Writing and Publishing a Qualitative Journal Article

Academic writing is an ‘intertwining of three equally important elements – the emotions of writing, a sense of self as a writer and writing know-how…’

(Cameron, Nairn and Higgins, 2009: 270)

How researchers write up results for journal publications depends upon the purposes of the research and the methodologies (Gilgun, 2014). There will be standard topics such as statements about methods and methodologies. However, there are also variations in how to represent other topics, i.e. related research and theory, reflexivity, and informants’ accounts:

For example, articles based on ethnographic research may be structured differently from articles in which we are writing up research whose purpose is theory development.

Most of the time journal editors and reviewers will be familiar with variations in write-ups. However, when they are not, they may ask for modifications that violate the methodological principles of the research (Gilgun, 2014). For example, in responses to qualitative articles:

‘A common reviewer request is for percentages, which has little meaning in almost all forms of qualitative research because the purpose of the research is to identify patterns of meanings and not distributions of variables.’

(Gilgun, 2014: 658)

Qualitative researchers face additional challenges when writing-up such as:

  • Often working with a mass of data with no rules for the researcher to apply and little guidance as to how this data should be presented.
  • No pre-defined categories, dimensions, etc.
  • The language used by interviewees, etc. has multiple meanings and interpretations.
  • Analysis is inherently subjective.

Therefore, when writing and publishing a qualitative article, it is important to revisit the principles of qualitative research and to address these principles in how we write up and present our qualitative data. We should review how others using the same qualitative methods as us, and working in similar disciplines, are presenting their qualitative data. What typical conventions do they follow?

Below, I offer steps to follow to help guide writers in their development, construction, writing and publication of qualitative research in journal articles.

Step 1: Review journals in your field
The first step is to review other relevant journals in your field to help you decide which is the most appropriate for you to publish your work in. You should check which of these journals publish qualitative research and which journals are your colleagues and those working in your field regularly publishing in. There are high penalties for selecting the wrong journal – for example desk rejection and wasted time (Belcher, 2019). As you can only submit your article to one journal at a time, choosing the wrong journal will delay publication. One of the most frequent reasons a journal rejects an article is because it did not meet that journal’s requirements (Meyer et al. 2018).

You should also consider who your target audience are. For example, ‘think of your work more in terms of fit with specific journals and use this to help you write your paper for that journal.’ (Clark and Thompson, 2016: 2) This is especially important for qualitative articles because ‘framing, volume of methodological detail, and presentation of data differ across journals, based on word limits, style, and convention.’ (ibid)

Finally, consider what type of qualitative research and data they tend to publish. Do original articles tend to focus on conventional qualitative methods, i.e. qualitative interviews, focus groups, mixed methods? Do they publish ethnographic research, autoethnographies, narrative research and/or the use of creative methods? If they focus on the ‘conventional’ they may be less open to other qualitative methods and creative approaches. Articles which use ethnographic and/or autoethnographic approaches can look different from conventional reports (i.e. see journals such as Ethnography and Qualitative Inquiry)

Questions to ask:

  • Which journals are colleagues publishing in?
  • Who has done similar research to you and where do they publish?
  • Where do scholars you regularly cite publish?
  • Which of these journals regularly publishes qualitative research?
  • Which are well cited and respected in your field?
  • Is your institution/department concerned with journal metric? I.e. impact factor or SNIP?
  • Do I need to consider Open Access requirements? i.e. see ‘Plan S.’ https://www.coalition-s.org/

Step 2: Select a journal
Choose the journal you initially want to submit your journal article to (and possibly 2nd and 3rd options in case the first submission is rejected).

You should read similar papers in this journal and review them. I.e. break down the typical structure of a paper in this journal and any common factors in how articles are presented, the angle they take and how they present qualitative data. Read others’ writing not for content, ‘but for how the authors write, for how they present and progress their ideas and arguments’ (Cameron, Nairn and Higgins, 2009: 278) Which piece of academic writing do you particularly appreciate and why?

Also read the ‘instructions to authors’ and ‘submission guidelines’ to determine what you will need to do in preparing your manuscript and follow this when structuring and writing your article (i.e. word count etc.).

Step 3: Identify the type of journal article you will write
Next, you need to identify the type of journal article you will write. For example:

Review of the field: This is a summary of research on a particular topic, and a perspective on the state of the field and where it is going. Has it been done before? What limitations or future areas of research are you proposing?

Methods: Are you setting out what your research adds to methodological debates in qualitative research or use of qualitative methods?

Original research / data based: Are you presenting original data? Are you expanding knowledge on a particular topic, issue, phenomenon in your research area?

Theoretical: Are you contributing to the development of theory in your area?

Step 4: Organise and plan your journal article
Use the formatting and structure of the journal you are targeting to organise, plan and outline your argument. You should have a skeleton plan for your article before you start writing.

Step 5: Write your article
Writing is an analytical task and is also the means through which we process and think about our qualitative data:

‘We have to approach it as an analytical task, in which the form of our reports and representations is as powerful and significant as their content. We also argue that writing and representing is a vital way of thinking about one’s data. Writing makes us think about data in new and different ways. Thinking about how to represent our data forces us to think about the meanings and understandings, voices and experiences present in the data. As such, writing actually deepens our level of analytic endeavor. Analytical ideas are developed and tried out in the process of writing and representing.’

(Coffey and Atkinson, 1996: 109)

Identify the unique contribution to knowledge you are making in your paper. Place this upfront in your abstract, Introduction and weave this through the paper to then expand in Discussion/Conclusion. This must be clear to your reader. Whatever type of article you are writing, you must nail your key message/s:

‘Too many messages, and the main points of the paper are lost—no clear messages, and reviewers are left wondering, ‘‘what’s the point?”’

(Clark and Thompson, 2016: 2)

Your article title can be a single message for conveying the ‘so what?’ of your paper

Review the current field of literature / theories: Make sure you review what is published currently in the journal you wish to publish in and CITE IT. These people might be your reviewers. If you cannot find similar work in the journal this is an indication that the journal may not be the correct fit.

Methods: Do not overlook this section. It is important that readers have information on background, context, research design, and ethics. They should be able to follow an audit trail of research design. Support these decisions and choices with reference to relevant methods literature.

All good research requires reporting of methods in sufficient detail to provide a road map for readers regarding how the data were collected and analyzed. With a single, named method, such as narrative analysis, a brief orienting statement is needed to make explicit the specific authors and sources being employed. Bear in mind that even narrative analysis has variants and different schools of thought. Where multiple techniques drawn from different research methods are employed, a clear rationale for the use of each technique is needed. Clear, however, does not necessarily mean long.’

(Drisko, 2005: 291)

Select and present your data: What story do you want to tell? How much can you present and include in the paper? Presentation of themes – less is more. It is important to convey quality of the data on which the reports are based: ‘…skills of researchers in conveying the analysis concisely and with “grab” (Glaser, 1978), which means writing that is vivid and memorable (Gilgun, 2005b cited in Gilgun, 2014: 662).’

‘Grab brings findings to life. With grab, human experiences jump off the page.’

(Gilgun, 2014: 662)

You should give priority to the voices of your research participants. Moreover, strong articles have consistency between research traditions and the writing up of research (i.e. how ethnography is written up and how field notes are used / presented) (Gilgun, 2014).

Discussion and/or Conclusion: you must review what was covered in the article, restate your contribution to knowledge and link back to what this adds to the body of literature you reviewed in your field/discipline. You should also flag up any limitations of the study and suggest future areas of research, gaps that could be explored in later work.

Introduction, abstract and key words: write these last. Make sure you choose terms which are commonly used by those searching for similar work.

Step 6: Tidy up your manuscript
Make sure that you edit, correctly format and proof-read your article:

  • Revisit the requirements of the journal and check that you have adhered to these (i.e. word count, formatting, etc.).
  • Make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors.
  • Double-check referencing. Use the same referencing style as the journal you are submitting to and follow their guidance closely.

Step 7: Peer review   
Informal peer review of your work is important. Ask supervisors or colleagues to provide informal feedback on your paper.

Step 8: Submit the manuscript following ‘instructions for authors’
Make sure you include a cover letter and title page (if requested).

Suggest suitable reviewers if requested. These should be scholars who are supportive of your approach and working in the area (i.e. don’t choose a quantitative researcher to review a qualitative paper).

Step 9: Outcome
Make a note of when you should hear back from the journal. Don’t be afraid to email editors to ask about review status if this goes beyond the stated number of weeks for review. But remember that it is currently difficult to find reviewers due to various circumstances so it might take longer than usual.

Possible outcomes include: accept with no changes (very rare), revise and resubmit with minor changes (again – rare), revise and resubmit with major changes, reject after review, desk rejection.

Good editors will edit and temper reviewer comments to remove anything which is overly negative or inappropriate.

If you have to revise and resubmit your article:

  • Make any necessary changes as flagged up by the editors and reviewers
  • Be fair in how you respond
  • You can disagree with the reviewers, as long as you can justify why this is the case
  • It is the Editor’s job to be balanced and fair in reviewing how you have opted to respond to reviewers
  • When/if sent out for review again, it might be sent to different reviewers, not necessarily the original reviewers so don’t be surprised if you then receive additional comments.

Congratulations, you survived the arduous review and publication process! The editors will contact you with the good news and also provide a rough indication of when to expect your paper to be published online (and in print if relevant). Online first means speedier publication. Not all journals still do print publication. The publisher will be in touch with copyright forms for you to complete. Make sure you check open access requirements and if necessary submit a copy of your original paper in your institution’s repository.

There are various steps to follow in developing, designing, writing and preparing your qualitative research journal article for publication. Adhering to the principles of qualitative research and demonstrating you have followed these principles in your article and your presentation of the data is vital. Some common conventions can be followed when drawing on more common forms of qualitative data (i.e. semi-structured interviews and focus groups) and those using other methods (i.e. narratives, ethnography, creative methods) should also familiarise themselves with the various ways in which previous qualitative researchers have written up and presented their data and material. Spending time reviewing the field and selecting an appropriate journal is also crucial so that you can be sure you are submitting your work to a journal and editors who are supportive of, and familiar with, qualitative methods and inquiry.

See our regular Qualitative Researcher courses on ‘Writing and Publishing Your Qualitative Journal Article’: www.qualitativetraining.com

References and further reading
Belcher, W.L. (2019) Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cameron, K., Nairn, K. and Higgins, J. (2009) ‘Demystifying academic writing: Reflections on Emotions, Know-How and Academic Identity.’ Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2): 269-284.

Clark, A.M. and Thompson, D.R. (2016) ‘Editorial. Five tips for writing qualitative research in high-impact journals: Moving from #BMJnoQual.’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods, p.1-3. DOI: 10.1177/1609406916641250

Coffey, A. and Atkinson, P. (1996) Making Sense of Qualitative Data: Complementary Research Strategies. London: Sage.

Drisko, J.W. (2005) ‘Writing up qualitative research.’ Families in Society, 86(4): 589-593.

Gilgun, J,F. (2014) ‘Writing up qualitative research.’ In: P. Leavy (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods (pp. 658-676). New York: Oxford University Press.

Meyer, H.S., Durning, S.J., Sklar, D. and Maggio, L.A. (2018) ‘Making the first cut: An analysis of academic medicine editors’ reasons for not sending manuscripts out for external peer review.’ Academic Medicine, 93(3): 464-470.