Reviewing qualitative research

The issue of publishing qualitative research has resurfaced. The British Psychological Society issued a statement with their concerns about two journals, including the BMJ, relegating such research to the low priority, non-citeable category. Needless to say, I think such decisions are very unhelpful and I am one of signatories of the letter challenging the policy. I haven’t changed my mind at all, I continue to regard such policies as utterly misguided. Yet, I want to share my recent experiences with attempting to publish qualitative stuff.

Over the last few months I have been criticised, among others, for:

  • non-representative sample;
  • having unsolicited data;
  • not rejecting psychiatric diagnosis on the basis of Critical Discourse Analysis;
  • assuming that clinical notes are not an objective account of reality;
  • not doing thematic analysis, Foucauldian discourse analysis, or IPA which are, apparently, qualitative research par excellence.

These criticisms, and those I haven’t mentioned, vary, of course in the level of incompetence or ignorance of qualitative research and its methods. However, I must admit that it is the first of the criticisms that I find particularly irritating; it is also by far the most frequent of criticisms I’ve encountered. Except qualitative research does not make claims as to representativeness of the data, of analyses or anything else. Such claims are made only by research in the quantitative paradigm and cannot and should not be demanded of my articles. In fact, any claim of representativeness in what I say would render me incompetent.

It is nonsense to say that unsolicited data are somehow inferior and shouldn’t be used, if anything, the opposite could be argued. I have no idea why discourse analysis should have any say about nosological diagnosis. Finally, there is no objective account of reality, there is no objective text. To say this really isn’t controversial and I’m tired of repeating it. And yes, thematic analysis in, but there really isn’t an equation mark between TA and qualitative research, which is wide and varied.

These criticisms don’t make sense, they suggest that those who make them have little to do, if anything at all, with qualitative research. Well, I think that those who keep talking about representativeness of the data are unlikely to even have been near a book on qualitative analysis.

And here I want to make the main point of this post.  The more I think about it, the more I prefer the BMJ and its misguided, but ultimately honest policy, than journals which proclaim to welcome qualitative research and reject my papers on the basis of idiotic demands of representativeness. I am sick and tired of reading reviews that offer nothing constructive in their comments, that practically do not engage with the paper, but adopt the quantitative paradigm in reviewing it. I am sick and tired of apparent assumptions that qualitative research can be reviewed by any researcher, regardless of whether they are experts in qualitative stuff or not. The assumptions made by reviewers quite clearly suggest that the editors not only send my articles to people who have no idea about qualitative stuff, but also actually accept what those reviewers say.

The dominance of the quantitative paradigm is so strong that it is a perspective which seems to offer omniscience in all research matters. To say that qualitative research is a poor relative is to sugar-coat reality. But isn’t it unfair and unsound not only to write reviews of research you have no expertise in, but also to accept such reviews? And while I am not, and I don’t expect to be sent articles reporting on quantitative endeavours, I would expect the same the other way round.

This is why I suggest that the BMJ attitude, however misguided, is preferable. At the very least, I know there is no point in wasting my time and submitting articles to them. At least they tell me that they’re not interested.

In a recent letter I wrote to an editor with a plea. I asked them not to reject the paper because it’s of low quality (non-representative data). I said I would prefer to be told that the paper was unsuitable, controversial or simply, by virtue of the absence of numbers in it, unattractive for the journal. Don’t tell me that my paper is bad, unless you can rationally and plausibly argue that. And argue that adopting the assumptions I adopt, argue it by taking the qualitative perspective.

Believe me, it is equally easy to demolish quantitative research adopting the qualitative perspective. I can also do it. Except that such critiques make little sense.


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