, depending on the changes, time and financial issues may interfere with the researcher’s decision. Researchers should be reflective and self-aware of their biases and assumptions and how they may influence the research process and findings. A suitable qualitative study methodology requires knowledge, skills, and personal qualities and the ability to apply them effectively to the research process.


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