Publishing Qualitative Research: A précis for academics

One of the important constituencies in the family enterprise field is the academic community that provides research, both quantitative and qualitative for the family enterprises themselves and for the advisors and consultants who work with them. Initially most of the research in the field was conceptual. In the recent past the research has been predominantly quantitative. Now, however there is a shift toward qualitative research.

In her June editorial for FBR, associate editor Trish Reay provides some suggestions for researchers interested in publishing qualitative research in FBR. This excerpt, prepared especially for The Practitioner special issues on constituencies, is a précis of her observations and suggestions on “Publishing Qualitative Research.”

Strategy 1: Ensure You Have Sufficient High-Quality Data

As a scholar writing for publication in FBR, you simply must have a sufficient quantity of systematically collected, high-quality data. But what constitutes high-quality data? How much do you need? My standard has always been that the quantity and quality of data must convince readers that the study holds value and merits scholarly attention. This means that studies based on relatively few interviews providing in-depth attention to a topic where we currently hold little scholarly knowledge can be powerful and valuable. On the other hand, if we already have a large knowledge base and your study contradicts current theory or you are filling a narrow gap, readers will need to see a much stronger and richer data set to be convinced of the study’s value. So although there is no magic number of interviews, 30 is a common number for qualitative researchers to suggest.

Strategy 2: Set Up an Appropriate Research Question to Guide Your Article

Everyone should begin data collection with a clearly developed research question (or set of questions), but as you start to think about writing an article, your research question will need to be further shaped and honed. Although it may sound too simple, I strongly encourage you to go back to the research question(s) you used to guide data collection and ask yourself, “So, what is the answer to these question(s)? Is there anything surprising about what people said, or what I found in the documents?”

Once you have a very general sense of “answers” to your research question(s), then go back to a subset of your raw data (perhaps five or six interviews) to identify text segments (short quotes that express a coherent idea) that seem to have a connection with your research question. Then begin the coding process by developing preliminary labels that describe a group of text segments. You will probably change your mind a few times, but getting started is critical. It is through this process of categorizing (and recategorizing) that you are analyzing data—and can develop coding categories.

In addition, you will also need to engage iteratively with the established literature. Some people use what they call the “null hypothesis” (what is the expected answer to our research question based on the current literature?) to advance their analysis. This is where the “What’s surprising?” question comes in. What have you found that is different from the null hypothesis? As is the case with all scholarly writing, your overall goal must be to fill a gap in our research knowledge.

Once you have a clear compelling research question that is based on a gap in the literature, use it to guide all the components of your paper.

Strategy 3: Ground Your Study in the Relevant Literature

I cannot stress enough the importance of clearly grounding your article in a fairly clearly delimited segment of the family business literature. You must explain what we already know about the topic you are investigating. There may not be any literature that is exactly on point with your study—and this is likely desirable for a qualitative study. But there have most certainly been articles published that give partial attention to your research topic.

It is in your review of the literature that you must clearly explain the gap in our current knowledge. Simply saying “no one has written about x” is just not sufficient. You must show that there are unanswered (or insufficiently answered) questions, and that they are important. Particularly with qualitative research, you need to explain why we need new theory development. What’s wrong with our current theory?

Strategy 4: Explain Your Methods and Show Your Work

I remember (quite some time ago) taking mathematics exams where it was important to “show your work.” In these exams, teachers wanted to find out if students knew how to approach a problem and what steps to take to come to the appropriate solution. I think that this same principle applies to publishing qualitative research. You will improve your chances of publication if you show reviewers and editors that you (a) understand appropriate qualitative methodology and methods through your explanations in the methods section of your paper and (b) show (even partially) how you used those methods to analyze your data.

Editors and reviewers almost always ask authors of qualitative research to “explain your methods much more clearly.” Chenail (2009) labeled it “making transparency goal one.” This means that you need to show that you have read the appropriate sources of information on how to do qualitative research.

Strategy 5: Tell an Intriguing Empirical Story

There is a distinct danger that following all the required steps of qualitative research can turn your inherently interesting story into something that is dull and dreary. You can’t let this happen! In family firms, there are almost always rich, intriguing stories about family dynamics and the intersection of these dynamics with the operation of a business. Telling a great story is a key part of writing qualitative articles (Golden-Biddle & Locke, 2007). Readers need to be engaged with the empirical story, and it is a key piece of what makes a particular article interesting (Salvato & Aldrich, 2012). One of the ways to highlight your intriguing empirical story is to keep a focus on what you (and others) have found surprising about your findings. Perhaps your case stands in contrast to previous conceptualizations of family business, or perhaps family members have connected differently with the firm than expected. Alternatively, you may have new insights on particular topics because of the research perspective you have taken.

You should tell your empirical story in two parts of your paper. First, you need to tell the empirical story very concisely in the introduction. This is part of your hook to draw readers in. Second, you must tell a longer, more detailed empirical story in the Findings section.

Telling an intriguing empirical story is clearly connected with explaining your methods and showing your work. Your goal is to show your readers that you have systematically analyzed your qualitative data in a way that allows you to tell an empirical story—one that has been developed within an appropriate research approach. It is this empirical story that sets you up to develop a theoretical story: one that allows you to contribute to theory.

Strategy 6: Tell a Convincing Theoretical Story

The overall purpose of your Discussion section is to build a theoretical story of your work. It is here that you compare and contrast your empirical findings with the established literature. This means that you explain how your findings are similar or different from the literature that you reviewed in the literature review section. It is a very common problem to see that authors have not sufficiently grounded their study in the relevant literature, so when they get to the Discussion section, they really do not have anything to say. Another point to note is that the references in the Discussion section have almost all been explained in the literature review. That is, there are very few, if any, new references.

Remember that if you are writing an article for FBR, you must make sure that you develop a theoretical story that relates to family business. This means that you need to compare your findings with those of other family business studies and explain the relevance of your findings in a way that family business scholars can recognize as a contribution.

Strategy 7: Show a Clear Contribution to the Family Business Literature

Finally, as is the case with all articles published in FBR, your manuscript must help improve our knowledge of family business. Qualitative research is a key way to advance theory regarding family firms because it can provide important insights into otherwise hidden interactions between family and business. Once you have shown how your study compares with the established literature, you are well positioned to push to the next level and explain your theoretical contribution. One way to think about this is to answer the question: What do we know now (after my study) that we did not know previously?

In conclusion, I want to reiterate our encouragement of qualitative research at FBR. We are seeing increasing numbers of qualitative manuscripts published, and we want to see this trend continue. I have tried to be succinct and focus on what I consider to be basic suggestions. There is a lot more to say about qualitative research, and I hope you will read much more broadly. My focus here has been on only two types of qualitative data (interviews and documents), but there are many more. I know from personal experience that editors and reviewers do not always see the value that authors see. So it is with a healthy dose of humility that I have provided suggestions on how to get your work published.

To read the complete editorial, go here.

About the contributors:

Judy GreenJudy Green, Ph.D., is the president of the Family Firm Institute (FFI), a global association of individuals and organizations whose mission is to be the most influential global network of thought-leaders in the field of family enterprise. Judy can be reached at [email protected].



Trish ReayTrish Reay is an associate professor in the strategic management & organization at the University of Alberta and an associate editor of the Family Business Review. Trish can be reached at [email protected].