Qualitative research


Andrew Booth
Naila Dracup

We are grateful for the assistance of Chris Cooper on the previous versions of this chapter.

Last updated: 28 October 2021


Qualitative research can make an important contribution to health technology assessment (1). This can involve the identification and review of qualitative evidence (qualitative evidence synthesis) designed to explain differences in intervention effect, to explore aspects of implementation or to capture evidence of patient experience or preference (2-4). Whilst the integration of qualitative evidence in health technology assessment is not common, its value is increasingly recognised as useful (2, 5).

The process of identifying qualitative research is less clear than for identifying studies reporting randomised controlled trials. Poor reporting of qualitative research in studies (3, 6, 7), limited indexing of studies (3, 8, 9), apparent confusion in the reporting of methods of data collection (interviews, focus groups) and synthesis (e.g. thematic synthesis, meta-ethnography) in studies (10, 11), and a need to search beyond primary biomedical databases (12, 13), are some of the reasons that qualitative research is more challenging to identify (2). Moreover, methodological guidance on ‘how to’ literature search for qualitative research is limited where it does exist (c.f. (3, 14)) (2).

Research supporting the process of searching for qualitative research was reviewed and summarised in a methodological review by Booth (2016) (2). This review forms the basis for the original version of this chapter.

At the outset of this chapter, we thoroughly recommend contacting an information professional or researcher with experience in literature searching for qualitative research.

Sources to search


A consensus has not been reached on the number of databases, or which databases, to be searched when conducting a literature search for qualitative research. Wright et al. (2014), in a retrospective case-study to consider the contribution of CINAHL when identifying qualitative research, indicated review teams searched between 3 and 20 databases to identify qualitative research (15).

The CRD handbook (3) currently recommends that searches should include the following databases for reviews and primary studies:


  • Embase

  • CINAHL - Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health

  • PsycINFO - psychological literature database

MEDLINE and CINAHL are the most frequently searched sources to identify qualitative research (16, 17) and their value has been demonstrated empirically (18). A study comparing search strategies on MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, and PsycINFO demonstrated the value of CINAHL in providing differentiated subject headings to retrieve qualitative studies in dementia (19). However, the extent to which this finding relates only to dementia-specific search strategies is unclear, thus indicating a need for further investigation into the optimal use and potential benefit of CINAHL and PsycINFO for qualitative evidence synthesis. Seventy-one qualitative systematic reviews (927 qualitative studies), from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews and JBI database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports, were used to analyse qualitative literature across nine bibliographic databases (20). 94.4% of the qualitative studies were indexed in at least one database. Maximum recall with two databases approached 90% (89.1%), with three databases recall increases to 92% and maximum recall with four databases was 93.1%. A long tail of the remaining 6.9% of the publications consisted of 1.3% scattered across five databases and 5.6% not indexed in any of the nine databases used by the study authors (20). Analysis of 23 systematic reviews on diabetes found that searching a combination of PubMed, Embase and CINAHL resulted in an overall recall rate of 99.3%, while adding PsycINFO increased overall recall to 99.8% (21). As a consequence, the authors recommend a combination of CINAHL, PubMed, Embase and PsycINFO. However it should be noted that retrospective studies of yields from reviews may optimise the yield of database searching in the absence of extensive non-database strategies that increase the denominator. The authors also recommend involvement of an information specialist to ensure high recall rates when conducting SRs on qualitative research within their topic area (21). .

The Social Science Citation index (SSCI, Clarivate Analytics) is also commended as a valuable resource for study identification (22). Reviewers are, however, strongly encouraged to identify specialist databases that relate to their review topic, together with databases that host particular types of publications or content e.g. dissertation abstracts, book chapters, theses and unpublished reports. Searching MEDLINE/PubMed was undertaken for 100% of a sample (21) and yet searching MEDLINE alone is considered inadequate. Where resources are limited the searcher should aim to access as diverse a sample of relevant databases as possible, for example capturing different disciplinary or professional perspectives and different literature types, as this will best further the objectives of the subsequent synthesis.

Supplementary search methods

Given the issues with identifying qualitative research (summarised above), supplementary search methods are considered particularly useful for identifying qualitative research (23). Supplementary search methods such as internet searching, personal contact with topic experts, forward citation searching and reference checking, may prove valuable since they may identify content not indexed in bibliographic databases and they do not necessarily rely on identifying precise search terms to identify studies and data (21). In a sample of 23 diabetes systematic reviews, checking reference lists of included articles resulted in a median (IQR) of 2.5 (1 - 6) more references being included per review than by database searches alone (21). A multipronged approach of supplementary searching has been recommended (11). A worked example demonstrates supplementary searching for a qualitative evidence synthesis within a Cochrane public health systematic review (25). Supplementary search methods are summarised by Cooper et al (2017) (24).

Designing search strategies

Differences between conducting quantitative and qualitative research are mirrored in differences when designing literature searches for quantitative and qualitative literature (26). Whilst quantitative research and searches take a linear and structured route, qualitative research searches often use emerging results to inform subsequent strategies in an iterative manner (26). As a consequence, qualitative searches may take a long time to plan, be labour intensive to undertake and challenging to replicate (2).

Search strategy design

Designing the search strategy may necessitate a different question formulation and search strategy structure from the Population, Intervention, Comparator, and Outcome (PICO) structure used by systematic reviews of intervention effectiveness (27). Booth (2) summarises alternative structures to PICO (see table 1).

Table 1. Alternative Notations for qualitative question formulation

Notation Components Source

Most Accessible variants

3WH What (topical), Who (population), When (temporal), How (methodological) (28)

PICo Population, phenomenon of Interest, Context (29)

Most Common variants

PICOC Patient/Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes, Context (30)

SPICE Setting, Perspective, Intervention/phenomenon of Interest, Comparison, Evaluation (31)

Intervention based variants

(NB. A qualitative question may not always include a Comparison).

PICO Patient/Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes (32)

PEICO(S) Person, Environment, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes, (Stakeholders) (33)

PICOS Patient/Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes, Study type (34)

Special Purpose variants

BeHEMoTh Behaviour, Health context, Exclusions, Models or Theories (for searches for Models/Theories) (35)

CIMO Context, Intervention, Mechanisms, Outcomes (for Realist Syntheses or Management Questions) (36)

ECLIPSe Expectations (improvement, innovation or information), Client group (recipients of service),
Location (where service is housed), Impact (what change in service and how measured),
Professionals involved, Service
(for Service Delivery Interventions) (37)

SPIDER Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type (for Mixed Methods Reviews) (38)

Search filters

Qualitative search strategies seek to optimise a balance between the sensitivity of not missing relevant items against the specificity of only retrieving the most relevant items whilst, at the same time, keeping the yield within the resources available to complete the review. Search filters may help researchers to achieve this balance.

Search filters for commonly used databases (e.g. MEDLINE, Embase, PsycINFO and CINAHL) are reported on the ISSG search filters resource. Whilst researchers approach the use of search filters with caution in qualitative evidence synthesis (6), the performance of search filters is acceptable, albeit slightly inferior to search filters studies to identify trials (2). An overview of thirteen search filters to identify qualitative research papers in MEDLINE (39) reported a sensitivity of 93.63% for a search filter developed at McMaster University (40). For precision, the Medical Subject Heading “qualitative research” performed best at 2.15% but at the expense of sensitivity, retrieving less than a quarter of relevant studies (22.56%) (39). A University of Texas filter offered the optimal balance with a sensitivity of 81.96% and a precision of 0.80% (UTHealth) (41). An associated study extended evaluation to twelve search filters for PsycINFO and fifteen for CINAHL (42). Filters demonstrating the best sensitivity and precision ratio (among filters with a sensitivity of >80%) were developed at McMaster University for PsycINFO (43) and CINAHL (44) as subsequently evaluated by Rosumeck and colleagues (42).

Interestingly, short filters (e.g. qualitative OR interview* OR Interviews/ OR findings) have, in a limited number of case studies (7, 45), been demonstrated to perform comparably with more extensive filters. Reasons for this observation remain unclear but may relate to less common qualitative terms retrieving records already retrieved by more common terms, impairing their added value and unique yield. Unlike trials there has been no retrospective effort to index qualitative research and the MeSH term for "qualitative research" was only introduced in the year 2003.

It is important to note that there is no dominant search filter used or recommended in practice to identify qualitative research. Unlike reviews of intervention effectiveness, where the Cochrane HSSS is rightly dominant and widely used, a researcher using a qualitative literature search filter will need to match judiciously their choice of filter to the purpose of the literature search which will, in turn, vary by review (2).

Comprehensive literature searching?

For reviews of intervention effectiveness, a comprehensive, exhaustive literature search for studies is commonly perceived as the default requirement. Researchers have demonstrated that even a single missing study may impact negatively on the precision of an estimate of intervention effectiveness.

Qualitative evidence synthesis does not offer such a definitive demonstration of the impact of a missing study. A complete Interpretation of a phenomenon of interest may still be possible in the absence of missing studies, particularly if missing studies share the characteristics ("more of the same") of studies already represented within the sample. The value of comprehensive literature searches is less clear. Further research on how to approach these issues is indicated (46). We note that it may not be possible to undertake ‘exhaustive’ literature searches for qualitative research and the value of doing so continues to be challenged. It is important to understand that when the intent of a qualitative evidence synthesis is interpretive, rather than descriptive, literature searches for qualitative research may not need to be as comprehensive in their coverage as those undertaken to identify quantitative studies (47). On the other hand, unintentional omission of studies capturing particular perspectives, professions or geographical contexts may miss Important nuances (48) reinforcing the point that diversity within the relevant sample may be the most Important driver for the literature search strategy.


Reporting the process of literature searching in qualitative evidence synthesis is no less important than for reviews of intervention effectiveness; more so if alternatives to comprehensive sampling are to be used and justified. With careful and disciplined documentation of the search processes by the searcher, producing a transparent account of literature searching is possible even for a more Iterative process (2). Reporting standards for qualitative evidence synthesis, include eMERGe for meta-ethnography (39), RAMESES for meta-narrative approaches (50) (alongside its higher profile guidance for realist syntheses (51)) and ENTREQ for generic approaches to QES (52). All these reporting standards include items relating to documentation of the search process. Most of these reporting standards are derivative from the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) reporting standard and so the number of studies identified by various literature search methods should be reported within a flowchart (53). Reporting of search strategies should also follow generic reporting guidance. While not a reporting standard per se, the EQUATOR Inventory does include a prototypic structure for reporting search strategies, STARLITE (54), compiled from almost 50 published QES:

Sampling strategy

Type of study


Range of years


Inclusion and exclusions

Terms used

Electronic sources

The use of a search narrative has been recommended to improve the transparency of literature searching (55, 56). Whilst not explicitly examined for qualitative literature searching, providing detail on the conceptual and contextual details of the literature searching process is likely to hold value in explaining the conception and execution of the search strategy in a clear and transparent way (46).

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How to cite this chapter:

Booth A, Cooper C, Dracup N. Qualitative research. Last updated 29 October 2021. In: SuRe Info: Summarized Research in Information Retrieval for HTA. Available from: https://www.sure-info.org//qualitative-research

Copyright: the authors