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Use the topic and article below

Read the article and answer the following question listed below. 


((What methods can be used to assess nutritional status?))

Main Topic: Evaluating nutritional status.  


Vereecken, C., Covents, M., Maes, L., & Moyson, T. (2013). Formative evaluation of the feedback component of children’s and adolescents’ nutrition assessment and advice on the web (CANAA-W) among parents of school children. Public Health Nutrition, 16(1), 15-26.



Create a 2-3  which supports the topic question. Provide a current research article (less than 5 years). The 2-3 limit does not include title and reference pages.


1. The Summary must include the following headings (see rubric for criteria under each heading):

a. Introduction and Key Points

· Choose one of the assigned topics and identifies one of the questions

· Defines the topic and question

· States why it is a problem

· Information presented in a logical sequence

b. Article Search

· Current (less than 5 years) and credible resource

· Database search – terms and methods used

· Number of articles located

c. Article Findings

· How it addresses the topic

· Type of research conducted

· Findings of the research

· Why this article was chosen

d. Evidence for Practice 

· Summary of evidence

· How it will improve practice

· How this evidence will decrease a gap in practice

· Any concerns or weaknesses located in the evidence

e. Sharing of Evidence 

· Who would you share the information with?

· How would you share this information?

· What resources would you need to accomplish this sharing of evidence?

· Why would it be important to share this evidence with the nursing profession?

f. Conclusion 

· Summarizes the theme

· Information presented in a logical sequence

· All key points addressed

· Conclusion shows the depth of understanding of the topic




Provost and Professor
Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions
Regis University
Denver, Colorado



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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Houser, Janet, 1954- author.
Title: Nursing research : reading, using, and creating evidence / Janet Houser.
Description: Fourth edition. | Burlington, Massachusetts : Jones & Bartlett
Learning, [2018] | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016038194 | ISBN 9781284110043
Subjects: | MESH: Clinical Nursing Research–methods | Evidence-Based


Nursing | Research Design
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About the Author

Part I: An Introduction to Research

1 The Importance of Research as Evidence in Nursing
Research as Evidence for Nursing Practice

What Is Nursing Research?

Research: A Fundamental Nursing Skill

The Evolution of Research in Nursing

Contemporary Nursing Research Roles

Research Versus Problem Solving

Research as Evidence in Nursing Practice

Evidence-Based Practice

The Importance of Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing

How Can Evidence Be Used in Health Care?

Strategies for Implementing Evidence-Based Practice

Strategies for Overcoming Barriers

Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice

Using Research in Evidence-Based Practice

Creating Evidence for Practice

Future Directions for Nursing Research

Summary of Key Concepts

For More Depth and Detail


2 The Research Process and Ways of Knowing

The Research Process

Classification of Research by Philosophical Assumptions About the Nature of the World

Choosing a Design

Classifications of Research by the Intent of the Researcher

Classifications of Research by the Nature of the Design

Classifications of Research by the Time Dimension

Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice

Using Research in Evidence-Based Practice

Creating Evidence for Practice

Summary of Key Concepts

For More Depth and Detail



3 Ethical and Legal Considerations in Research

Learning from the Past, Protecting the Future

International Guides for the Researcher

National Guidelines for the Nurse Researcher

The Ethical Researcher

Legal and Regulatory Guidelines for Conducting Research

Institutional Review Boards

Research Involving Animals

Research Misconduct

The HIPAA Privacy Rule

Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice

Using Research in Nursing Practice

Creating Evidence for Practice

Summary of Key Concepts

For More Depth and Detail


Part II: Planning for Research

4 Finding Problems and Writing Questions

Finding and Developing Research Problems

Developing the Research Question

Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice

Using Research in Evidence-Based Practice

Creating Evidence for Practice

Summary of Key Concepts

For More Depth and Detail


5 The Successful Literature Review
An Introduction to the Literature Review

Purpose, Importance, and Scope of the Literature Review

Types of Literature Used in the Review

Searching for the Evidence in a Research Problem

Competencies for Information Literacy

Reading the Literature Review Section

Using Evidence-Based Literature in Nursing Practice

Creating a Strong Literature Review

Summary of Key Concepts

For More Depth and Detail


6 Selecting an Appropriate Research Design

What Is a Design?


The Basis for Design Selection

The Design Decisions

Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice

Using Research in Evidence-Based Practice

Creating Evidence for Practice

Summary of Key Concepts

For More Depth and Detail


Part III: Research Process

7 The Sampling Strategy

Selection Strategy: How Were the Subjects Chosen?

The Sample Selection Strategy

Reading the Sampling Section of a Research Study

Using Research as Evidence for Practice

Creating an Adequate Sampling Strategy

Summary of Key Concepts

For More Depth and Detail


8 Measurement and Data Collection


The Measurement Strategy

Strategies to Minimize Measurement Error

Collecting Data Using Instruments

Data Management Procedures

Reading About Measurement and Data Collection

Using Measurements from a Research Study

Creating Measures and Collecting Data

Summary of Key Concepts


9 Enhancing the Validity of Research

Minimizing Threats to Internal Validity

Factors That Jeopardize Internal Validity

Factors That Jeopardize External Validity

Balancing Internal and External Validity

Trustworthiness in Qualitative Research

Strategies to Promote the Validity of Qualitative Research

Reading a Research Study to Determine Validity

Using Valid Studies as Evidence for Nursing Practice

Creating a Valid Research Study

Summary of Key Concepts


For More Depth and Detail


Part IV: Research That Describes Populations

10 Descriptive Research Questions and Procedures

Descriptive Research Studies

Characteristics of a Descriptive Design

Describing Groups Using Surveys

Describing Groups Relative to Time

Describing the Responses of Single Subjects

Designs That Describe Relationships

Reading Descriptive Research

Using Descriptive Research in Evidence-Based Nursing Practice

Creating Descriptive Research

Summary of Key Concepts


11 Summarizing and Reporting Descriptive Data

An Overview of Descriptive Data Analysis

Understanding Levels of Measurement

Identifying Shape and Distribution

Describing the Center and Spread

Common Errors in Summarizing Data

Reading the Descriptive Data Section in a Research Study

Using Descriptive Data Analysis in Practice

Creating Descriptive Data Summaries for a Research Study

Reporting Descriptive Results

Summary of Key Concepts


Part V: Studies that Measure Effectiveness

12 Quantitative Questions and Procedures

Quantitative Research Questions

Characteristics of a Quantitative Design

The Gold Standard: Experimental Design

More Common: Quasi-Experimental Designs

Designs That Focus on Intact Groups

Time-Series Designs

Reading Quantitative Research

Using Quantitative Research in Evidence-Based Nursing Practice

Generalizing the Results of Quantitative Studies

Creating Quantitative Research


Summary of Key Concepts


13 Analysis and Reporting of Quantitative Data

Some General Rules of Quantitative Analysis

Types of Quantitative Analysis

An Overview of Quantitative Analysis

Selecting the Appropriate Quantitative Test

Reading the Analysis Section of the Research Report

Using Quantitative Results as Evidence for Practice

Creating a Quantitative Analysis

Summary of Key Concepts


Part VI: Research That Describes the Meaning of an Experience

14 Qualitative Research Questions and Procedures
An Introduction to Qualitative Research

Characteristics of Qualitative Research Methods

Enhancing the Trustworthiness of Qualitative Studies

Classifications of Qualitative Traditions

Reading Qualitative Research Studies

Using Qualitative Research Studies as Evidence

Creating Qualitative Evidence

Summary of Key Concepts


15 Analyzing and Reporting Qualitative Results
Introduction to Qualitative Analysis

The Qualitative Analysis Process

Management and Organization of Data

Software for Qualitative Analysis

Reliability and Validity: The Qualitative Version

Reporting Qualitative Results

Reading the Qualitative Analysis Section of a Report

Using Qualitative Analysis in Nursing Practice

Creating Qualitative Analyses

Summary of Key Concepts


Part VII: Research Translation

16 Translating Research into Practice

The Nurse’s Role in Knowledge Translation

Identifying Problems for Knowledge Translation

Communicating Research Findings


Finding and Aggregating Evidence

Models for Translating Research into Practice

Summary of Key Concepts





The Pedagogy
Nursing Research: Reading, Using, and Creating Evidence, Fourth Edition
demonstrates how to use research as evidence for successful nursing
practice. Fully updated and revised, this readerfriendly new edition provides
students with a fundamental understanding of how to appraise and utilize
research, translating it into actionable guidelines for practice. Organized
around the different types of research that can be used in evidence-based
practice, it addresses contemporary methods including the use of technology
in data collection, advice for culturally competent research, and suggestions
for accessing hard-to-reach subjects. Additionally, it explores both quantitative
and qualitative traditions and encourages students to read, use, and
participate in the research process. The pedagogical aids that appear in most
chapters include the following:








This nursing research text is based on the idea that research is essential for
nurses as evidence for practice. Its contents are intended to be relevant for
nursing students, and practicing nurses who must apply evidence to practice.
All nurses should be able to read research, determine how to use it
appropriately in their practice, and participate in the research process in some
way during their careers as professionals. This text is intended to support all
these efforts.

Evidence-based practice is one of the most exciting trends in nursing practice
to emerge in decades. However, its integration into daily practice requires a
solid understanding of the foundations of research design, validity, and
application. This text is intended as a reader-friendly approach to a complex
topic so that beginners can grasp the fundamentals of appraising research,
experienced nurses can use research in practice, and practicing nurses can
gain skills to create bedside research projects or participate effectively on
research teams.

This text is presented in an uncluttered, straightforward manner. Although it
uses many bulleted lists to make the material visually interesting, the sidebars,
figures, and tables are limited to those that illustrate truly important concepts.
This format allows the reader to grasp the information quickly and to navigate
the text efficiently. Margin notes provide definitions of new terms when they
first appear, and the Gray Matter features offer information about key concepts
that are of particular importance.

This text differs in its approach from traditional texts in that it does not focus
primarily on interpreting inferential research; rather, it seeks to impart a
fundamental understanding of all types of research that may be used as
evidence. It adds depth by considering the use of qualitative research in
nursing practice—a natural fit with this holistic profession. This text also
addresses contemporary concerns for today’s nurses, including ethical and
legal issues. Although both ethics and legal issues are mentioned in many
research texts, a full chapter is devoted to these topics in this text so that the
intricacies of these issues can be thoroughly considered.

The integrated discussion of both the quantitative and the qualitative traditions
is another unique facet of this text’s coverage of the research process. Most
nurse researchers have learned to appreciate the need to consider all
paradigms when approaching a research question; separating the two
approaches when discussing the fundamental interests of researchers results
in a polarized view. Intuitively, nurses know that the lines between quantitative


and qualitative designs are not always so clear in practice and that they should
consider multiple ways of knowing when evaluating research questions. The
planning process covered here helps the novice researcher consider the
requirements of both approaches in the context of sampling, measurement,
validity, and other crucial issues they share. Detailed descriptions of the
procedures for each type of design are given attention in separate chapters.

The chapters are organized around the types of research processes that make
up the evidence base for practice. The first section of the text provides
information that is applicable to all research traditions, whether descriptive,
quantitative, or qualitative. Part I provides an overview of issues relevant to all
researchers: understanding the way research and practice are related, the
ways that knowledge is generated, and legal and ethical considerations. Part II
describes the processes that go into planning research. The chapters in Part
III consider the various decisions that must be made in each phase of the
research process.

The evidence generated by descriptive, survey, and qualitative designs is
placed in the context of both the definition of evidence-based practice and
application in practice guidelines. In Parts IV, V, and VI, each major
classification of research is explored in depth through review of available
designs, guidelines for methods and procedures, and discussion of
appropriate analytic processes. Brief examples of each type of research are
provided, along with notes explaining the features demonstrated in each case
in point. Finally, Part VII details the models and processes used to translate
research into clinical practice.

Many chapters begin with a feature called “Voices from the Field” that relates
a real-life story of a nurse’s experience with the research process, illustrating
the way that the material covered in that chapter might come to life. The main
content for each chapter is broken into five parts:

A thorough review of the topic under consideration is presented first. This
review lays out the fundamental knowledge related to the topic.
Next, the nurse isa guided to consider the aspects of a study that should
be appraised when reading research. All nurses—regardless of their
experience—should be able to read research critically and apply it
appropriately to practice, and the second section of each chapter
addresses this skill. Added features include advice on where to look for the
key elements of a research paper, the wording that might be used to
describe them, and specific things to look for during the evaluation
process. Evaluation checklists support this process.
The third section of the chapter focuses on using research in practice. This
section supports the nurse in determining if and how research findings
might be used in his or her practice.


The fourth section is intended for nurses who may be involved with teams
that are charged with creating research or who may plan bedside research
projects to improve practice. This section gives practical advice and
direction about the design and conduct of a realistic, focused nursing
research project.
The final section of each chapter contains summary points and a critical
appraisal exercise so that the nurse can immediately apply the chapter
concepts to a real research report.

All of these features are intended to help the reader gain a comprehensive
view of the research process as it is used to provide evidence for professional
nursing practice. The use of this text as a supportive resource for learning and
for ongoing reference in clinical practice has been integrated into the design of
each element of the text. The goal is to stimulate nurses to read, use, and
participate in the process of improving nursing practice through the systematic
use of evidence. Accomplishing this goal improves the profession for all of us.


It is a bit misleading to conclude that a text is produced solely by the person
whose name appears on the cover. Help and support are needed from many
people on both professional and personal fronts to complete a project of this
size. The help of editorial staff is always welcome; advice from Amanda Martin
was invaluable in merging the interests of writing with those of producing a
book that others will want to read. I appreciate Amanda Clerkin’s calm and
steady approach after our sixth manuscript together, and I’ve learned a lot
from reading Jill Hobbs’s edits, which I must begrudgingly admit make my
writing much better.

My family—my husband, Floyd; my sisters, Anne and Ande; my niece, Stef;
and mini-me, Amanda—provided me with enough encouragement to keep
going, even as they reminded me there is life beyond the pages of a book.

I must thank Regis University profusely for providing me with inspirational
colleagues and a place that supports my work. Pat Ladewig, as always,
provided pragmatic advice and guidance from her impressive experience
publishing her own texts. My contributors and reviewers each provided a
unique viewpoint and helped me discover the best way to ensure that students
“get it.”

Writing always makes me realize how much I miss my mom, Marty, who
encouraged me to publish from the time she surreptitiously sent one of my
poems to Highlights magazine when I was 9 years old. She was proud of that
poem, framed the issue, and had my grandmother embroider it on a pillow.
Seeing this book in print would have impressed her only slightly more, but I
know she’s smiling.


Michael Cahill, MS, CPHQ
Parker Adventist Hospital
Parker, Colorado
Summarizing and Reporting Descriptive Data

Sheila Carlon, PhD, RHIA, FAHIMA
Regis University
Denver, Colorado
Ethical and Legal Considerations in Research

Phyllis Graham-Dickerson, PhD, RN, CNS
Regis University
Denver, Colorado
Qualitative Research Questions and Procedures Analyzing and
Reporting Qualitative Results

LeeAnn Hanna, PhD, RN, CPHQ, FNAHQ
HCA, TriStar Centennial Medical Center
Nashville, Tennessee
Finding Problems and Writing Questions

Kimberly O’Neill, MS, MLIS
Dayton Memorial Library, Regis University
Denver, Colorado
The Successful Literature Search


About the Author

Janet Houser, PhD, RN

Regis University

Dr. Janet Houser is currently Provost at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.
Prior to her appointment, she was Dean of the Rueckert-Hartman College for
Health Professions and the Vice Provost for Resource Planning.

Dr. Houser has a BSN, an MN in Maternal-Child Health, an MS in healthcare
administration, and a PhD in applied statistics and research methods. She has
taught nurses, administrators, pharmacists, and physical therapy students
from undergraduate through doctoral level, primarily in the subjects of
research methods, biostatistics, and quantitative methods. Previous to her
position as Dean, Dr. Houser was faculty and Associate Dean for Research
and Scholarship.

Dr. Houser spent 20 years in healthcare administration with the Mercy Health
System. Her last position was as Regional Director for Professional Practice
for Mercy Health Partners in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she was responsible for
professional practice and clinical research in 29 facilities.

Dr. Houser has published five books, Clinical Research in Practice: A Guide
for the Bedside Scientist, Nursing Research: Reading, Using, and Creating
Evidence, which is in its fourth edition, and Evidence-Based Practice: An
Implementation Guide. She has more than 30 peer-reviewed publications in
journals and has presented her research at regional, national, and
international conferences.


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Part I: An Introduction to Research
1 The Importance of Research as Evidence in Nursing
2 The Research Process and Ways of Knowing
3 Ethical and Legal Considerations in Research


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 1: The Importance of Research as
Evidence in Nursing

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Define nursing research and discuss how research is used in
nursing practice.
Describe the evolution of nursing research.
Investigate the roles that nurses play in research processes.
Contrast research and other types of problem solving.
Explore how research is used as evidence guiding the practice of
Read research and appraise the credibility of the journal, authors,
and publication process.


Evidence-based practice

Evidence-based practice guideline

External validity

Journal club

Magnet status

National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR)

Nursing process

Nursing research

Outcomes measurement

Peer review

Principal investigator

Quality improvement

Randomized controlled trial


Systematic review


Research as Evidence for Nursing Practice
The practice of nursing is deeply rooted in nursing knowledge, and nursing
knowledge is generated and disseminated through reading, using, and
creating nursing research. Professional nurses rely on research findings to
inform their practice decisions; they use critical thinking to apply research
directly to specific patient care situations. The research process allows nurses
to ask and answer questions systematically that will ensure that their decisions
are based on sound science and rigorous inquiry. Nursing research helps
nurses in a variety of settings answer questions about patient care, education,
and administration. It ensures that practices are based on evidence, rather
than eloquence or tradition.

I was working as the clinical nurse specialist in a busy surgical intensive
care unit (ICU) when we received a critically ill patient. He was fresh
from cardiac surgery and quite unstable; he needed multiple drugs and
an intra-aortic balloon pump just to maintain his perfusion status. The
patient was so sick that we were not able to place him on a special bed
for pressure relief. For the first 24 hours, we were so busy trying to
keep him alive that we did not even get a chance to turn him.

Approximately 36 hours into his ICU admission, he was stable enough
to place on a low-air-loss mattress for pressure-ulcer prevention. When
we were finally able to turn him, we noted he had a small stage II
pressure ulcer on his coccyx. Despite the treatments that we used, the
pressure ulcer evolved into a full-thickness wound. The patient
recovered from his cardiac surgical procedure but, unfortunately,
required surgeries and skin grafts to close the pressure ulcer wound.

The experience I had with this patient prompted me to review the
evidence-based practice (EBP) guidelines we had in place to prevent
pressure ulcers in critically ill patients. I wanted to make sure we could
prevent this kind of incident from happening again, but I had a lot of
questions. Could we preventively place high-risk patients on low-air-
loss mattresses while they were still in the perioperative service? Did
we even know which patients were at risk for pressure ulcers? Which
assessment tools did nurses use to assess the patient’s risk? When a
high-risk patient was identified, which interventions did the nurses use
to prevent pressure ulcers? How were the ulcers treated once they

I was fortunate that my chief nursing officer (CNO) was a strong
advocate for EBP, and she encouraged me to initiate an EBP review of
pressure ulcer prevention and treatment. Specifically, I wanted to find
out which nursing interventions were supported by research evidence
when we were trying to prevent pressure ulcers in the surgical ICU. As


part of my review, I contacted other inpatient units at the hospital to
determine what they were doing.

I discovered that the surgical ICU was no different from the other
inpatient units in this regard: There was no standard, evidence-based
nursing practice for pressure ulcer prevention. Units were not
consistently using the same skin assessment tools, so it was difficult to
objectively communicate risk from one unit to another. The tools we
were using were not necessarily based on research. It was clear that
we needed to identify the best available evidence and devise a

We started by establishing an evidence-based skin care council for the
hospital. This team consisted of bedside nurses from all inpatient units
and the perioperative service. Initially the council reviewed the
hospital’s current nursing skin assessment forms, and we conducted a
review of the literature on pressure ulcer prevention and interventions.
We discovered the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
(AHRQ) guidelines on pressure ulcer prevention and treatment—a key
source of evidence for healthcare practices.

Over the course of the next year, we revised our nursing policy and
procedure, incorporating the AHRQ evidence into a treatment guideline.
This guideline included a procedure for skin assessment and nursing
documentation, and pressure ulcer assessment and treatment decision
algorithms. We reviewed skin-care products and narrowed down the list
of products to those that were supported by evidence. One algorithm
helped staff make selections between products that maximized
prevention and treatment. Another algorithm guided nurses in the use
of therapeutic surfaces (e.g., low-air-loss mattresses) to prevent
pressure ulcers. To monitor our progress, we began quarterly pressure
ulcer prevalence studies. As part of the implementation, we scheduled
a skin-care seminar featuring a national expert on skin care.

At the beginning of our EBP skin-care journey, our facility’s pressure
ulcer prevalence was 9%. Since implementing our EBP skin-care
initiatives, it has dropped by two thirds. The EBP skin-care council
continues to be active in our hospital. We meet monthly to seek out the
best evidence to guide skin- and wound-care product decisions,
practice guidelines, protocols, and policies. My initial search for a
solution—based on my experience with one patient—led to
improvements in practice that have benefited many patients since then.

Mary Beth Flynn Makic, PhD, RN

What Is Nursing Research?
Nursing research is a systematic process of inquiry that uses rigorous
guidelines to produce unbiased, trustworthy answers to questions about


nursing practice. Research is used as evidence in the evaluation and
determination of best nursing practices. Original nursing research aims to
generate new knowledge to inform the practice of nursing. More specifically,
nurses may use research for the following purposes:

Synthesize the findings of others into a coherent guide for practice
Explore and describe phenomena that affect health
Find solutions to existing and emerging problems
Test traditional approaches to patient care for continued relevance and

Nursing research: A systematic process of inquiry that uses rigorous
guidelines to produce unbiased, trustworthy answers to questions about
nursing practice.

Nurse researchers use a variety of methods to generate new knowledge or
summarize existing study results. They may measure observable
characteristics, solicit perceptions directly from clients, assess words and
phrases for underlying meaning, or analyze a group of study findings in
aggregate. Nurse researchers have almost limitless options for research
design. Moreover, they may assume a variety of roles, ranging from primary
investigator for a large, multisite trial to staff nurse in a bedside science
project. Nevertheless, the goal is always the same: to generate new
knowledge that can be applied to improve nursing practice.

Regardless of the design, research is a rigorous endeavor that is subject to
peer review and replication. These two characteristics are essential to ensure
that research is unbiased and applicable to the real world. A study is subjected
to peer review when experts in the field evaluate the quality of the research
and determine whether it warrants presentation at a conference or publication
in a professional journal. These reviews are generally blinded, meaning the
reviewer remains unaware of the researcher’s identity. In blinded peer review,
a research report is subjected to appraisal by a neutral party who is
unassociated with the research and unaware of the report’s authorship.
Reviewers determine whether the study process and outcome are of
acceptable quality for communication to the broader professional community.
Replication ensures that findings can be duplicated in different populations
and at different times. This characteristic provides the nurse with confidence
that the findings are not limited to a single sample, so that study outcomes will
likely be similar in other patient populations.

Peer review: The process of subjecting research to the appraisal of a
neutral third party. Common processes of peer review include selecting


research for conferences and evaluating research manuscripts for

Blinded: A type of review in which the peer reviewer is unaware of the
author’s identity, so personal influence is avoided.

Replication: Repeating a specific study in detail on a different sample.
When a study has been replicated several times and similar results are
found, the evidence can be used with more confidence.

Research: A Fundamental Nursing Skill
Although many students and practitioners of nursing consider research to be
the purview of academics and graduate students, it is actually fundamental to
professional nursing practice. There are many reasons why research is critical
for the nurse in any role. Nursing is a profession, and along with advanced
education and self-regulation, research is one of the central tenets that defines
a profession. For nurses to function on healthcare teams as colleagues with
therapists, physicians, and other caregivers, they must speak the language of
science and use the best available research evidence as the basis for
collaborating in planning patient care.

As professionals, nurses are accountable for the outcomes they achieve and
the effectiveness of interventions that they apply and recommend to patients.
Their accountability is based on a solid understanding and evaluation of the
best available evidence as the foundation for decision making and patient
counseling. In current healthcare practice, access, cost, and patient safety are
all areas that clearly benefit from nursing research.

Consumer demands also require that nurses be held accountable for their
practice. Today’s consumers and their families are often well informed about
the evidence that reveals the effectiveness of care. The Internet has given
consumers unprecedented access to health information—some of it
questionable, but much of it of high quality—that enables them to evaluate the
basis for their own healthcare decisions.

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine issued a seminal report on the future of
nursing. In this report, it set a goal that, by 2020, 90% of all clinical decisions
would be based on research evidence. Given that the current estimated rate
falls far short of that goal, there is an urgent need for healthcare leaders and
clinicians to collaborate in designing and implementing effective strategies for
research integration into clinical care. In particular, there is a need to enhance
the rigor of nursing research studies, and to translate evidence into practice-
friendly forms that nurses can use in daily care delivery.


Many nursing organizations are in the process of pursuing or maintaining
Magnet status, which requires the organization to contribute to new
knowledge and innovation in nursing care. Wilson and others (2015) found
other benefits from an organization achieving Magnet status: Nurses in
Magnet facilities express greater interest in using evidence in practice, report
fewer barriers to implementation of EBP, and used EBP with more frequency
than nurses in non-Magnet facilities. Integration of evidence into daily practice
requires both resources and formalized processes; these assets must be
evident and useful in a Magnet organization. To maintain Magnet status,
hospitals must show quality outcomes, best practices, and nursing excellence
—all of which require development and dissemination of new knowledge
(Messmer & Turkel, 2011).

Magnet status: A designation for organizations that have
characteristics that make them attractive to nurses as workplaces.

The Evolution of Research in Nursing
Nursing is a relatively young field compared to fields such as philosophy or
physics that boast hundreds of years of historical study. Moreover, nursing has
not always relied on profession-specific research as a basis for practice.
However, as the contemporary nursing literature makes clear, research is
taking on fundamental importance as a source of evidence for practice.

More than 150 years ago, Florence Nightingale introduced the concept of
scientific inquiry as a basis for nursing practice. Nightingale’s work focused on
collecting information about factors that affected soldier mortality and morbidity
during the Crimean War. Armed with these scientific data, she was able to
instigate changes in nursing practice. Indeed, her work was so impressive that
she was inducted into the Statistical Society of London.

The years following Nightingale’s breakthroughs were marked by relatively
little scientific work in nursing, likely because nursing education was
accomplished through apprenticeship rather than scholarly work. As more
nursing education moved into university settings in the 1950s, however,
research took on greater prominence as a key nursing activity. Journals were
founded both in the United States and internationally that focused exclusively
on publishing nursing research. More outlets for the publication of nursing
research were established in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to the
communication of research findings to a broader audience. The creation of the
National Center for Research for Nursing within the National Institutes of
Health (NIH) in 1986 was a seminal step in recognizing the importance of
nursing research. In 1993, the center was given full institute status as the
National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR). This move put nursing
research on an even footing with medical research and the other health
sciences, ensuring financial support and a national audience for disciplined


inquiry in the field. The NINR and other national agencies guide the
overarching research agenda that focuses nursing research on professional
priorities. The mission of the NINR is to support and conduct clinical and basic
research on health and illness so as to build the scientific foundation for
clinical practice. The ultimate goal is to improve the health of individuals,
families, communities, and populations through evidence-based nursing
practices (NINR, 2013).

National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR): A federal agency
responsible for the support of nursing research by establishing a
national research agenda, funding grants and research awards, and
providing training.

In the 1980s and 1990s, leaders in nursing research met periodically at the
Conference on Research Priorities in Nursing Science (CORP) to identify
research priorities for the nursing profession. These priorities were established
as 5-year agendas. In the 1990s, advances in nursing research were coming
so quickly that a more flexible approach was required. The NINR recognized
that the issues facing nursing science had evolved as health care had evolved,
becoming more complex. The process that the NINR currently uses to develop
its research priorities is both expansive and inclusive. The formal process
begins with the identification of broad areas of health in which there is the
greatest need, and identification of the areas of science in which nursing
research could achieve the greatest impact. To maximize the amount and
diversity of input into the research priorities, “Scientific Consultation Meetings”
are held to bring together individuals from academia, government, industry,
and patient advocacy. Experts in science and health care are consulted, and
panels of experts discuss current health and research challenges as well as
future strategies for research and education. These meetings focus on topics
crucial to NINR’s future, including the following:

Preparing the next generation of nurse scientists
Advancing nursing science through comparative effectiveness research
Supporting research on end-of-life care
Forecasting future needs for health promotion and prevention of disease
Identification of emerging needs in the science of nursing (NINR, 2011)

Some examples of recent NINR nursing research priorities appear in Table

Research is critical in nursing for the following reasons:

The use of research is inherent to the definition of a profession.
Nurses are accountable for outcomes.


Consumers are demanding evidence-based care.

Table 1.1 National Institute of Nursing Research’s Proposed Strategic
Research Investment Areas

Objective Examples

Enhance health
promotion and disease

Develop innovative behavioral interventions
Study the behavior of systems that can promote personalized
Improve the ways in which individuals change health behaviors
Develop models of lifelong health promotion
Translate scientific advances into motivation for health behavior change
Incorporate partnerships between community agencies and others in
healthcare research

Improve quality of life by
managing symptoms of
acute and chronic

Improve knowledge of the biological and genomic mechanisms
associated with symptoms
Design interventions to improve the assessment and management of
symptoms over the course of a disease
Study the factors that influence symptom management and use this
knowledge to implement personalized interventions Design strategies
that help patients manage symptoms over the course of a disease
Support individuals and caregivers in managing chronic illness in cost-
effective ways

Improve palliative and
end-of-life care

Enhance the scientific knowledge of issues and choices underlying
end-of life and palliative care
Develop and test interventions that provide palliative care across the
Develop strategies to minimize the burden placed on caregivers
Determine the impact of provider training on outcomes Create
communication strategies to promote end-of-life care

Enhance innovation in
science and practice

Develop technologies and informatics-based solutions for health
Develop and apply technology for disseminating and analyzing health
Examine the use of healthcare technology to support self-management
of health, decision making, and access to care
Study the use of genetic and genomic technology to understand the
biological basis of the symptoms of chronic disease

Develop the next
generation of nurse

Support the development of nurse scientists at all stages of their
Facilitate the transition of nurses from student to scientist Recruit young
nurse investigators, particularly those from diverse backgrounds
Mobilize technology to form global partnerships to support research in
areas central to NINR’s mission

Data from National Institute of Nursing Research. (2011). Bringing science to life: NINR strategic
plan. NIH Publication #11-7783, Bethesda, MD: Author.


Nurses may play a variety of roles in research, including the following:

Informed consumer of research
Participant in research-related activity, such as journal clubs
Contributor to a systematic review
Data collector for a research project
Principal investigator for a research study

The 1990s and early twenty-first century saw a shift in emphasis from
research as an academic activity to research that serves as a basis for nursing
practice. The impetus for this shift was partially due to external influences that
created demands for accountability, effectiveness, and efficiency. Internal
influences in the profession also played a key role in this shift, as nursing
professionals strive to create a norm of professional practice that is firmly
grounded in best demonstrated practice.

Contemporary Nursing Research Roles
The nurse may be an effective team member on any number of research
projects and may take on responsibilities ranging from data collection to
research design. The broad number of potential roles in the research setting
provides nurses with the chance to participate at their individual comfort level
while learning increasingly complex research skills. The professional clinician
has both opportunities and responsibilities to use research in a variety of ways
to improve practice. Table 1.2 contains the statement from the American
Association of Colleges of Nursing (2006) that describes the expected roles
of nurses in research processes.

Most nurses are first exposed to clinical research as informed consumers. The
informed consumer of research is able to find appropriate research studies,
read them critically, evaluate their findings for validity, and use the findings in
practice. Nurses may also participate in other types of research-related
activities, including journal clubs or groups whose members meet periodically
to critique published studies or care standards. Journal clubs are relatively
easy to implement and have been demonstrated to be one of the most
effective means for sustaining staff nurse enthusiasm for and participation in
EBP implementation (Gardner et al., 2016). Attending research presentations
and discussing posters at conferences also expose nurses to a variety of
research studies.

Journal club: A formally organized group that meets periodically to
share and critique contemporary research in nursing, with a goal of both
learning about the research process and finding evidence for practice.


Table 1.2 Research Expectations for Nurses


Research Role


Have a basic understanding of the processes of research.
Apply research findings from nursing and other disciplines to practice.
Understand the basic elements of evidence-based practice.
Work with others to identify research problems.
Collaborate on research teams.


Evaluate research findings to develop and implement EBP guidelines.
Form and lead teams focused on evidence-based practice.
Identify practices and systems that require study. Collaborate with nurse
scientists to initiate research.


Translate scientific knowledge into complex clinical interventions tailored to
meet individual, family, and community health and illness needs.
Use advanced leadership knowledge and skills to translate research into
Collaborate with scientists on new health research opportunities.


Pursue intellectual inquiry and conduct independent research for the purpose of
extending knowledge.
Plan and carry out an independent program of research.
Seek support for initial phases of a research program.
Involve others in research projects and programs.


Devote oneself fully to establishing a research program and developing as a
nurse scientist.

Modified with permission from American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2006). AACN position
statement on nursing research. Washington, CD: Author.

As the nurse becomes more proficient in the research process, involvement in
a systematic review is a logical next step. Conducting a systematic review
that results in an evidence-based practice guideline requires the ability to
develop research questions methodically, write inclusion criteria, conduct in-
depth literature searches, and review the results of many studies critically.
Participation in such activities also facilitates changes in clinical practice on a
larger scale and requires the nurse to use leadership and communication

Systematic review: A highly structured and controlled search of the
available literature that minimizes the potential for bias and produces a
practice recommendation as an outcome.

Evidence-based practice guideline: A guide for nursing practice that
is the outcome of an unbiased, exhaustive review of the research


literature, combined with clinical expert opinion and evaluation of
patient preferences. It is generally developed by a team of experts.

Involvement in actual research studies does not require complete control or in-
depth design abilities. Indeed, assisting with data collection can take the form
of helping measure outcomes on subjects or personally participating as a
subject. Clinicians are frequently recruited to participate in studies or collect
data directly from patients or their records. Collecting data for the studies of
other researchers can give the nurse valuable insight into the methods used to
maximize reliability and validity—experience that will help the nurse later if he
or she chooses to design an experiment.

Most nurses do not immediately jump into research by undertaking an
individual research study, but rather serve on a research team as an initial
foray into this area. As part of a team, the nurse can learn the skills needed to
conduct research while relying on the time and expertise of a group of
individuals, some of whom may be much more experienced researchers.
Serving on a team in this way gives the nurse the opportunity to participate in
research in a collegial way, collaborating with others to achieve a mutual goal.

A contemporary means for enhancing staff nurse participation in research is
through adoption of the clinical scholar or nurse scholar role. Nurse scholar
programs typically seek out clinical nurses for specialized training in research
and EBP. These nurses are then provided with releases from their usual
workloads so that they can identify evidence-based problems, design studies
to answer clinical questions, and carry out EBP projects. One study found that
a nurse scholar program increased the number of EBP projects by as much as
10 times, led to significant practice improvements, and enhanced the
confidence of the clinical nurses who participated in EBP development
(Crabtree, Brennan, Davis, & Coyle, 2016).

The most advanced nurses may serve as principal investigators, or
producers of research, who design and conduct their own research projects.
Because individuals are rarely able to accomplish research projects on their
own, it is more likely that the nurse will lead a research team. This role
requires not only research and analytic skills, but also skills in leading groups,
managing projects, and soliciting organizational commitment.

Principal investigator: The individual who is primarily responsible for a
research study. The principal investigator is responsible for all elements
of the study and is the first author listed on publications or

Research Versus Problem Solving


Research is distinct from other problem-solving processes. Many processes
involve inquiry. In an organizational setting, quality improvement,
performance improvement, and outcomes measurement all involve
systematic processes and an emphasis on data as a basis for decisions. For
an individual nurse, the nursing process requires that the nurse gather
evidence before planning an intervention and subsequently guides the nurse
to evaluate the effectiveness of care objectively. Although both organizational
and individual problem-solving processes may be systematic and objective,
these are not synonymous with research in intent, risks, or outcome (Lee,
Johnson, Newhouse, & Warren, 2013). The correct identification of the type
of inquiry that is being conducted and reported will help the nurse link the
outcome to the appropriate level of practice recommendation (Baker et al.,

Quality improvement: The systematic, databased monitoring and
evaluation of organizational processes with the end goal of continuous
improvement. The goal of data collection is internal application rather
than external generalization.

Outcomes measurement: Measurement of the end results of nursing
care or other interventions; stated in terms of effects on patients’
physiological condition, satisfaction, or psychosocial health.

Nursing process: A systematic process used by nurses to identify and
address patient problems; includes the stages of assessment, planning,
intervention, and evaluation.

The intent of quality improvement is to improve processes for the benefit of
patients or customers within an organizational context. Studies in this area are
often undertaken to determine if appropriate and existing standards of care are
practiced in a specific clinical setting (Baker et al., 2014). Quality
improvement is basically a management tool that is used to ensure continuous
improvement and a focus on quality. Research, in contrast, has a broader
intent. Its goal is to benefit the profession of nursing and to contribute to the
knowledge base for practice. Research benefits more people because it is
broadly applied; quality improvement is beneficial simply because of its
specificity to a single organization.

The risk for a subject who participates in a quality improvement study is not
much more than the risk associated with receiving clinical care. Such studies
are frequently descriptive or measure relationships that are evidenced by
existing data. Often, patients who are the subjects of study for a quality


improvement project are unaware they are even part of a study. In contrast, in
a research project, subjects are clearly informed at the beginning of the project
of the risks and benefits associated with participating in the study, and they
are allowed to withdraw their information at any time. Upfront and informed
consent is central to the research process.

Finally, the outcomes of a quality improvement study are intended to benefit a
specific clinical group and so are reviewed by formal committees and
communicated internally to organizational audiences. In contrast, research
findings are subjected to rigorous peer review by neutral, external reviewers,
and the results are expected to stand up to attempts to replicate them. When
quality improvement projects are planned with an expectation of publication,
the distinction becomes less clear. Is the goal of publication to share a
perspective on a process or to generalize the results to a broader group of
patients? If the latter goal is targeted, then quality improvement projects
should be subjected to the same rigorous review and control as a research

The intent when an individual nurse applies the nursing process for problem
solving is even more specific. The nursing process requires an individual
nurse to gather data about a patient, draw conclusions about patient needs,
and implement measures to address those needs. Data collected from the
patient are used to evaluate the effectiveness of care and make modifications
to the plan. These steps mirror the research process but take place at an
individual level. Research is useful within the nursing process as a source of
knowledge about assessment procedures, problem identification, and effective
therapeutics, but simply using the nursing process does not constitute

The research process is distinct from other problem-solving processes
in the following respects:

Research contributes to the profession of nursing as a whole, not
just a single organization or patient.
Research involves an explicit process of informed consent for
Research is subjected to external peer review and replication.

Research as Evidence in Nursing Practice
It would seem a foregone conclusion that effective nursing practice is based
on the best possible, most rigorously tested evidence. Yet it is only in the past
two decades that an emphasis on evidence as a basis for practice has
reached the forefront of professional nursing. Although it may be surprising
that the scientific basis for nursing practice has been so slow to be accepted,


many reasons exist to explain why evidence-based nursing practice is a
relatively recent effort. The past decade has seen unprecedented advances in
information technology, making research and other types of evidence widely
available to healthcare practitioners. Whereas a nurse practicing in the 1980s
might have read one or two professional journals per month and attended
perhaps one clinical conference in a year, contemporary nursing professionals
have access to an almost unlimited array of professional journal articles and
other sources of research evidence via the Internet. Technology supports the
communication of best practices and affords consumers open access to
healthcare information as well. As a result, EBP is quickly becoming the norm
for effective nursing practice.

Evidence-Based Practice
What Evidence-Based Practice IS
Evidence-based practice is the use of the best scientific evidence, integrated
with clinical experience and incorporating patient values and preferences in
the practice of professional nursing care. All three elements in this definition
are important. As illustrated in FIGURE 1.1, the triad of rigorous evidence,
clinical experience, and patient preferences must be balanced to achieve
clinical practices that are both scientifically sound and acceptable to the
individuals applying and benefiting from them.

Evidence-based practice: The use of the best scientific evidence,
integrated with clinical experience and incorporating patient values and
preferences in the practice of professional nursing care.

FIGURE 1.1 The Triad of Evidence-Based Practice

Although healthcare practitioners have long used research as a basis for
practice, a systematic approach to the translation of research into practice has
emerged only in relatively recent times. The impetus for EBP was a 1990


comment by a Canadian physician on the need to “bring critical appraisal to
the bedside.” The first documented use of the term evidence-based practice
appeared more than two decades ago, when a clinical epidemiology text
(Sackett, Haynes, Guyatt, & Tugwell, 1991) used the term to describe the
way students in medical school were taught to develop an attitude of
“enlightened skepticism” toward the routine application of diagnostic
technologies and clinical interventions in their daily practice. The authors
described how effective practitioners rigorously review published studies to
inform clinical decisions. The goal, as stated in this publication, was to achieve
an awareness of the evidence on which professional practice is based and a
critical assessment of the soundness of that evidence.

The term entered the U.S. literature in 1993 when an article in the Journal of
the American Medical Association described the need for an established
scientific basis for healthcare decisions (Oxman, Sackett, & Guyatt, 1993).
The authors of the article noted that the goal of EBP is to help practitioners
translate the results of research into clinical practice, and they recognized that
the scientific practice of health care required sifting through and appraising
evidence to make appropriate decisions.

EBP has rapidly evolved into an international standard for all healthcare
practitioners. Using the best scientific evidence as a basis for practice makes
intuitive sense and places nursing in the company of the other science-based
health professions in using evidence as a foundation for clinical decision

What Evidence-Based Practice Is NOT
A wide range of activities contributes to EBP. Many of these activities—such
as reviewing research, consulting expert colleagues, and considering patient
preferences—are common in nursing practice. Even so, many such activities
are not considered EBP, but rather other forms of decision making used to
solve problems.

Evidence-Based Practice Is Not Clinical Problem Solving
Although EBP serves as a mechanism for solving clinical problems and
making decisions about interventions, it remains distinct from traditional
problem-solving approaches in health care. Conventional decision making
about clinical practices relied on expert opinion—sometimes achieved by
consensus, but rarely through experimentation— combined with standard
practice. EBP, by comparison, is a systematic process of critically reviewing
the best available research evidence and then incorporating clinical
experience and patient preferences into the mix.

Evidence-Based Practice Is Not Solely Randomized Controlled


EBP does not mean choosing only those interventions supported by
randomized controlled trials—although these studies are clearly important in
providing guidance for effective practices. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek article
by Smith and Pell (2006) suggested that we did not need a randomized trial
to inform practitioners of the importance of a parachute as a measure of
preventing death when jumping from an airplane (and, in fact, noted the
difficulty in recruiting a control group for such a trial!). EBP does not rely solely
on one type of evidence, but rather is founded on a hierarchy of evidence, with
individual studies rated on a scale from “strongest” to “weakest” based on the
type of design and quality of execution. Evidence can come from many
different types of studies in addition to randomized trials.

Randomized controlled trial: An experiment in which subjects are
randomly assigned to groups, one of which receives an experimental
treatment while another serves as a control group. The experiment has
high internal validity, so the researcher can draw conclusions regarding
the effects of treatments.

Evidence-Based Practice Is Not “Cookbook Medicine”
The existence of guidelines based on the best available evidence does not
mean the practitioner has an edict to practice in a single way. In fact, evidence
alone is never sufficient to make a specific clinical decision about a specific
patient. The nurse needs evidence plus good judgment, clinical skill, and
knowledge of the patient’s unique needs to apply evidence to a specific patient
care situation. The definition of EBP, in fact, holds evidence as only one
element of the triad of decision making; that is, clinical judgment and patient
values must also be considered when applying the evidence to a particular

Evidence Is Not the Same as Theory
Theoretical effects must be tested and retested before therapies can be
determined to be effective. As late as the early twentieth century, physicians
still believed that blood-letting was an effective treatment for a host of
disorders. This belief was based on the empirical observation that a patient’s
pulse rate slowed when he or she was bled and the theory that a slower pulse
reduced irritation and inflammation. Although the empirical observations were
accurate—the patient’s pulse would certainly slow when bloodletting was
performed, but due to impending hypovolemic shock—the theoretical
relationship to a therapeutic response was ill founded. Many contemporary
healthcare interventions are, unfortunately, based on similar theoretical
relationships that have been untested for years. Recent research has refuted
many of these theoretical assumptions, including the protective value of
hormone-replacement therapy, the use of rubbing alcohol to prevent infection
in a neonate’s umbilical cord, and the use of heat to treat acute inflammation,
among many others.


Evidence-Based Nursing Is Not Evidence-Based Medicine
The nature and processes of research are likely to be unique for any given
profession. In the health realm, medicine and nursing have different
philosophical roots and approaches to patient care. Medicine relies on an
extensive scientific knowledge base that is primarily concerned with the cause
of disease and effects of treatment. The evidence for medical care, by
necessity, focuses on scientific studies that quantify these effects.
Nevertheless, medical evidence has been criticized for its sometimes artificial
nature. It is a research paradox that the more an experiment is controlled, the
less applicability the results will have in the real world. Randomized controlled
trials, then, may provide the most rigorous scientific evidence, but that
evidence may not apply very well to individual patients with a broad range of
physical, psychological, and behavioral conditions.

Nursing, in contrast, requires a holistic approach to the care of individuals with
physical, psychosocial, and/or spiritual needs. This care is founded on the
nurse–patient relationship and the nurse’s appreciation for the patient’s unique
needs. The evidence for nursing care, then, requires a broad range of
methodologies as a basis for care. This is not to imply that these sources of
evidence are not subjected to healthy skepticism and systematic inquiry, but
rather that a broader range of evidence is considered as a basis for practice.

The Importance of Evidence-Based Practice in
EBP is important to the nurse for many reasons. At the top of this list is the
contribution of evidence to the effective care of patients. Studies have
supported the contention that patient outcomes are substantially improved
when health care is based on evidence from well-designed studies versus
tradition or clinical expertise alone. Evidence has been shown to be effective
in supporting practices that achieve optimal outcomes in a range of behavioral,
physiological, and psychosocial outcomes. In one recent meta-analysis,
Leufer and Cleary-Holdforth (2009) aggregated outcomes studies related to
EBP changes. A wide range of effects was found in multiple specialties
including orthopedic, cardiovascular, respiratory, and obstetric outcomes.
EBPs in obstetrics and neonatal care reduced morbidity and mortality,
sometimes dramatically. The use of corticosteroids in premature labor, for
example, reduced the risk of premature infant death by 20%. In another study,
Deighton et al. (2016) demonstrated an association between EBPs and
mental health outcomes, particularly for interventions related to the treatment
of emotional disorders. The linkage between EBPs and outcomes is an
important one, and determining the scientific support for a practice prior to its
implementation makes intuitive sense.

Today’s healthcare providers operate in an era of accountability, in which
quality issues, patient safety, and cost concerns are primary drivers of patient
care processes (Markon, Crowe, & Lemyre, 2013). Practices that are


unnecessary are eliminated; ineffective practices are replaced with practices
that result in desired outcomes.

Existing practices may even be unintentionally harming patients (as was found
in the hormone-replacement studies), so it is ethically unjustified to continue
using untested interventions. Evidence can help healthcare professionals
avoid errors in decision making relative to patient care. Using research
decreases the need for trial and error, which is time consuming and may prove
counterproductive. In any case, time is not wasted on practices that may be
ineffective or unnecessarily time intensive.

Today’s consumers are well informed about their options for personal health
care and often resist the traditional, paternalistic approach to health
interventions. The public expects that care will be based on scientific evidence
and believes that care processes should routinely lead to high-quality
outcomes that are physically and mentally desirable. Healthcare professionals,
in turn, must be able to respond to their patients’ questions about the scientific
merit of interventions and about the relative benefit of treatment options.

EBP is important in nursing practice because research has shown that

Patient outcomes are better when evidence is used as a basis for
Nursing care is more efficient when ineffective processes are
Errors in decision making become less frequent with EBP.
Consumers want evidence-based information to make decisions.

Evidence can take a variety of forms—journal articles, policies, guidelines,
professional consensus statements, and standards of practice as well as
formalized research. Although EBP implies scientific evidence, the words
relevant and rigorous might be better adjectives to describe the kind of
evidence needed by healthcare professionals. Critical skills include the ability
to judge both the type of evidence that is needed and the value of that

Healthcare practitioners do not practice in professional isolation, but rather
explore what works and does not work using empirical methods. An increased
emphasis on EBP can be viewed as a response to these broader forces
influencing the context of healthcare delivery and as a logical progression
toward the utilization of research as a basis for patient care decisions.

How Can Evidence Be Used in Health Care?


At its best, evidence provides the basis for effective, efficient patient care
practices. At a minimum, an evidence-based approach can enhance practice
by encouraging reflection on what we know about almost every aspect of daily
patient care. The EBP process need not be onerous, because it basically
entails just six elements: (1) Ask a relevant clinical question, (2) search for the
best evidence in the literature, (3) critically appraise the evidence, (4) integrate
the evidence with clinical experience and client preferences, (5) evaluate the
outcome of the practice change, and (6) disseminate the outcome (Facchiano
& Snyder, 2012). The original question can come from a variety of sources in
a healthcare setting; likewise, evidence can improve outcomes for a wide
range of organizational processes.

Evidence as a Basis for Healthcare Processes
Evidence can be incorporated into virtually every phase of the healthcare
process. For example, evidence exists for best practices in the following

Assessment of patient conditions
Diagnosis of patient problems
Planning of patient care
Interventions to improve the patient’s function or condition, or to prevent
Evaluation of patient responses to intervention

Evidence as a Basis for Policies and Procedures
Although healthcare professionals from different educational programs,
backgrounds, and experience may have different ways of delivering patient
care, few can argue with the need for best practices. EBP provides the
foundation for policies and procedures that are tested and found effective, as
opposed to “the way we’ve always done it.”

Evidence as a Basis for Patient Care Management
The evidence that is revealed through systematic review of research and other
sources provides an excellent basis for patient care management tools such
as care maps, critical paths, protocols, and standard order sets. A major
benefit of using patient care management tools is reduction of variability in
practices, and evidence serves as a rational basis for standardized practices.

Evidence as a Basis for Care of the Individual
The complexity of patients who need care in the healthcare system can make
the clinician wonder if evidence can ever be applied to an individual patient. It
is easy to consider the question, “Is my patient so different from those in the
research that results will not help me make a treatment decision?” This
question, more than any other, may stand in the way of applying evidence to
individual patient care situations. In fact, one study found that the more familiar


a patient was to a practitioner, the less likely the clinician was to use evidence
as a basis for that person’s care (Summerskill & Pope, 2002).

As practitioners, we must ask whether these assumptions about the
uniqueness of patients are in their best interests when it comes to clinical care.
Uncertainty is inherent in the healthcare process; evidence helps to quantify
that uncertainty. Concern for the uniqueness of the individual patient is not a
reason to ignore the evidence, but rather an impetus to learn to apply the
evidence both critically and appropriately. Evidence is not intended to be rigid,
but rather—as our definition makes explicit—to be integrated with clinical
experience and a patient’s unique values to arrive at optimal outcomes.

Evidence in clinical practice is not solely limited to patient care, however.
Healthcare professionals might be interested in evidence as it relates to team
functioning, the best way to communicate change, organizational models for
research utilization, or even the effects of insurance on healthcare usage.
Evidence in health care abounds on a variety of topics, and research utilization
can improve patient care in a multitude of ways.

Evidence can be used as a basis for the following aspects of nursing

Nursing care processes such as assessment, diagnosis, treatment,
and evaluation
Policies and procedures that guide nursing practice within an
Patient care management tools such as care maps, standard order
sets, and critical paths
Care decisions regarding individual patient needs

Strategies for Implementing Evidence-Based
Considering the benefits of basing clinical nursing practice on evidence, it
would make sense for evidence-based nursing practice to be the norm.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. In an integrative review conducted by
Saunders and Julkunen (2016), the vast majority of nurses were found to
believe in the value of EBP in improving care quality and patient outcomes.
Even so, most of the nurses considered their own knowledge and skills
insufficient for employing EBP, and did not believe they were using evidence
as a basis for their own practice.

Many reasons can be cited to explain why EBPs are the exception rather than
the rule, including limitations created by EBP systems themselves. Some
barriers are related to human factors, whereas others are related to the


organizations within which nursing care is delivered. Table 1.3 lists some of
the common barriers to using evidence as a basis for practice.

Organizations do not commonly have systems in place to support clinicians in
the development of EBP tools. Although more resources have become
available to practitioners who want to participate in the development of
practice guidelines, few operational models exist to guide healthcare
organizations that want to implement pervasive EBP (Houser & Oman, 2011).
Even when nurses are motivated and competent in the creation and use of
EBPs, barriers in the organizational culture may hinder their ability to increase
the use of EBP in the workplace (Williams, Perillo, & Brown, 2015). The
impact of culture is a strong one; in Williams et al.’s study, nurses reported
that their colleagues’ lack of support for changing practice was one of the most
formidable barriers to EBP. A collaborative workplace where questioning of
current practices is encouraged is needed for wide-scale adoption of EBPs,
yet it remains the exception rather than the rule.

Table 1.3 Barriers to Using Evidence in Clinical Practice

Limitations in
based practice

Overwhelming amount of information in the literature
Sometimes contradictory findings in the research

Human factors
that create

Lack of knowledge about evidence-based practice
Lack of skill in finding and/or appraising research studies Negative attitudes
about research and evidence-based care Perception that research is for
medicine, not nursing Patient expectations (e.g., demanding antibiotics)

factors that
create barriers

Hierarchical structures that do not encourage autonomous decision making
Lack of authority for clinicians to make changes in practice Colleagues’ lack of
support for practice change Demanding workloads with no time for research
activities Conflict in priorities between unit work and research Lack of
administrative support or incentives

The complexities of changing practice based on evidence are daunting indeed.
Majid and colleagues (2011) studied the barriers to and facilitators of EBP as
perceived by more than 2000 nurses in organizational settings. Although the
nurses in this study generally held positive views about the value of EBP, they
also described several barriers to its implementation:

Not enough time to keep up with evidence review given their workload
Lack of adequate training and educational support for appraisal of
Inability to understand statistical and research terminology
Inadequate organizational and leadership support
Lack of access to databases and search strategies


An additional barrier identified in the study by Williams et al. (2015) was the
lack of authority to change practices in a hierarchical organization. These
researchers found that top-down organizations and those in which nurses had
little autonomy were the least likely to have a widespread EBP culture. To
implement EBP effectively, nurses must believe that their inputs and ideas are
valued, and must perceive that they have a level of power appropriate to enact
changes within their practices.

An updated review of the literature from 2010 to 2015 conducted by Mallion
and Brooke (2016) yielded more heartening findings. These researchers
discovered that the traditional barriers of lack of time, knowledge, and skill
continue to affect the wholesale adoption of EBPs, but that nurses’ attitudes
toward EBP had changed over time. While still acknowledging the difficulty
inherent in continuously adopting EBP, the nurses in these studies included in
Mallion and Brooke’s literature review valued evidence and had positive
impressions of their ability to improve practice.

Strategies for Overcoming Barriers
Although little can be done to reduce the complexity of contemporary clinical
care, some strategies can be undertaken to improve the rate at which
healthcare professionals utilize research as a basis for their practice.

Begin the process by specifically identifying the facilitators of and barriers to
evidence-based practices. Use of a self-assessment tool such as that tested
by Gale and Schaffer (2009) can help identify organizational strengths and
limitations in preparation for an EBP effort.

Education and training can improve knowledge and strengthen practitioners’
beliefs about the benefits of EBP. Clinicians may fear they will appear to lack
competence if they engage in EBP, and greater knowledge will give them
confidence in determining an evidence base for their practice.

One of the most helpful—and difficult—strategies is to create an environment
that encourages an inquisitive approach about clinical care. The first step in
identifying opportunities for best practices is questioning current practice. This
can be accomplished by creating a culture in which EBPs is valued,
supported, and expected, and in which nurses have the authority and
autonomy to change practices within their scope of care.

Florczak (2016) has even more basic recommendations for improving
research uptake: Nurse researchers, first and foremost, need to conduct
studies that are of high quality, especially in terms of sampling methods and
controls. Nurses will not be confident about incorporating evidence into
practice unless that evidence is strong and convincing. Studies chosen by
nurse researchers should focus on outcomes relevant to practice, in which
considerations related to patient response, nurse burden, and costs are


addressed in addition to effectiveness. Researchers are well advised to
collaborate with practitioners and patients in the design of studies and
recommendations intended for application to practice.

Despite the barriers inherent in implementing EBP in clinical practice, it is
imperative that nurses create structures and processes that reduce these
obstacles. Regardless of the system within which the clinician practices, a
systematic approach can be employed to find and document the best possible
evidence for practice. This process involves defining a clinical question,
identifying and appraising the best possible evidence, and drawing
conclusions about best practice.

Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice
Reading research as evidence requires that the professional nurse have a
basic understanding of research processes and can apply that understanding
to the critical appraisal of individual studies. This systematic process of
assessing the reliability, validity, and trustworthiness of studies is explored in
detail throughout this text. The appraisal process begins by determining
whether the journal, authors, and publication process are credible.

Consider the following key issues when assessing credibility:

Does the author have the appropriate clinical and educational credentials
for the research study? If not, have team members been recruited who
have the requisite knowledge and skill? Teams strengthen the results of a
research project by providing a diversity of perspectives and enlarging the
expertise that is accessible to the team members.
Is there evidence of a conflict of interest that might introduce bias into the
study? For example, does the financial sponsor of the study have
something to gain from positive or negative results? Sponsors may
unintentionally impose their own expectations on a study and a researcher
that may introduce bias into the study. Do the authors have an association
with any of the entities in the study? If the authors are employed by an
agency being tested in the study, then researcher bias might potentially
influence the interpretation of data or the selective reporting of findings.
Is the journal unbiased? In other words, does the publication have anything
to gain by publishing positive or negative results? The publication should
have an external editorial board and a cadre of reviewers who are not
associated financially with the publication. The names and credentials of
the editorial board should be accessible in the publication.
Has the research study undergone blinded peer review? Blinded peer
review enables a critical appraisal of the research study by a neutral party
who is not influenced by the stature (or lack of it) of the authors.
Has the study been published within a reasonable time frame? Health care
is characterized by a rapidly changing clinical environment, and studies
whose publication is delayed may be outdated before they reach print.


Many journals note the date on which a manuscript was received and the
length of time until it was reviewed and accepted. This type of notice
enables the reader to determine if the information in the study is
contemporary or subject to historical effects.

It is sometimes difficult to determine whether a journal is peer reviewed. This
policy may be explicitly stated in the front of the journal, but the absence of
such a description does not mean the journal is not a scholarly one. The
reader may have to scrutinize the front matter of a journal (the masthead and
publication information) or a journal webpage to determine the nature of the

The front matter should also include the names of the external editorial board.
The existence of an external editorial board means there is objective oversight
of the content and quality of material published in the journal. The names of
actual reviewers are rarely published, however; the peer review process is
more likely a blinded one, meaning that article authors do not know the identity
of the manuscript reviewer, and the reviewer does not know the identity of the

If it is not clear whether the journal is peer reviewed, or if an article has been
retrieved electronically and the journal’s front matter is not available, some
hints may indicate whether a journal is a scholarly one. Characteristically,
peer-reviewed journal issues are identified by volume and number, and the
pages are numbered sequentially through the entire year instead of starting
over with each issue. An article published in October, therefore, would likely
have page numbers in the hundreds. The first page may also specify the date
on which a manuscript was received, reviewed, and subsequently published.
This information would confirm that a journal article has been peer reviewed.

The first page of the article should describe the author’s credentials and place
of employment, along with contact information. Any potential conflicts of
interest should be identified here as well. Funding sources for research studies
might appear in the credentials section or at the end of the article. Ideally, the
journal will also identify any potential conflicts of interest—such as companies
owned by the journal’s parent company—that might introduce bias into the
publication’s selection process.

Reading research, much like any nursing skill, becomes easier with practice.
As a practicing nurse reads, studies, and engages in research projects, this
process becomes more efficient and informative. The process of evaluating
research, which may initially require a great deal of focus and effort, eventually
becomes second nature. As the appraisal of research becomes part of the
nurse’s routine, the ability to select studies for application to practice allows
the nurse to ensure that his or her practice is based on sound evidence.


Using Research in Evidence-Based Practice
Research is a key EBP. Scientific, rigorous, peer-reviewed studies are the
foundation of evidence for professional nursing practice. Selecting, reviewing,
and incorporating research findings into practice lie at the heart of professional
nursing care delivery; however, EBP does not eliminate the need for
professional clinical judgment. The application of a specific EBP guideline to a
specific patient situation is based on the nurse’s assessment of the situation
and an appraisal of the interventions that are most likely to be successful. The
clinician remains responsible for combining evidence with clinical expertise
and patient values in managing individual patients and achieving optimal

Where to Begin?
The process of applying research to EBP begins by identifying a problem that
will be best addressed by a review of the evidence. The choice of a subject to
study may be driven by a variety of factors. Newell-Stokes (2004) classifies
three general categories that may uncover the need for EBP.

The first category includes problem-focused factors. These factors are
generally clinical problems that are identified through quality improvement
processes, benchmarking studies, regulatory agency feedback, practicing
clinicians, or administrative data. For example, a hospital may identify a
problem with skin breakdown through nurse observation, quality data
indicating an increase in pressure ulcer rates, analysis indicating pressure
ulcer rates that are higher than those in comparable hospital units, or data that
demonstrate higher costs for patients with skin breakdown.

The second category includes factors related to nursing knowledge. A
knowledge deficit may be evident, or new knowledge may emerge through
research studies. In addition, a new professional association or new national
guideline presents opportunities for incorporating evidence-based changes
into practice. A practice change often has a better chance of implementation if
users perceive the existence of a solid base of evidence for that practice
change. For example, a nurse who attends a national conference may find that
hydrotherapy is an evidence-based treatment for pressure ulcers and use the
information to motivate a change in nursing practice.

The third category includes factors such as new equipment, technology, or
products that become available to the nurse. All of these new developments
present opportunities to use evidence in practice to improve outcomes.

Once the need is identified for a change in practice, the way the research is
gathered and used may take a variety of forms.



❏ The authors have the appropriate clinical and educational
credentials for this research study.

❏ There is no evidence of any conflict of interest for the authors that
might introduce bias into the way the study is designed or the way
the results are viewed.

❏ There is evidence that this journal is peer reviewed (at least one
of these):

Pages are sequentially numbered for the entire year.

Issues are identified by volume and number.

The journal has an external editorial board.

The article indicates a review date.

❏ The publication has no financial connection to positive or
negative results from the study.

❏ The study has been published in a reasonable time frame (i.e., a
reasonable interval from the date of study to the date of publication).

Processes for linking Evidence to Practice
Evidence can be incorporated into practice through several processes. For
example, an individual nurse may appraise research studies and share
findings with colleagues. Also, a specific question may be answered by
reviewing the literature or attending research presentations at conferences.

Although reviewing research studies is a good beginning for establishing
evidence for nursing practice, it is possible to introduce bias into the selection
of the articles to review. Nurses may consciously or unconsciously select only
those articles that support their point of view while ignoring studies that
challenge their beliefs. Engaging in a systematic review process will control
the potential for such bias to occur. A systematic review process is a
structured approach to a comprehensive research review. It begins by
establishing objective criteria for finding and selecting research articles,
combined with documentation of the rationale for eliminating any study from
the review.

Research studies that are selected for inclusion in the review should be
subjected to careful and thorough appraisal of study quality and validity. They
are graded based on the strength of evidence they provide as well as their
design and quality criteria. Several different rating scales may be used to
evaluate a research study’s strength as evidence, but it is important to
recognize that one rating system is not necessarily better than another.
Individual values, the nature of the practice question, and the kind of
knowledge needed drive the choice of a rating system. Most grading systems


include between four and six levels. Table 1.4 depicts a rating system for
levels of evidence that is a composite of the work of Armola et al. (2009),
Ahrens (2005), and Rice (2008).

Table 1.4 Rating Systems for Grading levels of Evidence


Type of Study

Level I Multiple randomized controlled trials (RCTs) reported as meta-analysis, systematic
review, or meta-synthesis, with results that consistently support a specific intervention or
Randomized trials with large sample sizes and large effect sizes

Level II Evidence from well-designed controlled studies, either randomized or nonrandomized,
with results that consistently support a specific intervention or treatment


Evidence from studies of intact groups
Ex-post-facto and causal-comparative studies
Case-control or cohort studies
Evidence obtained from time series with and without an intervention Single experimental
or quasi-experimental studies with dramatic effect sizes


Evidence from integrative reviews
Systematic reviews of qualitative or descriptive studies
Theory-based evidence and expert opinion Peer-reviewed professional organization
standards with supporting clinical studies

Using this scale, for example, a randomized trial of the use of aromatherapy in
a post-anesthesia care unit to reduce nausea would be classified as the
strongest level of evidence if the findings came from a large study with
definitive results or if the results were successfully replicated several times at
several sites. The same study conducted in a single setting with a small
sample of convenience would provide evidence that was less authoritative.
Weaker still would be evidence that was generated through observation or
expert opinions.

These strength-of-evidence rating scales apply primarily to the evaluation of
treatments, interventions, or the effectiveness of therapies. Recall the
definition of EBP: practice based on the best demonstrated evidence
combined with clinical experience and patient preferences. The hierarchy of
evidence may look quite different depending on the nature of the practice
under study.

Review and rating of the evidence should result in recommendations for
practice, with the strength of these recommendations being commensurate
with the level of evidence and the quality of the study. The link between the
strength of the evidence and the strength of the resulting recommendation is


the way in which varying levels of evidence are incorporated into a single
practice guideline. Table 1.5 depicts the way that the American Academy of
Pediatrics (2004) recommends that evidence be linked to a subsequent
system of recommendations. Based on the strength of the evidence and the
preponderance of benefit or harm, recommendations are generated that are
classified as strongly recommended, optional, or recommended. Some
evidence results in no recommendation because a conclusion cannot be
definitively drawn. Some evidence that shows harm to the patient may result in
“not recommended” status.

The systematic review process is complex and time consuming, and should be
undertaken only when no other EBP guidelines exist. The effort is warranted,
though, when no clear guidance exists for specific practices, or when the
development of a guideline is likely to be affected by practitioner bias.

Table 1.5 The link Between Evidence and Recommendations for Practice

Type of Evidence Clear Evidence of Benefit
or Harm

Benefit and Harm Are

Well-designed, randomized controlled
trials (RCTs) or reports of multiple

Strong recommendation
for or against the

Action is optional.

RCTs with limitations of quasi-
experimental studies

Recommendation for or
against the intervention.

Action is optional.

Observational and descriptive studies,
case controls, and cohort designs

Recommendation for or
against the intervention.

Action is optional.

Expert opinion, case studies Action is optional. No recommendation for
or against the

Reproduced with permission from American Academy of Pediatrics. (2004). American Academy of
Pediatrics policy statement: Classifying recommendations for clinical practice guidelines. Pediatrics,
114, 874–877. Copyright © 2004 by the AAP.

Creating Evidence for Practice
Nurses commonly serve as the primary investigators in studies that focus on
the needs of patients and the effectiveness of nursing interventions. When a
nurse conceives of, designs, and implements a research project, he or she is
designated as a primary investigator. The primary investigator is responsible
for all aspects of a research study’s conduct and outcome, even if a team is
involved. The primary investigator also has the right to be the first author noted
on a research publication.

Designing a research study is an advanced and complex skill that requires
experience in the clinical processes under study as well as an understanding


of the complexity of research design and analysis. That is not to say that the
professional nurse cannot gain the skill and experience needed to be a
primary investigator—only that becoming a nurse researcher is an
evolutionary process that occurs over time. It is the rare nurse who is able to
design and conduct a brilliant study on the first attempt. More commonly, a
nurse learns the process by becoming involved in the research of others in
some way—either in data collection, through team participation, or even as a
subject. Only gradually does he or she gain the ability to conceive of and lead
a research project.

Creating nursing research is a systematic, rigorous process. The remainder of
this text will guide the nurse as he or she gains the foundation needed to read,
use, and create evidence.

Future Directions for Nursing Research
It is clear that nursing research will continue to assume a prominent role in
supporting the professional practice of nursing. The future of nursing research
is exciting and requires that all nurses accept responsibility for seeking and
using evidence as a basis for practice. As part of nursing’s future, research will
likely evolve into a routine and integral part of the professional nursing practice
environment. This requires the engagement of nurses in disciplined inquiry on
some level, whether as informed consumers or as primary investigators and
team leaders. Nurses must be involved in the promotion of research in support
of nursing practices. As such, they must become adept at planning and
implementing change in nursing practices. An open mind and adaptability are
key characteristics for ensuring adoption of EBPs.

Collaboration with physicians and members of other disciplines in the design
and implementation of patient-centered research will continue to elevate
nurses to the level expected of all of the health science professions.
Participation on a research team encourages other professions to treat nurses
as respected colleagues and valued members of the healthcare team.

The future of nursing requires an emphasis on increasing the contribution of
research to the knowledge of nursing based on a strategic research agenda.
This includes a broadening of the opportunities for dissemination of nursing
research findings through research conferences, clinical groups, electronic
formats, and publication.

Summary of Key Concepts
The practice of nursing is founded on nursing knowledge, and nursing
knowledge is generated and disseminated through reading, using, and
creating nursing research.
Nursing research is a systematic process of inquiry that uses rigorous,
systematic approaches to produce answers to questions and solutions to
problems in nursing practice. Research is designed so that it is free of bias


and results are trustworthy. The hallmarks of solid, well-respected research
are peer review and replication.
Nurses may use research to synthesize the findings of others, explore and
describe phenomena, find solutions to problems, or test traditional
approaches for efficacy.
Research is fundamental to nursing practice because conduct of research
is characteristic of a profession and nurses are accountable for the care
they deliver. Consumers and external agencies are demanding that
healthcare professionals provide evidence for the effectiveness of the
interventions they propose and implement.
Nursing is a relatively young profession, but its practitioners have a proud
history of disciplined inquiry. The NINR gives nursing research national
stature and financial support and also establishes a national agenda of
priorities for nursing research.
Nurses may fulfill a variety of roles in contemporary nursing research
practice, ranging from informed consumers to data collectors to primary
investigators. As they become more proficient in nursing research, their
roles may broaden and involve projects of increasing complexity.
Research is not synonymous with problem solving; it is intended to benefit
the profession as a whole. A systematic approach and upfront, informed
consent of subjects are hallmarks of the research process.
The benefit of research to nurses lies in its use as evidence for practice.
EBP entails the use of the best scientific evidence integrated with clinical
experience and incorporating patient values and preferences in the
practice of professional nursing care. Numerous types of research are
required to accomplish this goal.
EBP is important in nursing because outcomes are improved, care is more
efficient and effective, and errors are reduced when practitioners use
evidence as a standard of care. Consumers are also asking for evidence to
help them make decisions about their treatment options, and nurses are in
a unique position to provide them with appropriate evidence.
Evidence can be used as a basis for nursing practice in assessing the
patient’s condition, diagnosing patient problems, planning patient care,
evaluating interventions, and evaluating patient responses.
Barriers to using evidence as a basis for nursing practice may be related to
the nature of evidence in practice, individual issues, or organizational
constraints. Nurses must identify barriers to the use of evidence in practice
and implement strategies to overcome them.
Translation of research into practice is based on a careful evaluation of the
characteristics of a patient population, matched with an assessment of the
credibility and external validity of studies relative to patient needs.
Future directions in nursing research include focusing on research as an
integral part of nursing practice in a collaborative environment.
Collaboration with other healthcare team members in research enhances
the value of the profession as a whole and garners respect for its


External validity: The ability to generalize the findings from a research
study to other populations, places, and situations.

For More Depth and Detail
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© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 2: The Research Process and
Ways of Knowing

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Discuss the philosophical orientations that influence the choice of a
research design.
Contrast the characteristics of quantitative and qualitative research.
Review the steps involved in the research process.
Determine the way that a design is linked to the research question.
Classify research based on characteristics related to intent, type,
and time.
Evaluate which kind of evidence is best provided by quantitative and
qualitative research.

Applied research

Basic research

Cross-sectional methods

Experimental research

Longitudinal studies

Mixed methods


Prospective studies

Qualitative research

Quantitative research

Quasi-experimental studies

Retrospective studies

What is the nature of truth? It is hard to think of a more difficult question to
answer. This fundamental question must be considered, however, to ensure
that the research process is successful in providing evidence for practice.
Research is about the search for truth. There are, however, multiple
approaches to determining and describing truth. The successful researcher


understands which approach is effective for the particular problem to be
solved. The key is to consider assumptions about the nature of the world, the
question to be answered, and the intent of the researcher.

The most fundamental questions to be answered in the beginning of a
research process are philosophical but necessary ones: What constitutes
knowledge? What is the nature of the world, and how can this research reflect
that nature? The researcher should carefully consider these issues before
proceeding with the design of the inquiry. It is a mistake to jump straight from
research question to design without considering the philosophical foundation
on which the study will be built.

These philosophical considerations must represent more than the researcher’s
view of the world. That is, they must be carefully matched to a design that will
address the specific nature of the research question. The goal is to produce
knowledge that is relevant and applicable to the body of nursing knowledge
and that becomes evidence for practice.

When I started my doctorate, I was sure I wanted to do a
straightforward quantitative experiment. I like numbers and statistics, so
this kind of study seemed to be a natural extension of my interests. My
subject, however, was a bit novel: I was trying to build a comprehensive
model to measure inpatient nurse workload. I had always worked in
hospitals and used patient acuity systems (systems used to measure
the intensity of a patient’s care needs) to assess the nursing workload,
but a nurse said something that intrigued me: “If all I had to do was take
care of my patients, I’d be fine.” I set out to find out what all those other
demands were, and how they affected the nurse’s perception of

I found out just how novel this topic was when I tried to do a literature
review and discovered that I could not find any relevant literature. There
were lots of opinion articles about measuring workload, and plenty of
published quantitative studies focused on patient acuity, but none tried
to look at workload holistically. Reluctantly, I concluded that I needed to
utilize a mixed-methods design—that is, I needed first to figure out what
the forces affecting the nurse’s workload were, and then to measure
how much impact they had on the nurse’s day.

I conducted a series of focus groups with nurses, observed them during
their regular workdays, and interviewed quite a few individually. I found
that I could describe many nonpatient demands—equipment needed
repair, supplies were missing, and other therapists and technicians
interrupted patient care. In addition, there were some macro issues at
play: Nurses said that strong teams were able to accomplish more
work, but weak teams actually created more pressure. All of the nurses


mentioned the effects of good leadership on recruitment and retention,
and subsequently on the stability of the nursing staff, which helped build

After theme analysis and triangulating the data from my focus groups,
observations, and interviews, I developed a model of the demands on a
nurse’s time. This preparation seemed to take forever, but when I finally
began to test the model quantitatively, the work went quickly. I was able
to determine the elements that directly affected workload and those that
had an indirect effect. I figured out that teamwork, leadership, and
retention were central to efficient unit operations. Demonstrating caring,
communicating with team members, and entering information into the
health record also consumed a lot of time. I discovered that “hunting for
things” is a legitimate time drain.

This study was a classic case in which answering the research question
required both quantitative and qualitative methods. The qualitative
phase helped me determine the fundamental things that frustrate a
nurse, and the quantitative phase let me demonstrate whether those
influences were real and strong.

Janet Houser, PhD, RN

The Research Process
Regardless of the philosophical assumptions made in a specific study, some
characteristics are universal to all research studies. Research by its very
nature is systematic and rigorous; it is about a disciplined search for truth.
“Systematic” implies that decisions are carefully considered, options weighed,
and a rational basis documented to support the choices that are made. Those
decisions and choices help form the foundation for and build a research study.
They also make up phases of study that are more or less completed in
sequence. These phases are depicted in FIGURE 2.1:

Define a research problem: Identify a gap in the knowledge of nursing
practice that can be effectively addressed with evidence.
Scan the literature: Complete a systematic review of the literature to
determine basic knowledge about the problem, so as to identify relevant
evidence and a potential theoretical framework.
Determine an appropriate design: Select a design that is appropriate for
the philosophical assumption, the nature of the question, the intent of the
researcher, and the time dimension.
Define a sampling strategy: Design a sampling plan that details both how
subjects will be recruited and assigned to groups, if appropriate, and how
many subjects will be needed.
Collect data: Gather the data using appropriate data collection protocols
and reliable, valid methods.


Analyze data: Apply analytic techniques that are appropriate for the type of
data collected and that will answer the question.
Communicate the findings: Disseminate the findings to the appropriate
audiences through conferences and publication.
Use the findings to support practice: Promote the uptake of the research by
linking it to specific guidelines for nursing practice.

FIGURE 2.1 The Research Process: Building a Study

These phases may look as if they make up steps, with the end of one phase
leading directly to the beginning of another. It is, however, misleading to call
the research process a series of steps. Such a description implies that the
tasks are done in a particular sequence and that the components are distinct
and mutually exclusive. In reality, the design of a research study is a fluid
process, one that may be considered a work in progress until the final plan is
complete. The process may resemble an elaborate game of Chutes and
Ladders more than anything else. In this game, progress is made until the
player reaches a chute, which will take the player back to a lower level. In
research, several things may happen more or less at the same time—for
example, the search for a theoretical framework, the literature review, and
construction of the research question. Although the researcher may complete
most of these tasks and move on to the design of the study, occasionally a
situation will arise that prompts the researcher to reconsider the phrasing of
the question, or new literature may be published. As a consequence, the
phases may be conducted out of sequence, or the researcher may go back
and forth between phases. The phases may overlap, or some phases may not
be visited at all. So many varieties of research are possible that any depiction
of the research process must come with the caveat that it is a general guide
that is adapted to the particular situation at hand.


In quantitative research, decisions are usually finalized before data collection
begins, although emergent issues may, even then, require adaptation of the
research plan. In contrast, in qualitative research, the research plan is adapted
based on both the data generated by the respondents and the nature of those
data. Qualitative design decisions may not be completed until the final report is

In general, the way the research process emerges and the particular phases
that are implemented in a research study are based on many characteristics of
both the research problem and the researcher. These characteristics and
assumptions lend themselves to several general classifications of research.
The choice of an overall research classification is the first step in determining
the specifics of a research design.

Classification of Research by Philosophical
Assumptions About the Nature of the World
The philosophical assumptions that drive the design of a study are rooted in
the paradigms of those who are doing the studying. A paradigm is an overall
belief system, a view of the world that strives to make sense of the nature of
reality and the basis of knowledge. The disciplined study of nursing
phenomena is rooted in two broad paradigms, both of which are relevant for
nursing research. These two broad paradigms reflect methods that are
primarily quantitative (based on the measurement of observable phenomena)
or qualitative (based on the analysis of the meaning of events as depicted in
the words and actions of others).

Paradigm: An overall belief system or way of viewing the nature of
reality and the basis of knowledge.

Quantitative Research
Quantitative research is the traditional approach to scientific research. It is
rooted in the philosophical assumptions of positivism and determinism.
Positivism assumes that features of the environment have an objective reality;
the world is viewed as something available for study in a more or less
unchanging form. A related assumption underlying the scientific method is
determinism: a belief that events are not random, but rather have antecedent
causes. In the face of these beliefs—the existence of an objective reality, in
which events can be linked to an associated cause—the researcher’s
challenge is to understand the relationships among human phenomena. The
task of positivist scientific inquiry, then, is to make unbiased observations of
the natural and social world.

Quantitative research: A traditional approach to research in which
variables are identified and measured in a reliable and valid way.


Quantitative research involves identifying the variables that represent
characteristics of interest and then measuring them in a reliable, valid way.
This type of research is characterized by a tightly controlled context that
enables the researcher to rule out extraneous effects. Both the way subjects
are selected and the protocols for the study are designed to eliminate bias.
Statistical analysis is used to establish the level of confidence in the results
and to rule out the effects of random error. These conclusions, then, constitute
the contribution to scientific knowledge.

There is no doubt that the scientific study of cause and effect in nursing
practice is necessary and important for evidence-based practice; quantitative
approaches are particularly well suited for answering questions about the
nursing actions that can influence outcomes. These studies produce some of
the strongest evidence for the benefits of an intervention. Nevertheless,
nurses pose many questions that are not adequately addressed by a strict
adherence to measurement of an objective reality. In turn, the single
adherence to a positivist view has drawn considerable criticism from nurse
researchers, and many of these criticisms are legitimate. The nature of nursing
care involves helping others attain their health goals, many of which are
defined by the individual, not the nurse. Perceptions of quality of life, the
meaning of a life event, and the willingness to endure side effects for a
therapeutic result are all based on the patient’s construction of reality, not the
nurse’s perceptions. In turn, many related questions are better addressed with
a process of naturalistic inquiry.

Qualitative Research
Qualitative research is based on a naturalistic paradigm. This belief system
is represented by a view of reality that is constructed by the individual, not the
researcher. In the naturalistic view, reality is not a fixed entity, but rather exists
in the context of what the research participant believes it to be. Qualitative
researchers believe that many different views of reality are possible, and all of
them are right. An associated belief for the naturalistic researcher is relativism,
or the belief that there are always multiple interpretations of reality, and that
these interpretations can exist only within an individual. The qualitative
researcher, then, believes there is no process in which the ultimate basis for a
singular truth can be identified.

Qualitative research: A naturalistic approach to research in which the
focus is on understanding the meaning of an experience from the
individual’s perspective.

Qualitative methods focus on an understanding of the meaning of an
experience from the individual’s perspective. Extended observation of
participants, in-depth interviews or focus groups, case studies, and studies of
social interaction are examples of qualitative methods. The inquiry process


focuses on verbal descriptions and observable behaviors as a basis for
analysis and conclusions.

Qualitative methods are appropriate for addressing questions in which the
meaning of the patient’s experience is central to understanding the best
therapeutic approach. Issues of behavior change, motivation, compliance with
a regimen, and tolerance of a treatment are all examples of topics in which the
patient’s perception is central to assisting the patient to a healthy state. The
analysis of themes that describe the meaning of the experience for the patient
is based on words and observations, rather than on measurable phenomena.
The researcher establishes a relationship with the subject, and bias is
considered an inherent part of the research process. The findings from
qualitative studies are used to enhance evidence-based practice by
incorporating the patient’s preferences and values into guides for nursing

The differences in philosophy, roles, and methods between quantitative and
qualitative research are depicted in Table 2.1. These contrasts are made to
help the student understand the variations between these two overall
approaches. In reality, both types of research have many characteristics in

A disciplined, rigorous approach based on external evidence
Methods that require samples and the cooperation of individuals
A focus on the rights of human subjects and ethical guidelines
An ultimate aim of discovering new knowledge that can be used to improve
nursing practice

Table 2.1 Quantitative Versus Qualitative Characteristics

Element Quantitative Qualitative

View of reality Reality is objective and can be seen
and measured.

Reality is constructed by the individual.

View of time Reality is relatively constant. Reality is continuously constructed.

Context Reality can be separated from its

Reality is embedded in its context.


Objective, detached. Personally involved.


Samples that represent overall
populations as subjects.

Individual cases, represented as

Measures Human behavior or other observable

Study the meanings that individuals


Observations Analyze reality as definable

Make holistic observations of the total

Design Preconceived and highly controlled. Emergent and fluid, adaptable to
informants’ views.

Analysis Descriptive and inferential statistics. Analytic induction to determine meaning.

Generalization Use inference to generalize from a
sample to a defined population.

Transfer knowledge from case analysis
to similar cases.

Reports Objective, impersonal reports in
which the researcher’s opinions are

Interpretive reports that reflect the
researcher’s reconstruction of the
meaning of the data.

Many nurse researchers assume they must select only one approach and
carry out the study in a pure and inflexible way. In fact, it is the rare study that
relies on just one approach or the other. The choices made in research design
are probably less about a solely qualitative approach versus a solely
quantitative approach, and more about selection from a continuum of choices
that may overlap from one approach to the other. Many quantitative studies
involve asking the subjects to respond to questions or give opinions in which
the participants’ words are later analyzed to enhance the statistical findings.
Experimental researchers may rate subject behaviors using scales that
contain subjective elements, or they may record their own observations of
behaviors. Conversely, many qualitative studies use measurement to
determine the reliability of multiple raters in determining themes and to verify
the trustworthiness of conclusions. A basic qualitative validation method is
triangulation, or the search for multiple sources to confirm the same finding, in
which numbers are often retrieved to confirm verbal data. There are many
situations in which a blend of methods is appropriate, and these mixed
methods designs are becoming more common.

Mixed Methods
Mixed methods are becoming an important tool in nursing research,
particularly in evaluation research. Evaluation research is the application of
research methods to the study of p rograms, projects, or phenomena.
Increasingly, the question is not whether mixed methods are appropriate, but
rather how they should be used.

Mixed methods: A research approach that combines quantitative and
qualitative elements; it involves the description of the measurable state
of a phenomenon and the individual’s subjective response to it.

Mixed-method designs can provide pragmatic advantages when exploring
novel or complex nursing problems (McCusker & Gunaydin, 2015). The
qualitative data provide a deep understanding of the human experience, while


the quantitative data enable the researcher to identify and measure
relationships. Research that draws on the strengths of both paradigms is
increasingly recognized as essential in all fields—including in medicine, where
it is needed to support effective patient care guidelines.

Mixed methods are often applied in an ad hoc way, meaning the researcher
initiates the study by using a primarily quantitative or qualitative method, and
then integrates elements of the alternative approach as an afterthought. The
most effective use of mixed methods, however, occurs when they are
employed in a systematic way (Kettles, Creswell & Zhange, 2011). Mixed
methods are commonly used in descriptive studies, where they may be used
to describe both the measurable state of a phenomenon and the individual
responses to it. For example, mixed methods might be used for the following

Describe the rate of hand washing on a nursing unit (quantitative) as well
as the nurses’ perceptions about the importance of hand washing
Measure the presence of bacteria on a nurse’s hands after washing
(quantitative) and observe the hand-washing steps the nurse used
Count the number of times a nurse washed his or her hands between
patients (quantitative) and record the nurse’s report on the convenience of
hand-washing facilities (qualitative)

Choosing a Design
Many considerations go into the choice of a general approach to research
design. The philosophical orientation of the researcher is just one element.
The nature of the research question, the skills and abilities of the researcher,
and access to resources and samples all are important elements to consider
prior to choosing the research methodology.

Of primary importance to the selection of an approach is the nature of the
research question. Research questions that focus on the effectiveness of an
intervention require a scientific approach (assuming effectiveness is defined
as an objectively measured outcome). For example, the effectiveness of a
skin-care regimen in preventing pressure ulcers is best studied by applying the
proposed regimen to one group of patients, applying a standard regimen to
another group of patients, and then measuring the rate of pressure ulcer
development in both groups. If the regimen is effective, then the subjects
getting the new regimen will have a lower pressure ulcer rate than those with
the standard regimen. This is the traditional experiment, and it is still one of
the most common research designs in health care.

In contrast, research questions that focus on the acceptability of an
intervention may require a qualitative approach. The new regimen may be


effective, but it may be painful, have an unpleasant smell, or consist of a
cream that sticks to clothing. Assessment of these attributes, which will almost
certainly affect whether a patient complies with the skin-care regimen, requires
asking the patients about their preferences for the treatment and whether the
outcome outweighs the unpleasant side effects.

Some of the considerations when choosing an approach are researcher
driven. Many researchers have a personal preference for one approach over
another. When the research question may be answered in several different
ways, or when various aspects of a phenomenon require study before
evidence can be deduced, then the researcher’s personal preference may
drive the selection of an approach. The skills that are required for quantitative
research include the capacity to define variables, recruit subjects, use random
assignment methods, create reliable and valid measurements, and analyze
results with statistical techniques. The skills that are required for qualitative
researchers are quite different. They include the ability to find and select those
subjects who can best inform the question, observe and record actions and
interactions in detail, skillfully interview subjects or focus groups, and distill
meaning from large amounts of word-based data. Both skill sets can require
years to develop and hone. It is natural, then, that most researchers find
themselves specializing in one approach or the other.

Consider the following elements prior to choosing a research design:

Philosophical orientation of the researcher
Nature of the research question or problem
Skills, abilities, and preferences of the researcher
Resources and sample access

The following skills are required for quantitative research:

Defining variables
Recruiting subjects
Using random assignment methods
Creating reliable and valid measurements
Analyzing results with statistical techniques

The following skills are required for qualitative research:

Finding and selecting subjects appropriate for the question
Observing and recording actions and interactions in detail


Interviewing subjects skillfully
Distilling meaning from large amounts of word-based data

A host of practical considerations must be addressed when selecting an
approach. Quantitative methods require measurement tools, subjects who are
willing to undergo experimental treatments (or the risk of no treatment),
statistical software, and access to individuals knowledgeable in statistical
analysis and interpretation. Qualitative methods need less in the way of tools
and software, but they require informants who are willing to be observed or
interviewed, often for extended periods of time. The particular individuals who
are accessible as well as the material resources required may drive the
selection of a feasible research approach.

Theoretical considerations may also influence the selection of a specific
design. The researcher may start the design process by deciding which
concepts are of interest. The way these concepts interact with each other and
create a framework is called a theory. Theoretical models are commonly
tested with both quantitative and qualitative designs, and they provide a
roadmap for future research. Theoretical and conceptual frameworks are the
necessary backbone of a research study. Using a well-founded and well-
referenced framework lends credence to the study, but, even more
importantly, allows for comparisons across studies as well as building from or
between studies. Basing a study on a sound theoretical framework is one way
to ensure the research will be systematically designed.

A Note About Using Theoretical Frameworks in
Nursing Research
Theory is an attempt to explain the world around us. Nurses become
part of the world of health care through an understanding of theories
about nursing, which attempt to explain why nurses do what they do.
Nursing care is a complex process, and explanations of human actions
and interactions can be complicated and difficult to understand without
a road map. Theory is a method of mapping these complex processes
of human action and interaction that affect patient care and
understanding their interrelationship.

The word theory comes from the Greek theoria, which means “vision.”
Nurse scientists use theories to explain their visions of reality. Theories
are not facts; instead, they are methods of posing what might be reality.
Just as there are many visions of reality, so there are many theories
that attempt to explain that reality. These theories often form the basis
for research studies, in that many aspects of a conceptual model might
potentially be the subject of study.

Nurse researchers also use theory as a framework for their studies.
Developing a conceptual foundation involves a series of steps that


focus on the selection and definition of concepts, concept analysis,
relational statements, and conceptual models of action and interaction.
In this way, theoretical frameworks form the backbone of a research
study. Using a strong framework lends credence to the study’s results,
but more importantly allows for the replication of the study and the
synthesis of its outcomes into guidelines.

Myriad thoughtful decisions must be made to choose the right approach for a
particular research problem. The key word is thoughtful. These decisions
should be based on a sound rationale, and the researcher should be able to
articulate the basis for these decisions.

Classifications of Research by the Intent of the
Research is classified by the basic belief system that drives its design
features, but it must also reflect the intent of the researcher. There are two
kinds of goals for research: (1) to provide new knowledge for the foundation of
nursing and (2) to provide knowledge that can be immediately applied to the
practice of nursing. The first of these is referred to as basic research; the latter
is termed applied research.

Basic research is commonly referred to as theoretical, pure, fundamental, or
bench research. One might think of the work done by scientists in laboratories
as basic research. It is used to test theories and to build the body of
knowledge that forms the foundation for practice, but it does not directly apply
to the practice setting. Examples of basic research include measuring
neuromuscular responses to stimuli and studying the effects of circulatory
volume on neonatal cardiac function.

Basic research: Theoretical, pure, fundamental, or bench research
done to advance knowledge in a given subject area.

Applied research is undertaken with the single goal of improving nursing
practice. The findings from such research are intended to contribute in some
way to a modification of nursing practice. Examples of applied research
include investigating the effects of topical drugs on phlebitis and determining
the efficacy of specific counseling techniques after the death of a spouse.

Applied research: Research conducted to gain knowledge that has a
practical application and contributes in some way to a modification of


Both basic and applied research may be conducted by using quantitative,
qualitative, or mixed methods. Most clinical nursing research is considered
applied research, and the findings that are generated as evidence for practice
are exclusively of an applied nature. This is not to imply that basic research is
not valuable. Indeed, one must have a clear understanding of the underlying
theoretical and physiological basis for a given nursing practice to understand
its mechanisms of effect.

Classifications of Research by the Nature of the
Another classification of research is associated with the nature of the design.
Experimental research refers to studies of cause and effect, which are
usually undertaken to determine the effectiveness of an intervention. In an
experimental design, some type of randomization method is employed to
select subjects or assign them to groups according to how well they represent
the population of interest. The researcher manipulates some aspect of the
patient’s treatment in a highly controlled setting and compares the outcomes
to those for a group that has received no treatment or a standard treatment. If
the outcomes are different, the researcher assumes the difference is a result
of the treatment because all other variables have been controlled.
Experimental designs are characterized by highly structured protocols for
sample selection and assignment, intervention, measurement, and analysis.
Such designs aim to eliminate bias and control for rival explanations for the

Experimental research: Highly structured studies of cause and effect,
usually applied to determine the effectiveness of an intervention.
Subjects are selected and randomly assigned to groups to represent
the population of interest.

Nonexperimental designs cover a broad range of studies that do not share
these characteristics and, therefore, cannot test cause and effect. Quasi-
experimental studies mimic experimental designs in most ways except for
the selection and assignment of subjects. Such studies often use convenience
samples or existing groups to test interventions. For example, a quasi-
experimental study might test an intervention by selecting populations in two
different nursing homes, where one group gets the treatment and the other
does not. However, subjects are not assigned to the nursing homes randomly.

Quasi-experimental studies: Studies of cause and effect similar to
experimental design but using convenience samples or existing groups
to test interventions.


Other nonexperimental designs include descriptive research, correlation
research, and predictive research. Descriptive research involves the study of a
particular situation or event that already exists. The researcher does not
manipulate any variables, although the study itself is systematic and thorough.
Correlation research focuses on the existing relationships between variables.
Such a study might, for example, search for a relationship between a single
variable in two populations (e.g., do teens with mothers who had teen
pregnancies have a higher teen pregnancy rate themselves?). Correlation
studies might also search for relationships between two variables in the same
sample (e.g., do overweight teens have higher pregnancy rates?). Predictive
research takes the correlation aspect one step further, searching for
relationships in which the values of one variable can be used to predict the
values of another (e.g., do certain family characteristics predict the risk of a
teen pregnancy?). Predictive research is particularly helpful in public health
studies and research involving the determination of whether a risk factor will
lead to a particular health condition.

Classifications of Research by the Time Dimension
A final classification of research studies is by the time dimension chosen for
the studies. These investigations may focus on the past or the future, referred
to as retrospective and prospective studies, respectively.

Retrospective studies are conducted using data that have already been
collected about events that have already happened. For nursing research,
these data often come from chart review. In such a study, the researcher is
unable to control most aspects of variable definition and data collection
because those steps were performed before the study was conceived. The
researcher conducting a retrospective study relies on the accuracy and
completeness of these secondary data, or data that were originally collected
for a purpose other than the research study. For example, a nurse might
conduct a retrospective study to determine differences in the rate of ventilator-
associated pneumonia between patients who received oral care every 4 hours
and those who did not. The diagnosis of ventilator-associated pneumonia and
the timing of oral care could both be retrieved from patient charts—a
convenient source of reliable data. However, in this case, the nurse researcher
is dependent upon the staff nurses’ documentation of the timing and extent of
oral care. If the chart does not have a record of oral care in a 4-hour period, is
it because such care was not provided or because it was not recorded? If oral
care is recorded, was the care rendered according to current standards? The
nurse researcher must balance the convenience of secondary data with the
risks of inaccuracy and incompleteness of the data set.

Retrospective studies: Studies conducted using data that have
already been collected about events that have already happened. Such
secondary data were originally collected for a purpose other than the
current research.


Prospective studies are those conducted by the researcher. This approach
enables the researcher to control most aspects of research design and
implementation, and primary data are collected (that is, data are collected by
the researcher directly from subjects for the specific study at hand).
Prospective studies are generally more reliable than retrospective studies due
to the greater control afforded to the researcher. For example, a nurse might
conduct a prospective study of oral care and ventilator-associated pneumonia
by experimenting with different time periods, methods, or durations of oral care
and measuring the rate of ventilator-associated pneumonia in the patients
participating in the study. In this case, the procedures can be highly controlled
and the outcomes reliably measured and recorded accurately. Such a study
would be difficult to design and carry out, however, because of the need to
address ethical questions, sampling challenges, and substantial time
demands. The accuracy and completeness of data would be realized at the
expense of considerable complexity and effort.

Prospective studies: Studies planned by the researcher for collection
of primary data for the specific study and implemented in the future.

Studies may also be characterized based on whether they are conducted over
time or at a single point in time. Such studies are referred to as longitudinal
and cross-sectional studies, respectively.

Longitudinal studies are conducted over time—often very long time periods
—to study the emergence of disease or the long-term effects of treatments.
Subjects are followed over a period of time, with data collection occurring at
prescribed intervals during that period. An advantage of longitudinal studies is
their ability to determine the effects of risk factors or interventions over time. A
disadvantage is the potential for attrition as subjects are lost to the study over
its duration. There may also be effects from the act of repeatedly measuring
the same individuals over time. An example of a longitudinal study would be
monitoring the children of smokers over time to measure the emergence of
pulmonary disease.

Longitudinal studies: Studies conducted by following subjects over a
period of time, with data collection occurring at prescribed intervals.

Cross-sectional methods focus on collecting data at a single point in time.
No follow-up is intended or built into the design. The result is a comprehensive
picture of the existence of a phenomenon in the present, without concern for
how it will look in the future. Cross-sectional methods often examine a single
phenomenon across multiple populations at a single point in time. These


methods have the advantage that they are completed in a limited amount of
time and may yield valuable information about how different populations
respond to the same disease or treatment. Their primary disadvantage is that
the effects of time are not evaluated and cannot be analyzed. An example of a
cross-sectional study would be determining the prevalence and distribution of
pulmonary diseases in a sample of children who have a parent smoker in the
home at a given point in time.

Cross-sectional methods: Studies conducted by looking at a single
phenomenon across multiple populations at a single point in time, with
no intention for follow-up in the design.

Longitudinal and cross-sectional studies are frequently used in public health
and epidemiology to study the distribution and determinants of disease over
time or across populations. These methods can also be used in nursing
research to study the effects of risk factors, interventions, or nursing practice
changes as they unfold at different times and for different people.

Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice
Although it is relatively easy to categorize research by its approach, type, time
dimension, and other distinctions in a research textbook, in reality these
distinctions are not quite so tidy or clear-cut. Reading a research study while
trying to classify its characteristics often results in frustration. Just as the
research process must be viewed as a fluid process that articulates decisions
made on a continuum, so reading a research study challenges the nurse not to
determine whether the right design has been selected, but whether the
researcher has made the right choices.

Often, in the introduction of a study, qualitative researchers will make explicit
their reasons for choosing a particular design. In general, a qualitative study
will state that it is a qualitative approach somewhere in the abstract,
introduction, or initial methods sections. This is not usually the case with
quantitative research. Instead, it is often up to the reader to determine the
specific decisions the researcher made and to try to deduce the reasoning
behind those decisions.

The reader can pick up some hints early in the abstract and the methods
section that will provide clues about the time dimension of the study.
Comments about the use of “secondary data” or “using data collected for
another study” will indicate the study is retrospective. In this case, the critical
reader should be looking for evidence that the researchers accounted for the
lack of accuracy and specificity that accompanies retrospective studies, or at
least acknowledged its existence. Researchers will rarely identify primary data
explicitly as such, but the inclusion of an intervention protocol or a
measurement procedure indicates that the data were prospectively gathered.


It is usually relatively easy to determine whether a study is longitudinal or
cross-sectional. The reader can look for measures that were collected
repeatedly on the same individuals as a clue that a study is longitudinal. The
researcher might use terms such as paired sample, dependent data, or
repeated measures to indicate that data were collected over time from the
same subjects. If it is clear that data were collected once from individuals at a
single point in time, then the study is a cross-sectional one.

It is important to categorize the type of study before using it as evidence. The
hierarchy of evidence encompasses a variety of research designs, but the
connection to the strength of a practice recommendation is based, to a great
extent, on the type of study. Listed here are some of the points to appraise
when reading a research study to determine whether the authors used the
appropriate approach:

Does the research question match the specific approach that was chosen?
If an intervention was tested, was a quantitative approach used?
If patient preferences and values were assessed, was a qualitative method
or a mixed method used?
Does the researcher articulate a rationale for decisions about the research
Does the author provide logical reasoning for the specific design selected?
If not, can it be deduced from the characteristics of the study?

The initial review of a research study for its approach, type, and time
dimension is useful in determining the level of evidence that its findings
represent. This assessment ensures that the nurse will use the research
results appropriately in supporting evidence-based nursing practice.

Using Research in Evidence-Based Practice
Although it would seem obvious that applied research is the most helpful for
evidence-based practice, basic research may also be used for this purpose.
The hierarchy of evidence considers basic research about physiology and
pathophysiology to be legitimate considerations in making practice decisions,
on par with professional expert opinion and descriptive research. When
developing a research-based practice guideline, a good starting place is a
basic foundation of the existing knowledge about the physiological and
psychological forces that may be in play in a given nursing practice situation.

The results of both quantitative and qualitative research are useful in
evidence-based practice. Although randomized controlled trials (experimental
designs)—both singularly and in aggregate—clearly provide the strongest
evidence for practice, they do not provide the only evidence for practice. Well-
designed quasi-experimental, descriptive, correlation, and predictive designs
can provide evidence that can be used to determine whether an action can be
designated as recommended, optional, or not recommended.


Qualitative and mixed methods are primarily useful in determining the
preferences and values of the patient. They may, however, be used to theorize
which interventions might be effective, particularly when little research is found
or when the research topic deals with behavioral, psychological, or spiritual
issues. Exploratory studies often give rise to theories that subsequently can be
tested with quantitative methods, improving on the evidence for practice. The
best practice guidelines are those that incorporate a variety of research
studies and methods into a single guideline so the needs of patients can be
addressed in a comprehensive, evidence-based manner.

Creating Evidence for Practice
Given all these approaches, types, and dimensions of research, outlining a
specific research study may seem daunting. A systematic approach to making
the decisions that are required, however, helps narrow the choices relatively
quickly and makes the process a manageable one. Using criteria for each step
in the decision-making and design process can help ensure that the right
choices are made for the right reasons.

Criteria for Selecting an Approach
The primary consideration when selecting an approach is ensuring a match
between the problem and the approach chosen to provide a solution. If the
question is one that relates to the effectiveness of an intervention, identifies
factors that influence a patient’s outcome, or finds the best predictors for a
patient’s condition, then clearly a quantitative approach is needed. If the
problem is one that requires an in-depth understanding of the patient’s
experience and the meaning of a phenomenon, then qualitative research is
required. Either approach may be used for exploratory research or when there
is little existing research. However, a qualitative or descriptive study is often a
good way to start an exploration of a phenomenon for which little or no existing
literature is available.

Mixed methods are the best way to capture the outcomes of both approaches.
Mixed methods are complex, however, and require that the researcher have a
command of both quantitative and qualitative research skills. It is rare that a
novice researcher would undertake a mixed-method study to address a single
problem. Instead, mixed methods are often reserved for evaluation of complex
issues or for developing and testing models of action and interaction.

A careful self-assessment of personal experiences and abilities will also help
the researcher arrive at a feasible study method. Time devoted to reflection
about one’s propensity toward quantitative or qualitative methods is time well
spent in preparing for a research study. Using a method that is not compatible
with the researcher’s nature can be frustrating and result in poorly executed
research. If a researcher knows that a particular approach is difficult for him or
her to apply, then the nurse may want to join a research team to learn more
about the process and to gain the mentorship and support that comes from


individuals who are competent in and passionate about the approach. A
pragmatic self-assessment of available time, software, resources, and
competency is also useful before arriving at a conclusion about a study

Finally, the nurse researcher should consider the expectations of the audience
he or she is trying to reach. That audience may include fellow nurses,
healthcare team members, or administrators. The nurse researcher would also
do well to consider other audiences that must be addressed to communicate
the results effectively, such as journal editors, conference attendees, graduate
committees, or professors. The needs and interests of these audiences may
be as important as those of fellow practitioners when it comes to ensuring that
the research results are communicated broadly enough to be used in practice.

Summary of Key Concepts
Research is about the search for truth, but there are multiple ways to
determine and describe truth. The key to a successful research process is
to understand which approach is appropriate for the particular problem to
be solved.
The research process is a fluid, dynamic one that includes multiple
processes. These processes may occur in sequence, or they may overlap;
some phases may even be skipped. The phases in the research process
include defining the research problem, scanning the literature, selecting a
theoretical framework, determining an appropriate design, defining a
sampling strategy, collecting and analyzing data, communicating the
findings, and using the findings to support practice.
Philosophical assumptions drive the fundamental design of a study and are
rooted in the paradigms of quantitative or qualitative methods. Quantitative
studies employ measurement to produce an objective representation of
relationships and effects. Qualitative studies use verbal reports and
observations to arrive at an interpretation of the meaning of a
Mixed methods may involve elements of both quantitative and qualitative
research, but the standards for both approaches must be met. Mixed
methods are most effective for evaluation research and for developing and
testing models of action and interaction.
A design should be chosen based on the nature of the research question
and the preferences and skills of the researcher, as well as practical
considerations such as access to subjects, software, and other resources.
Research can be classified by the intent of the researcher. Basic research
reflects an intent to contribute to the fundamental body of knowledge that is
nursing. Applied research reflects the sole intention of providing evidence
that can be directly applied to the practice of nursing.
The nature of research design can be categorized as experimental or
nonexperi-mental. Experimental designs are highly controlled, with a goal
of testing cause and effect. Nonexperimental designs can be descriptive,


correlative, or predictive. Both types of designs provide evidence for
nursing practice, but the recommendations from experimental designs are
considered stronger.
Research can be categorized by its time dimension as retrospective or
prospective. Retrospective studies use secondary data that have already
been collected. Prospective studies use real-time processes to collect
primary data explicitly for the study.
Studies can also be classified as longitudinal or cross-sectional.
Longitudinal studies measure some aspect of the same subjects over time,
whereas cross-sectional studies measure a characteristic from multiple
populations at a single point in time.

For More Depth and Detail
For a more in-depth look at the concepts in this chapter, try these references:

Creswell, J. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and
mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lee, S., & Smith, C. (2012). Criteria for quantitative and qualitative
data integration: Mixed methods research methodology. CIN:
Computers, Informatics, Nursing, 30(5), 251–256.

Merriam, S., & Tisdell, E. (2015). Qualitative research: A guide to
design and implementation(4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Patton, M. (2014). Qualitative research and evaluation methods:
Integrating theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Perreault, K. (2011). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and
mixed methods approaches. Manual Therapy, 16(1), 103.

Vogt, W., Gardner, D., & Haeffele, L. (2012). When to use what re
search design. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Walsh, K. (2011). Quantitative vs qualitative research: A false
dichotomy. Journal of Research in Nursing, 17(1), 9–11.

Retrieve the following full-text article from the Cumulative Index to
Nursing and Allied Health Literature or similar search database:

Kolehmainen, N., Ransay, C., McKee, L., Missiuna, C., Owen, C., &
Francis. J. (2015). Participation in physical play and leisure in children
with motor impairments: Mixed-methods study to generate evidence for
developing an intervention. Physical Therapy, 95(10), 1374–1386.


Review the article, focusing on the design of the study. Consider the
following appraisal questions in your critical review of this research

1. What is the author’s rationale for using mixed methods for the
study of this subject?

2. Discuss the link between the purpose of the study and this
specific design.

3. Classify this study with respect to each of the following

The intent of the researcher
The type of study
The time dimension of the study

4. Which characteristics did this study possess that were
quantitative in nature?

5. Which characteristics did this study possess that were
qualitative in nature?

6. Describe the reasons you think a mixed-methods approach was
the most appropriate for this population and research goals.

Kettles, A., Creswell, J., & Zhange, W. (2011). Mixed methods

research in mental health nursing. Journal of Psychiatric
and Mental Health Nursing, 18, 535–542.

McCusker, K., & Gunaydin, S. (2015). Research using
qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods and choice based
on the research. Perfusion, 30(7), 537–542.


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 3: Ethical and Legal
Considerations in Research

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Describe fundamental ethical concepts applicable to human
subjects research.
Discuss the historical development of ethical issues in research.
Describe the components of valid informed consent.
Identify the features of populations that make them vulnerable in a
research context.
Discuss statutes and regulations related to conducting clinical
Describe the history, functions, and processes related to the
institutional review board.
Identify the three levels of review conducted by institutional review
Relate protections for human subjects to guidelines for animal
welfare in research.
Discuss the major provisions of the privacy rule (HIPAA) that affect
data collection for research.

A priori



Exempt review

Expedited review

Full disclosure

Full review

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act

Informed consent

Institutional review board (IRB)

Justice Nontherapeutic research

Respect for persons


Right of privacy

Therapeutic research

Vulnerable populations

Ethics is the study of right and wrong. It explores what one might do when
confronted with a situation where values, rights, personal beliefs, or societal
norms may be in conflict. In everyday life, we are often faced with ethical
situations when we must ask a key question: What is the right thing to do in
this particular situation?

Ethics: A type of philosophy that studies right and wrong.

Ethical considerations tell us how we should conduct research. These
directives for the ethical conduct of nursing research are guided by the
researcher’s integrity and applied through personal decision making. Legal
guidelines, in contrast, tell us how we are required to conduct research. These
guidelines are found in laws and regulations that are provided by agencies
external to the nurse researcher. Ethics and legal considerations are often
inextricably intertwined. In the end, it does not matter if an ethical guideline or
a legal regulation provides guidance to the nurse researcher: They are equally
important for quality research.

Researchers face ethical and legal situations in almost every step of the
research process, from selecting participants to collecting data to reporting
findings at the conclusion of the study. The ethics of human subjects research
and international and federal control over such research, however, have
evolved since the mid-twentieth century. Professional organizations and
international associations alike have developed codes of ethics that apply to
research involving human subjects. In this chapter, the ethical foundation of
research is examined, considering both recent and remote examples of
scientific transgressions that helped form current research practices. What
society has legislatively imposed in the context of research regulation is
discussed as well.

Learning from the Past, Protecting the Future
When humans participate as subjects in research studies, care must be taken
to preserve their rights: their right to be informed of the study process and
potential risks, their right to be treated in a fair and transparent manner, and
their right to withdraw from a study at any time for any reason without question
or negative consequences (Franklin, Rowland, Fox & Nicolson, 2012).


Unfortunately, breaches of ethical conduct have a long history. In the
aftermath of World War II, disclosure of Nazi experimentation on prison camp
detainees revealed the need for consideration of basic human rights in
research involving human subjects. In the United States, the revelation of the
deception and nontreatment of men of color with syphilis during the Tuskegee
syphilis study (1932–1972) led to long-lasting mistrust of the medical research
community, and has limited researchers’ ability to recruit diverse populations
for medical studies. The Willowbrook Study (1963–1966) engendered
particular outrage because its subjects were mentally handicapped children; it
led to improved protections for children and other vulnerable populations
within the research context. Unfortunately, ethical breaches are not solely of
historical interest: The Gelsinger case at the University of Pennsylvania and
the Roche case at Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center occurred long
after healthcare organizations had enacted standards for ethics in research.
These cases (discussed later in this chapter) illuminate the fact that any
research involving human subjects always requires careful consideration of
the rights of those subjects.

Although the primary investigators for these research activities were
physicians, evidence suggests that nurses were aware of deceit in recruitment
and delivery of non-therapeutic treatment, at least during the Tuskegee
syphilis study. Why are these events historically important to nurses?
Reflection and careful thought about the roles of nurses in research—from
observer to data collector to principal investigator—and the responsibility
nurses have to humankind mandate that we learn from the past and, in doing
so, protect the future.

As soon as I identify an idea for a research project, I start thinking about
the legal implications of this study or how this study will look in the eyes
of our institutional review board (IRB). When I was a novice researcher,
the IRB seemed like a big hurdle to overcome. Now that I am an
experienced researcher, I view it as a significant asset to the research

The IRB is made up of a wide variety of professionals who evaluate a
study from their area of expertise. There is a lot of research experience
on the IRB. Its members pay particular attention to the risks and
benefits of each study, and it is clear their focus is on protecting the
rights of subjects. But they can also give you excellent advice and
suggestions to make your study stronger and ensure it is ethical. They
also give good feedback about the soundness of the overall study
design and the ability of the study team to perform this particular

This became very clear to me when I had to consider the legal
implications of a recent study that I helped design. The study itself


seemed quite benign. The research question was, “Do two 15-minute
foot massages done on two consecutive days decrease anxiety in
inpatient cancer patients?” We chose to answer this question using a
randomized controlled trial (RCT) study design. The two co-primary
investigators (PIs) were bedside nurses on our inpatient cancer unit
who cared deeply about their patients and wanted to do a study on
ways to help lessen the stress of being hospitalized. The study team
included an oncologist who was also the chief of oncology services,
several clinical nurse specialists, the unit director, an experienced
massage therapist, and me in my role as medical epidemiologist and
nurse researcher. As a team, we designed a study that we felt
adequately addressed our study question.

The IRB saw it differently. They were concerned that we had not
adequately addressed the risks of a foot massage; although rare, they
still needed to be expressed in both the protocol and the consent
process. We needed to inform potential subjects that there was a risk of
dislodging a clot, causing severe pain or discomfort, or irritating or
damaging the skin. Further, the board suggested that our control group
(no massage) would be a better comparison group if we offered some
type of therapeutic nurse interaction for the same amount of time as our
foot massage. This would help overcome any placebo effect from the
treatment. They had concerns about our measurement tools and our
enrollment methods as well. Our simple little study suddenly wasn’t so
simple—and we had to admit their suggested changes would improve
the study in a lot of ways.

Instead of becoming discouraged, we took the IRB’s recommendations
to heart and began to redesign our study. We realized we needed to
better communicate how we had identified and addressed risks in our
IRB documents, so we rewrote our consent form. We asked for advice
from a variety of sources and wrote a better protocol that included a
comparison therapy. We identified a stronger instrument and cleaned
up our sampling procedure. In retrospect, I’m relieved we were stopped
when we were—we honestly hadn’t considered the risks carefully
enough, and the IRB made us do that.

In retrospect, we should have asked for feedback from clinical and
scientific colleagues outside of our team before submitting our project
for IRB review—a lesson learned. Even though it was small and
seemingly benign, we needed to be more aware of the risks involved.

Joanna Bokovoy, RN, DrPH

Medical Epidemiologist

Nazi Medical Experimentation


From 1933 until 1945 and the liberation of the death camps in Europe,
atrocities were inflicted on World War II concentration camp detainees in the
name of science. As part of the goal of advancing the Third Reich in Europe,
the Nazis conducted medical experiments whose results were intended to be
used to produce a race of pure Aryans who would rule the world.

Under the guise of benefiting soldiers of the Third Reich, Nazi physicians
carried out experiments to test the limits of human endurance. For example,
prisoners were submerged for days at a time in a tank of cold water. The intent
was to test how long German pilots, who had to parachute into the cold North
Sea, would survive. Different types of clothing were tested, as well as different
methods for resuscitating the experimental subjects who survived. Other
prisoners were burned with phosphorus to track wound healing. Surgery was
performed without anesthesia to gauge pain levels, in utero surgery was
carried out to determine fetal growth and development during stages of
pregnancy, and surgical gender changes were accomplished. Many of the
subjects of these experiments did not survive.

These experiments were not randomly carried out by only a few scientists;
instead, they were regarded as fulfillment of governmental policy in support of
the war effort. These atrocities in the name of scientific experimentation made
it clear that international oversight of the rights of human subjects in research
was necessary.

The Tuskegee Study
It is tempting to consider the Nazi studies to be examples of outrageous acts
that could not occur in our own society. Unfortunately, the U.S. Public Health
Service has its own record of egregious treatment of experimental subjects.

In 1932, the Public Health Service initiated a study to determine the natural
history of syphilis. Called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the
Negro Male,” the study initially involved 600 black men—399 with syphilis and
201 without. The study was conducted without obtaining the informed consent
of the subjects. While the subjects were led to believe they were being treated
for a blood disorder, in reality the progress of their syphilis was allowed to
unfold without treatment. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the
study went on for 40 years. In 1972, a news story about the study caused a
public outcry that led the government to appoint an ad hoc advisory panel to
investigate the study. The panel concluded that the Tuskegee Study was
“ethically unjustified” and ordered reparations for the men and their families
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011).

The Willowbrook Study
Lest we rationalize these examples of inhumane treatment of research
subjects as affecting only adults, the Willowbrook study, conducted from 1963
to 1966, provides an example of research in which children were the target.


The study’s conduct was doubly egregious because these children—residents
of a state-run school for children with learning disabilities—were also mentally
compromised. The stated purpose of the study was to determine the course of
untreated hepatitis. At the time, the school was supposedly not accepting new
students, but it admitted additional children whose parents were willing to
enroll them in the study. This policy introduced an added element of influence:
If the school accepted only children whose parents agreed to their participation
in the study, it may have put pressure on those parents who had few options
for caring for their children and were desperate for state assistance.

Reports allege that the children in the Willowbrook study were deliberately
infected with the hepatitis virus—some by being fed extracts of stools from
known infected children, and later by injection. After a period of observation
during which the children were untreated, a vaccine was tested on the

In some circles, the value of this study is still heavily debated. On the one
hand, it did, indeed, result in development of the hepatitis vaccine used today.
On the other hand, highly vulnerable children were infected with hepatitis, and
the voluntary nature of their parents’ consent is questionable (Hardicre, 2014).

All of these episodes raised concerns about the need to protect the rights of
human subjects. As a result of these violations of basic human rights, both
international and national guidelines for the ethical treatment of research
subjects were developed.

International Guides for the Researcher
Two major international codes and reports guide researchers in carrying out
ethical research: the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki.

The Nuremberg war crimes trials, which were held from 1945 to 1947, focused
on crimes against humanity. They were presided over by judges from the four
Allied powers— the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet
Union. The city of Nuremberg, Germany, was purposely chosen as the site for
the trials because, after 11 Allied air strikes during the war, the city was
declared 90% dead. During the trials, a large-scale prosecution of Nazi
officials took place, many of whom presented as a defense the notion that they
were simply following their superiors’ orders. Their crimes included inhumane
acts on civilians, initiating and waging aggressive acts of war, murder, near
extermination of a race, slavery, ill treatment of prisoners, plunder, and

In response to the revelations in these trials, the Nuremberg Code was
developed in 1949. This code contained guidelines requiring voluntary,
informed consent to participate in medical experimentation. It further specified
that the research must serve a worthy purpose, that the desired knowledge


must be unobtainable by other means, and that the anticipated result must
justify the performance of the experiment. All unnecessary physical and
mental suffering was to be avoided. A little known fact is that the Nuremberg
Code led to the notion of substituting animal experimentation in advance of or
in lieu of human experimentation. This later raised concerns about the humane
treatment of animals, a topic discussed later in this chapter.

The Nuremberg Code further guaranteed that no experiments were to be
permitted when death or disability was an expected outcome, “except,
perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve
as subjects.” Risks were to be commensurate with the importance of the
problem, and human subjects were to be protected from even a remote
possibility of harm. Experiments were to be conducted only by properly
qualified scientists, and the subject had the right to stop the experiment at any
time. Further, the scientist in charge was obligated to stop the experiment if
injury, disability, or death was likely to result. The code may be viewed online

The Nuremberg Code, developed in 1949, contains research guidelines
stipulating that:

Consent is voluntary and informed for subjects who participate in
medical experimentation.
The research serves a worthy purpose.
The knowledge gained is unobtainable by any other means.
The anticipated results justify performance of the experiment.
Unnecessary physical and mental suffering or harm is avoided.
Death or disability is not an expected outcome.
Properly qualified scientists conduct the experiments.

The Declaration of Helsinki—an extension of the Nuremberg Code—was
adopted in 1964 by the World Medical Association and amended and updated
most recently in 2008. The Declaration of Helsinki expanded the principles of
the Nuremberg Code to differentiate between therapeutic research and
nontherapeutic research. Therapeutic research is expected to confer on the
study subject an opportunity to receive a treatment that might be beneficial.
Nontherapeutic research is carried out for the purpose of generating
knowledge and is not expected to benefit the study subject, but might lead to
improved treatment in the future.

Therapeutic research: Studies in which the subject can be expected to
receive a potentially beneficial treatment.


Nontherapeutic research: Studies that are carried out for the purpose
of generating knowledge. They are not expected to benefit the research
subject, but may lead to improved treatment in the future.

Similar to the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki requires informed
consent for ethical research, while allowing for surrogate consent when the
prospective research subject is incompetent, physically or mentally incapable
of providing consent, or a minor. Furthermore, the Declaration of Helsinki
states that research within these groups should be conducted only when this
research is necessary to promote the health of the representative group and
when this research cannot otherwise be performed on competent persons.

National Guidelines for the Nurse Researcher
In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, which resulted in the
formation of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of
Biomedical and Behavioral Research. As part of their work, members of the
national commission wrote the Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the
Protection of Human Subjects of Research report. Commonly known as the
Belmont Report, this document, which was published in 1978, has become the
cornerstone statement of ethical principles on which regulations for protection
of human subjects are based (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and
Welfare [HEW], 1978).

The Belmont Report (which can be viewed online at begins
by stating, “Scientific research has produced substantial social benefits. It has
also posed some troubling ethical questions. Public attention was drawn to
these questions by reported abuses of human subjects in biomedical
experiments. . .” (HEW, 1978, p. 1). As a result, state and national regulations,
as well as international and professional codes, have been developed to guide
researchers. These rules are based on broader ethical principles that provide
a framework to evaluate investigators’ judgment when designing and carrying
out their research. Three foundational ethical principles relevant to the ethics
of human subjects are described in the Belmont Report: respect for persons,
beneficence, and justice.

Respect for Persons
Respect for persons, the first principle, incorporates two ethical convictions:
that individuals should be treated as autonomous beings capable of making
their own decisions, and that persons with diminished autonomy or those not
capable of making their own decisions should be protected. The extent of
protection afforded to those incapable of self-determination will depend on the
risks, harms, and benefits of the study. Consequently, the principle of respect
for persons is divided into two separate moral requirements: the requirement


to acknowledge a person’s autonomy and the requirement to protect those
individuals with diminished autonomy.

Respect for persons: A basic principle of ethics stating that individuals
should be treated as autonomous beings who are capable of making
their own decisions. Persons who have limited autonomy or who are not
capable of making their own decisions should be protected.

Persons with diminished autonomy sometimes are regarded as vulnerable or
as a member of a vulnerable population. These groups may contain some
individuals who possess limited autonomy (that is, they cannot fully participate
in the consent process)—for example, children, individuals with dementia and
other cognitive disorders, prisoners, and pregnant women. Some ethicists
regard older persons, terminally ill persons, and other hospitalized persons, as
well as those who are homeless, students, or transgender, as also deserving
of special consideration by researchers. Researchers have a special obligation
to ensure a study involving vulnerable populations is ethical. However, Lange,
Rogers, and Dodds (2013) argue that a description of the features that
makes a group vulnerable is more helpful than labeling actual population
groups. These authors offer a simple standard for identifying such individuals:
Vulnerable subjects are those who are especially prone to harm or

Vulnerable populations: Groups of people with diminished autonomy
who cannot participate fully in the consent process. Such groups may
include children, individuals with cognitive disorders, prisoners, and
pregnant women.

Under this definition, identifying vulnerable populations becomes a much
broader task. For example, refugees, the bereaved, persons with dementia,
alcoholics, persons with disabilities, and persons diagnosed with mental illness
could all be considered vulnerable and deserving of special protection. The
challenge is to illuminate the needs of these vulnerable patients—many of
whom could benefit greatly from population-specific research—while
respecting their integrity and minimizing their risks from participating in such
research (Nordentoft & Kappel, 2011).

Special consideration for research studies that may include vulnerable
populations involve ensuring the following protections:

The risks of participating would be acceptable to volunteers in the general
Selection of subjects is fair and unbiased.


The written consent form is understandable given the subject’s expected
level of function and comprehension.
Adequate follow-up is provided (Juritzen, Grimen & Heggen, 2011).

One of the most fundamental ethical principles in research is beneficence—
that is, “do no harm.” According to the Belmont Report, “Persons are treated in
an ethical manner not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them
from harm, but also by making efforts to secure their well-being. Two general
rules have been formulated as complementary expressions of beneficent
actions: (1) do no harm and (2) maximize possible benefits and minimize
possible harms” (HEW, 1978, §B.2).

Beneficence: A basic principle of ethics that states that persons should
have their decisions respected, be protected from harm, and have steps
taken to ensure their well-being.

Human subjects can be harmed in a variety of ways, including physical harm
(e.g., injury), psychological harm (e.g., worry, stress, and fear), social harm
(e.g., loss of friends or one’s place in society), and economic harm (e.g., loss
of employment). Researchers must strive to minimize harm and to achieve the
best possible balance between the benefits to be gained from participation and
the risks of being a participant.

The Belmont Report tells us that the assessment of the risks and benefits of a
study presents an opportunity to gather comprehensive information about the
proposed research. The investigator strives to design a study that will answer
a meaningful question. A review committee will determine whether risks
inherent in participation are justified. Prospective subjects will make an
assessment, based on their understanding of risks and benefits, as to whether
to participate in the study.

The third broad principle found in the Belmont Report is justice. The principle
of justice incorporates participants’ right to fair treatment and fairness in
distribution of benefit and burden. According to the report, an injustice would
occur when a benefit to which a person is entitled is denied or when some
burden is unduly imposed. For example, the selection of research subjects
needs to be closely scrutinized to determine whether some subjects (e.g.,
welfare recipients, racial and ethnic minorities, or persons confined to
institutions) are being systematically selected because of their easy
accessibility or because of their compromised position. The application of
justice also requires that research should not unduly involve persons from
groups unlikely to be beneficiaries of the results of the research. However,


members of diverse groups also should be included, and not excluded, without
a prior knowledge of their suitability to participate.

Justice: A basic principle of ethics that incorporates a participant’s right
to fair treatment and fairness in distribution of benefit and burden.

During research, human subjects can suffer harm in the following ways:

Physically (injury)
Psychologically (worry, stress, or fear)
Socially (loss of friends or place in society)
Economically (loss of employment)

Certain diverse groups, such as minorities, the economically disadvantaged,
the homeless, the very sick, and those persons who have a compromised
ability to provide consent, should be protected against the danger of being
recruited for a study solely for the researcher’s convenience. In short, this
means that researchers may not take advantage of underprivileged persons
so as to benefit those who are privileged.

Table 3.1 Ethical Principles and Research Design

This Ethical Principle Is Managed with This Design Principle

Respect for persons Informed consent process
Subject selection process
Adequacy of follow-up systems

Beneficence Assessment of risk and benefit

Justice Subject selection process

Table 3.1 links the ethical principles to the elements of research design. In
addition to these ethical principles, some values are recognized as
fundamental to the scientific enterprise as a whole. These concepts go beyond
the ethical treatment of subjects and address the ethical behavior of the
researcher. The primary values that are the focus of the entire research
process include truthfulness, trust, and best interests. Related values include
carefulness, openness, freedom, credit, education, social responsibility,
legality, opportunity, and mutual respect (Horner & Minifie, 2011a).

The ethical nurse researcher considers all these principles as a research study
is being designed and adheres to these values as the research is being


carried out. The failure to identify and resolve ethical issues can place both the
conduct and the results of a research study in jeopardy (Milton, 2013).

The Ethical Researcher
Bad behavior in the name of science has given rise to the need for laws,
regulations, and safeguards. The public’s perception of research, its benefits,
and its risks is shaped by the way research is conducted and by the way
results are reported. Researchers, then, should abide by the ethical guidelines
cited in the Nuremberg Code, the Belmont Report, and the Helsinki
Declaration. Additionally, other guidelines have been developed that are
specific to research funded by the federal government or foundations.

Table 3.2 summarizes the responsibilities of an ethical nurse researcher. Such
researchers abide by ethical guidelines so as to uphold the public’s confidence
in research and its contribution to knowledge for the greater good. These
guidelines declare that the ethical researcher should honor the following

Adhere to principles of beneficence by doing no harm, maximizing benefits,
and minimizing possible harms
Respect the autonomy of the participants in the consent process
Employ the principle of justice in subject selection
Explain the research procedures to the participants
Obtain proper and informed consent
Ensure the confidentiality of participants
Maintain appropriate documentation of the research process
Adhere to research protocols
Report results in a fair and factual manner (National Academy of
Sciences, 2009)

Table 3.2 Responsibilities of an Ethical Nurse Researcher

To respect individuals’ autonomy in consenting to participate in research

To protect those prospective subjects for whom decisional capacity is limited

To minimize potential harm and to maximize possible benefits for all subjects enrolled

To ensure that benefits and burdens associated with the research protocol are distributed equally
when identifying prospective subjects

To protect privacy, to ensure confidentiality, and to guarantee anonymity when promised

To notify institutional officials of breaches of research protocols and incidents of scientific

To maintain competence in one’s identified area of research

To maintain proficiency in research methods


One way to ensure that the researcher conducting a study meets these criteria
is to select the most appropriate participants for the study. The study subjects
must also understand their role in the research. The most important aspect of
this process is to secure the participants’ informed consent.

Informed Consent
Informed consent encompasses much more than just a form or a signature;
rather, it is a process of information exchange that includes recruitment
materials, verbal dialogue, presentation of written materials, questions and
answers, and an agreement that is documented by a signature. According to
the Belmont Report, the consent process contains three components:
information, comprehension, and voluntariness. Participants should be able to
ask questions, understand the risks and benefits, and be assured that if they
choose to participate they may withdraw at any time without consequences.

Informed consent: A process of information exchange in which
participants are provided with understandable information needed to
make a participation decision, full disclosure of the risks and benefits,
and the assurance that withdrawal is possible at any time without
consequences. This process begins with recruitment and ends with a
signed agreement document.

To judge how much information should be disclosed to a prospective subject,
the “reasonable subject” standard should be used. This standard requires that
the extent and nature of the information provided be sufficient for a reasonable
person to decide whether to participate (Odeh, 2013).

Organization of the Informed Consent
Prospective subjects who are fully informed about the nature of the research
and its associated risks and benefits are positioned to make an educated
decision about whether to participate. Essential content for informed consent
in research can be found in the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services’ Code of Federal Regulations (CFR 45, Part 46.106). Information that
is essential for informed consent can be found in Table 3.3.

Table 3.3 Elements of the Informed Consent Form

Title of study and name(s) of investigator(s)

Introduction and invitation to participate

Basis for selection

Explanation of study purpose and procedures


Duration of participation

Reasonably foreseeable risks/unforeseen risks

Benefits of participation/cost of participation

Appropriate alternatives to participation

Voluntary withdrawal from study


Confidentiality of records

Contact person

Funding statement/conflict of interest statement

Statement of voluntary participation

Signature lines

Deception or Incomplete Disclosure
When explaining the research procedures to the prospective subject, the
researcher must explain all information that is known about risks and benefits.
The subject needs to know if the treatment, drug, or procedure used in the
study is not necessary for his or her care and if it may have outcomes that are
questionable or not completely understood. Full disclosure, or reporting as
much information as is known at the time, is crucial so the participant can
make an informed decision as to whether to participate.

Full disclosure:Reporting as much information about the research as
is known at the time without threatening the validity of the study. This
practice allows the subject to make an informed decision as to whether
to participate.

Some participants may not be informed of some aspects of the research
because having such knowledge would likely impair the validity of the
research. This threat to validity—called the Hawthorne effect, treatment
effects, or placebo effect—may lead subjects to behave differently simply
because they are being treated. Such an outcome might happen in a study
involving experimental drugs or complementary therapies, for example.
Balancing the expectations of participants for the care they will receive with
the purpose of the research may be challenging. This issue is most often
addressed by using vague, rather than deceptive, language. However,
incomplete disclosure is generally allowable only when all of the following
conditions are met:


1. No other nondeceptive method exists to study the phenomenon of

2. The study will make a substantial contribution to the body of

3. The deception is not expected to cause significant harm or emotional

4. Participants are debriefed about the deception as soon as possible
(Boynton, Portnoy & Johnson, 2013).

Incomplete disclosure should never be used to enroll participants in a study or
to elicit cooperation and participation from reluctant subjects by masking or
minimizing potential risks.

Because a person’s informed consent to participate is based on his or her
understanding of the benefits and risks, in addition to the overall importance of
the area under study, the researcher acts as a communicator and evaluator
when ensuring that the prospective subject understands the intent of the
study. When developing the informed consent form, the investigator may use
institutional boilerplate templates to communicate all necessary information in
an organized fashion. It is important to avoid the use of healthcare jargon and
technical terms, and instead to use simple language. For participants from a
general population (for example, hospitalized patients), the wording of the
consent form should be at a seventh- or eighth-grade reading level.
Readability formulas, based on length of sentences and number of syllables
per word, can be found in Microsoft Word, or reading level can be calculated
directly with any number of free, Internet-based instruments.

Case in Point: Jesse Gelsinger
Gene therapy is viewed as having the potential to produce highly
impressive advances in medical treatment. In 1992, an investigator with
an excellent reputation as a genetic researcher founded a company
with the intention of commercializing successful gene therapies.
Corporate investors contributed millions of dollars to the company.
Following the establishment of the business venture, the investigator
designed a clinical trial in which a genetically engineered cold virus was
used to deliver genes to correct a genetic liver disorder. This virus had
been tested in animals, but not yet in humans, prior to the beginning of
this trial.

The investigator’s original proposal involved testing the gene therapy
on terminally ill newborns, but this plan was rejected by the institutional
bioethicist. Following this setback, the investigator modified the
proposed research protocol and decided to test the gene therapy on
stable patients with the previously identified genetic liver disorder.
Institutional approval was provided in 1995, and the trial commenced at


multiple study sites. In 1999, Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old subject
who had the genetic liver disorder, but who was asymptomatic and
living a normal life, was enrolled in this gene therapy clinical trial at the
University of Pennsylvania.

At the same time, researchers from other study sites began to contact
the investigator, expressing concern about the safety of using the cold
virus. The trial continued, however, and Gelsinger—the next-to-last
patient enrolled in the clinical trial—received a dose that was 300 times
the dose received by the first patient. Gelsinger died from a massive
immune system response to the gene therapy. The Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) immediately shut down all gene therapy research
at the University of Pennsylvania. After Gelsinger’s death, 921 adverse
events in this and other gene therapy trials were reported to the FDA
and to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (Parascandola, 2004).

Questions Raised by the Death of Jesse Gelsinger

Should high-risk research be conducted on “healthy, stable”
Was this particular research protocol ready for human trials?
Were the adverse events ignored? Misinterpreted? Apparent only in
Did a financial conflict of interest (the investigator owned the gene
therapy company) bias the researcher’s judgment?

Research Integrity
All types of research, but particularly research involving human subjects,
should be conducted under strict ethical guidelines. Research integrity
involves more than meeting basic ethical principles for the treatment of human
subjects. The researcher’s work must demonstrate integrity in all phases of the
research process—from design to analysis through reporting and follow-up.

A well-designed study may be ethical by plan but manipulated during
implementation. For this reason, most analysis decisions should be made a
priori, meaning before data have been collected. Otherwise, it may be
possible to manipulate the data to mislead the reader or to selectively report
findings that are supportive of the researcher’s point of view. This manipulation
of data can be accomplished in statistical analysis by changing the
significance level or by making erroneous assumptions to make the results
seem more conclusive (Wasserman, 2013). Data in graphs can be
manipulated by changing the distance between the values on the axes to
make the results appear more significant than they are. FIGURE 3.1
demonstrates how the same data may be presented two different ways to
mislead the reader. In these examples, the vertical axis has been altered to


make it appear as if one hospital is making more money when, in fact, the
hospitals have identical revenue figures.

A priori: Conceived or formulated before an investigation.

FIGURE 3.1 The Two Hospitals Actually Have Equal Revenues

Completing a training course in research protocols is one of the best ways to
ensure that research is conducted under the most ethical guidelines. The NIH
requires ethics training for anyone involved with NIH grants or anyone who
conducts research in NIH facilities. The areas typically covered in this type of
training include data acquisition and management, publication practices,
research misconduct, and responsible authorship, among others. Those new
to the research process should participate in some type of training on the
responsible conduct of research, whether or not the study is federally

Legal and Regulatory Guidelines for Conducting
Ethics and law are intimately intertwined; in fact, they might be considered
different points on the same continuum. Obeying the law (the minimum
standard) is at one end of the continuum, and acting ethically (above the
expected minimum behavior) is at the opposite end. This duality of law and
ethics also exists in research. The nurse researcher can think of the law as a
minimum standard and ethics as a higher standard. Law can also be thought
of as a means of conflict resolution. Although most people do the right thing
ethically, if they do not, the law is there to resolve the situation. The good
researcher maximizes both the legal and ethical protections afforded to
subjects in a study.


Brief Overview of Laws Related to Research
The four sources of law that may affect researchers are common law,
administrative law, statutory law, and tort law. Common law is derived from
judicial decisions made during a trial (case law) and often applies rules from
early English common law. Medical malpractice lawsuits are an example of
common law. Administrative law is formulated by the federal and state
governments and other regulatory agencies and obtains its authority from
Congress. An example of administrative law is the Health Insurance Portability
and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which is a federal regulation governing the
patient’s right to privacy and confidentiality. HIPAA has had dramatic effects
on data collection for research purposes, and its implications extend to cutting-
edge research methods involving social media, the Internet, and “Big Data”
resources. Most laws that affect the clinical researcher are statutes or
statutory laws. Statutory laws are enacted, amended, and repealed by the

Four categories of law:


A fourth category of legal issues has its roots in tort law. Torts are civil wrongs
committed against individuals or their property. Examples of tort law include
negligence, malpractice, assault, battery, false imprisonment, invasion of
privacy, and causing mental or emotional distress. Although these last
allegations are unlikely in a clinical research project, they can happen and may
subsequently provoke a malpractice claim. Most claims are brought when a
subject believes he or she has been harmed due to negligence on the part of
the researcher. Examples of negligence in clinical research include using an
instrument known to be defective, using equipment that is not functioning
properly, denying a patient reasonable treatment so as to obtain a control
group, or not following a specified research protocol so that a patient’s safety
is compromised. All of these circumstances may cause injury to the participant
and result in a claim of negligence. Under federal regulations, no informed
consent form can include language through which the subject waives or even
appears to waive any legal rights. In other words, obtaining informed consent
from a study participant does not release the investigator from liability for
negligence (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CFR 45, Part

A researcher could also be accused of defamation (a false and harmful oral
statement) or libel (a false and harmful published statement) as a result of the


way he or she presents information in the written account of the research.
Truthful researchers need not fear either of these outcomes; both require the
intent to distribute information that is known to be incorrect. Reporting the truth
is the best defense against accusations of defamation and libel. To further
protect the legal rights of subjects, the researcher should guard against
referring to individuals’ identity in any written research reports.

The researcher must also guard against inflicting mental or emotional distress.
In a research design that involves sensitive topics, the participant may
experience painful emotions such as grief, despair, or shame. Most research
protocols, therefore, include in the consent form statements such as “potential
emotional distress may occur as a result of this research” so that the subject
may make a fully informed decision about participation.

A new source of legal issues is the challenge of determining individuals’ rights
to their cells as property—a problem that arises when tissue is used to
develop cell lines that may potentially be sold for millions of dollars. The global
expansion of biobanks of human tissue has raised a wide range of bioethical
concerns related to consent, privacy, control, ownership, and disclosure issues
(Nisbet & Fahy, 2013). In large part, the debate focuses on whether tissue is
the tissue donor’s property, and whether researchers need to obtain informed
consent to use tissue from a living donor in research. Other concerns relate to
the welfare of vulnerable study participants, oversight of such programs, and
donor compensation.

The right to the tissues stored in biobanks is not a clear-cut question of
ownership. From a legal standpoint, tissues removed for therapeutic or
diagnostic purposes are considered “abandoned,” and their use for research
purposes does not require consent. Patients may not even be aware they
have contributed their cells to research. Generic consent forms signed during
medical procedures often grant practitioners the right to dispose of tissues as
they see fit, which may include donating the tissues for research. In case of
tissue sample donation, if donors have consented to those samples’ use in
research and no longer possess the tissues, they have transferred the right of
ownership, including the right to obtain compensation or share in profits from
the tissues’ subsequent sale (Moore & McSherry, 2013). The debate
continues as to the ethical implications of such a transaction, particularly when
the researcher stands to gain financially from the research.

The right of privacy is the right to be left alone. Patients and research
participants have a right to the confidentiality of their health records and the
release of that information only to those parties whom they have authorized.
The right to privacy covers the right both to physical privacy of the person’s
body and to the privacy of one’s health information.


Right of privacy: A person’s right to have his or her health information
kept confidential and released only to authorized individuals and to
have his or her body shielded from public view.

Privacy is also about human dignity and the privacy of one’s own person.
Accusations of invasion of privacy have been brought against personnel for
uncovering patients’ bodies unnecessarily or performing examinations in front
of others. This practice may be particularly problematic when the research
protocol calls for multiple data collectors to check interrater reliability.

Invasion of privacy may also involve the written word. Patients have a right to
privacy of their health information throughout the research process, whether
they disclose such information verbally or it is retrieved from an electronic or
written record. In the field of clinical research, breaches of this right invoke
HIPAA sanctions. In cases of breaches of confidentiality or invasion of privacy,
the patient or participant need not prove damages, making it easier for the
patient or subject to initiate a lawsuit.

To avoid accusations of discrimination in the population under study,
researchers must be careful when choosing the populations to exclude from
the research. Valid reasons to exclude a particular population, such as
pregnant women, members of certain age groups, or patients with certain
diagnoses, must be specifically documented. These exclusion criteria are
necessary both for good design and to ensure that subjects are selected
without bias. Proper selection of the research population is a primary
consideration when researchers are studying potentially life-saving treatments.

The key to avoiding any of these accusations is the accurate documentation of
all research steps in addition to following the ethical principles discussed
earlier in this chapter. Following these guidelines will minimize the threat of
any legal action by a research participant and reassure the researcher that he
or she is doing the right thing.

Legal Issues Surrounding Informed Consent
Signing a consent form to participate in research has the same purpose and
carries the same value as does signing the consent form for treatment in
healthcare facilities. Requirements governing what should be included in an
informed consent form are the same for legal purposes and for ethical
purposes. However, legal issues have been raised about who can provide
consent for participation in a research study. If the individual cannot legally
consent to participate in the research (for example, if the individual is a minor,
has been judged incompetent, or is a member of a vulnerable population), the
researcher must ensure that the person’s interests are protected. Consent
must be obtained from the subject, if possible, as well as from the legal
guardian. In some cases, formal consent is obtained from the legal guardian,


and simultaneously assent is provided by the participant. For example, a child
should agree that he or she is willing to participate in a study (assent) even
though the legal consent is required from the parents.

If the research involves human subject participation, in addition to consent, the
researcher should obtain an authorization that allows the researcher access to
the participant’s medical information. This authorization for access to medical
information may be incorporated into the consent form. Table 3.4 provides an
example of an authorization for release of information.

Table 3.4 Participant Authorization for Release of Information

Full Name:__________ Record Identifier:__________

Date of Birth:__________


City, State, Zip Code:__________

Other Contact Information:__________

Select One Option Below:

1.___I authorize the following person(s) or agencies access to my personal health information for a
period not to exceed 90 days from the date of signature below.

2.___I decline authorization for any and all requests for release of my personal health information.

________________________ ________________________

Patient/Participant/Date Researcher/Agency/Date

Emerging Issues: Ethical Use of Social Media
Increasingly, health researchers are using personal communication
devices and social media to facilitate communication with potential
research participants and to gather data. Social media, like any method
that blurs the line between the public and private spheres, could qualify
as an ethically risky research space (Nind, Wiles, Bengry-Howell, &
Crow, 2012). The principles that apply to human subjects in face-to-
face research should likewise be applied to the use of any intermediary
technology used in a study, such as the Internet. Specifically, the
researcher should clearly demonstrate the ethical principles of respect,
integrity, and beneficence when utilizing such means of

To date, a few guidelines for the use of social media in research have
emerged, but no standard set of rules has been adopted as yet by any
research oversight group. Respect in this setting can be demonstrated
by letting the subject control the interaction with the researcher.


Integrity can be maintained by focusing on the privacy of the subject
while being cognizant of the potential for personal information to be
taken out of context. To prevent this possibility, a specific research
project page should be created, and subjects should be allowed to
control which data are uploaded. When the study’s project page is
linked to an individual’s social media page, the public should be unable
to determine which data are being used for the research. Using a
specific project page can also protect participants against the public
exposure of their identities. To practice beneficence, the researcher
should be proficient in the functions of the social media being used,
particularly the privacy settings. The consent to participate should
include specific language that differentiates between materials that can
be submitted privately and those that may be revealed publicly—for
example, a private message versus a public post (Lunnay, Borlagdan,
McNaughton & Ward, 2015).

Institutional Review Boards
Research that involves human subjects in some way—as opposed to
retrieving data from records or databases—requires a higher level of
oversight. This oversight is provided by legal entities that also are charged
with maintaining ethical standards in research. These entities, called
institutional review boards (IRBs), are required by law in any organization
that allows the conduct of research involving people.

Institutional review board (IRB):The board required in research
institutions that reviews and oversees all research involving human
subjects and ensures studies meet all federal regulation criteria,
including ethical standards.

The roots of IRBs can be traced back to the National Commission for the
Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which
was established in 1974. This commission advised the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services on policies related to research. It was also
instrumental in the adoption of the recommendations of the Belmont Report of

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, acting on these
recommendations, developed new regulations governing research and human
subjects of research under the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). These
new regulations called for the creation of IRBs, also known as human subjects
committees, as safeguards against the inhumane treatment of individuals that
had, in the past, been inflicted in the name of science. Part 46 of CFR 45
requires that any research conducted on human subjects be approved by an
IRB. According to requirements in Part 46, the mission of the IRB is “to ensure


that research is ethically acceptable and that the welfare and rights of
research participants are protected.”

Case in Point: Nicole Wan
Nicole Wan was a 19-year-old sophomore pre-med student at the
University of Rochester in 1996 when she volunteered for a study on
the effects of environmental air quality. This pollution research project
was funded by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) grant
from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
Wan was one of 200 participants enrolled in an arm of the study at the
University of Rochester Medical Center. Participants were paid $150 to
undergo a bronchoscopy to examine and collect lung cells.

A medical resident, who was functioning in the role of investigator,
administered aerosolized lidocaine, a local anesthetic, to prevent Wan
from gagging and to allow for easier passage of the bronchoscope into
the patient’s lower airway. Because Wan had discomfort during
placement of the bronchoscope, additional lidocaine spray was
administered. After completion of the study protocol, she left the
medical center and went to a friend’s apartment, where she suffered a
cardiac arrest 3 hours later. Although Wan was resuscitated by
emergency personnel and admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) at
the medical center, she suffered irreversible pulmonary and
neurological damage and died 2 days later. The county medical
examiner ruled Wan’s death to be an accident due to acute lung
toxicity. On autopsy, her serum levels of lidocaine were found to be four
times the maximum levels (McGuire, 1996).

Questions Raised by the Death of Nicole Wan

Is participation in a clinical trial appropriate for a 19-year-old college
student? Should parents be notified when students enroll in such
What is the “age of reason” for participation in a clinical trial that
may carry risk?
Why did a medical resident, rather than the principal investigator,
administer the study protocol?

The Review Process
Research studies that involve human subjects must be reviewed by the IRB.
The IRB helps the researcher determine whether there is a potential for a legal
or ethical breach and ensures that safeguards are in place to avoid this risk.

There are three categories of research review by an IRB:

Exempt review


Expedited review
Full review

An exempt review covers proposals that do not require review by the IRB.
(The IRB determines whether a study is exempt; this is not the researcher’s
decision.) This category is limited to studies that pose no risk for the subjects.
Such a designation is common when the researcher employs surveys,
noninvasive procedures, secondary data or documents, or other methods
where it would be impossible to identify any research subject individually. The
exemption only refers to the fact that the IRB does not need to review the
study proposal; it does not exempt the researcher from the same ethical
principles that govern all research.

Exempt review:A review of study proposals that pose no risk to
subjects; the full IRB is not required to participate.

An expedited review is used for research that poses only minimal risk to the
participants or for those studies that use drugs that do not require FDA
approval. Minimal risk means that the probability or magnitude of discomfort
anticipated in the research is not greater than what is ordinarily encountered in
daily life. It may also be considered no more risky than what would be
encountered during the performance of routine physical or psychological
examinations or tests. Expedited review research studies are usually reviewed
by one or two members of the IRB, who may consult with other board
members as necessary.

Expedited review: A review of study proposals that pose minimal risk
to subjects; one or two IRB members participate.

A full review is necessary for all research that poses more than minimal risk
to the subjects and for research that does not qualify for exempt status. These
studies are reviewed by the full committee, with particular attention being paid
to the methods, consent process, and selection of the subjects. Studies that
require direct access to participants, use personally identifiable medical
information, and involve more than minimal risk are subject to full review by
the committee. Additional review by a privacy board may be required if
personal health information (PHI) is needed for the study. This committee may
or may not be part of an IRB and will determine whether patient authorization
is required, whether a disclosure notice is required, or whether a waiver can
be issued to the researcher that exempts him or her from the consent process.
A waiver means the research can be conducted using the methods described
in the research protocol and that patient authorizations and disclosures
documenting record access are not required. Disclosure forms are discussed
in more detail later in this chapter.


Full review: A review of study proposals that pose more than minimal
risk to subjects, that do not qualify for exempt status, and in which the
full IRB committee participates.

Researchers should not make assumptions based on these descriptions that
their research may be exempt or expedited. No aspect of a study should
commence without approval from the appropriate committee or review board.
It is the IRB that tells the researcher whether a study is exempt or qualifies for
expedited review—not the other way around.

Full IRB review must be done under the following conditions:

Studies require direct access to participants.
Human subjects are put at more than minimal risk.
Protected health information is required.
Federal funds are received.
Publication is anticipated.

Quality improvement studies are exempt from IRB review. Such studies are
typically conducted for the purpose of internal organizational improvement,
and there is no expectation of publication or generalization of the results to
larger groups. Occasionally, though, quality improvement may be conducted
with the idea of publishing a report on the study; in such a case, IRB oversight
is appropriate. FIGURE 3.2 lists a set of questions that can help a study
designer determine whether a proposed project is solely focused on quality
improvement—and therefore requires no IRB oversight—or whether it
constitutes research.

When preparing the IRB/Human Subjects Approval Form, the researcher must
clearly describe the following eight required elements (CFR 45, Part 46):

1. The research project, the subjects, and how they will be selected and

2. The methods and procedures to be used; the subjects should
understand their level of participation, what is required, and for how

3. Risks to the participants, particularly if drugs or treatments are used
4. Benefits to participants
5. How confidentiality and anonymity will be maintained
6. Contact information for questions of participants
7. Explanation of any compensation
8. Statement about voluntary participation


The IRB is more than a safety net for subjects; it also has the capacity to
advise, mentor, and develop new researchers. A tremendous amount of
research expertise is available to the researcher via the members of the IRB.
Consulting with them early and often in a study can help strengthen the study
design. Although much is made of the regulatory authority of the IRB, just as
much can be said for its capacity to provide an additional critical evaluation of
the research as it is designed. The IRB serves as another safeguard to help
the researcher design a strong, ethical, and legal research study. Doing the
right thing from the beginning of a study is the best way to avoid legal and
ethical accusations.

FIGURE 3.2 Checklist to Differentiate Research from Quality Improvement
Studies Used with permission of University of Colorado Health. North IRB, Fort
Collins, CO 80526.

Case in Point: Ellen Roche
In April 2001, Ellen Roche, a healthy 24-year-old laboratory employee
at Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center, was recruited as a
normal volunteer to participate in an NIH-funded research study at her
workplace. The aim of this study was to determine factors leading to


airway irritation in asthma patients. The protocol required the use of
inhaled hexamethonium to induce asthma-like effects. The pulmonary
toxicity associated with oral, intramuscular, or subcutaneous
hexamethonium administration for hypertension was first reported in
1953. Between that time and 1960, 11 articles that included individual
case reports and a small series of autopsied cases were published. In
1970, a review article on the use of hexamethonium listed six
references from the 1950s.

Johns Hopkins used a stronger concentration of hexamethonium than
that cited in the case reports from the 1950s and 1960s. The first
volunteer developed a cough; the second volunteer experienced no ill
effects. Roche, the third volunteer, developed irreversible lung damage
after receiving 1 gram of hexamethonium by inhalation, and died
approximately 1 month later. Even as Roche was being treated in the
ICU, the trial continued, with six additional volunteers being enrolled.
However, none of these six volunteers reached the point in the protocol
when hexamethonium would be inhaled. The study was stopped when
Roche died.

Later, it was found that this specific study had not been part of the
original grant application to NIH, but was mentioned as a planned study
in continuation applications. A representative from NIH stated that the
hexamethonium study was felt to be consistent with the original goals
of the funded primary study and, therefore, was not otherwise
scientifically reviewed (Becker & Levy, 2001).

Questions Raised by the Death of Ellen Roche

Did the investigators have sufficient experience with the agent?
Did the IRB do a thorough review of this study protocol?
Was there any coercion involved in enrolling a subject who was an
employee of the Asthma and Allergy Center?

Research Involving Animals
Research that may benefit humans is often first conducted on animal subjects.
The reason for using animals in research is to advance scientific knowledge
while confining unknown risks to nonhuman subjects (Horner & Minifie,
2011a). In recent times, however, the use of animals in research studies has
become the subject of considerable debate. Those who advocate on behalf of
animals’ welfare recognize the value of testing interventions first on animals,
but campaign for the humane treatment and care of these subjects. Some who
advocate for animal rights go even further, insisting that animal research
should be abolished altogether. Both groups base their stance on studies that
demonstrate animal sentience (that is, the ability to experience pain in both
vertebrate and invertebrate animals) and a philosophical analysis of the moral
status of animals (Ferdowsian & Gluck, 2015).


The NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (2002) stipulates that
applications for Public Health Service grants must include procedures
designed to ensure that discomfort and injury to animals used in
experimentation will be limited to only unavoidable levels. Furthermore, it
requires that analgesic, anesthetic, and tranquilizing drugs be used to
minimize the pain and discomfort caused by experiments. Research facilities
must be accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of
Laboratory Animal Care International; alternatively, they may be evaluated by
an institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC), a review committee
analogous to the IRB for human subjects.

Multiple guidelines exist to guide researchers in the ethical and humane use of
animals in research. In essence, these regulations and guidelines hold
researchers accountable for the humane care and treatment of animals used
in research through the “three R’s”:

Reduce the number of animals used in experiments.
Refine experimental procedures to minimize animal pain and suffering.
Replace animal subjects with nonanimal alternatives when scientifically
feasible (Ibrahim, 2006).

In June of 2013, the NIH announced its decision to significantly reduce the use
of chimpanzees in agency-supported biomedical research. It retained fewer
than 50 captive chimpanzees for future biomedical research. The number of
research studies involving these primates plummeted. In June of 2015 the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it had classified captive
chimpanzees as “endangered.” The ability to conduct research on any
endangered species is very difficult, and in November of that year, Dr. Francis
Collins, the Director of the NIH, made the decision to send its colony of
chimpanzees to a sanctuary equipped to care for them.

Even with this national example, the debate continues as to whether research
on animals is sufficiently humane. The research literature identifies the need
for evidence-based guidelines for laboratory animal care and treatment, and
broad-based education regarding such guidelines’ application is needed. Also
needed are studies to determine the relative benefits of animal testing when
realistic alternatives are emerging, such as interactive computer simulations,
cadavers, and lifelike manikins (Mangan, 2007). Animal experimentation,
much like human experimentation, raises concerns about necessity, purpose,
design, risks, and benefits, as well as their relation not to whether the subject
is human, but whether the subject has the capacity for suffering.

Research Misconduct
Obtaining the necessary approvals of the IRB and privacy committee does not
guarantee that the researcher is then free from accusations of battery,
negligence, or invasion of privacy. It is up to the researcher to carry out the


research in an ethical, legal, and moral manner and to document the
procedures and results accurately.

Research misconduct, as defined by the federal government, includes
fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. Fabrication is the intentional
misrepresentation or “making up” of data or results by the researcher.
Falsification occurs when the researcher falsifies or manipulates the results,
changes the procedures, omits data, or accepts subjects into the study who
were not in the original inclusion criteria. This may seem like a rare occur-
rence, but in 2015, all 14 incidents of research misconduct documented on the
Office of Research Integrity webpage (, retrieved
August 17, 2016) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services were
related to falsifying data, and all cases were serious enough to result in
imposed sanctions. Plagiarism usually arises from the written account of the
research, when ideas, statements, results, or words are not attributed to the
appropriate person but rather are represented as the writer’s own work.

Other sources of research misconduct can involve undisclosed conflicts of
interest, misleading authorship, data acquisition and ownership, and duplicate
publication practices. Research misconduct affects the cost of research overall
by increasing the oversight required and by diminishing the confidence and
respect of the public regarding the results of scientific research. The public
may begin to grow skeptical of research results if such behaviors become
commonplace (Horner & Minifie, 2011b).

The key factor in determining if research misconduct took place is whether the
researcher intentionally misrepresented the data. Research misconduct has
not occurred if a researcher made honest mistakes. Misconduct also has not
occurred if researchers simply have differences of opinion. This is an
important distinction. Good researchers take calculated and controlled risks.
As long as the researcher takes the time to carefully plan a strong study, gains
the approval of the necessary IRB and privacy committees, and maintains
inflexible ethical standards during the implementation of the study, the
researcher has fulfilled his or her obligation as an accountable steward of the

The HIPAA Privacy Rule
What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even
outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no
account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself, holding
such things shameful to be spoken about.

—Hippocratic Oath (Edelstein, 1943)

Since April 14, 2003, the effective date of the U.S. privacy rule, otherwise
known as HIPAA, organizations have more tightly scrutinized research


proposals, especially those that involve the use of patient data and human

Reacting to the increasing accessibility of electronic data specific to
individuals, Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act (HIPAA) in 1996. Aimed mostly at electronic health record
(EHR) initiatives, one of HIPAA’s main elements is a requirement for the
protection of PHI. This rule protects all elements considered protected health
information—a broad range of information that varies from telephone numbers
to diagnoses. Table 3.5 lists the information that is considered identifiable PHI.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA):
Legislation passed by Congress in 1996, which protects the privacy of
personal health information.

The introduction of HIPAA’s privacy rule resulted in changes from the way
healthcare organizations traditionally handled patients and their information.
Healthcare workers now are given access to only the PHI that is necessary to
perform the assigned work at hand. For example, those personnel working in
ancillary departments receive only a diagnosis that enables them to process
the tests or bills. Therefore, the researcher cannot automatically assume that
access to all the information required to complete research will be provided,
even if the researcher is employed by the facility.

Failure to comply with the rule can be very costly to both the researcher and
the organization. The privacy rule specifically states that any employee who
fails to comply with the privacy policy will be subject to corrective action,
termination of employment, and possibly prosecution by the Office of Civil
Rights. Heavy fines accompany proven violations of the rule. These potential
consequences have given organizations pause when requests for access to
PHI are made.

Table 3.5 Identifiable Personal Health Information


Past, present, or future health conditions

Description of health care provided to the patient

Telephone numbers

Fax number

Email address

Social Security number


Medical record number

Health plan beneficiary number or account number

Past, present, or future payment for provision of health care

Medical device identifier

Internet Protocol (IP) address

Biometric identifiers, including finger and voice print

Full-face photographic images and any comparable image

Any other unique identifying number, characteristic, or code

In turn, researchers must not assume that simply because they work in a
healthcare facility, they will have ready access to that facility’s patient data,
databases, or diagnostic information or even limited data sets. The provisions
of the privacy rule provide additional safeguards for study participants, which
can make it difficult, though not impossible, to do research in healthcare
facilities. The researcher should determine well in advance of the start of the
study as to whether access to certain data elements and health information
can be obtained and how.

If the researcher requires access to the medical records of the patient or study
participant, signed consent forms should be obtained that authorize the
researcher to access the information. The research consent form should
include an authorization for access to records. If that provision is not included,
the researcher must document how access to the information will be obtained.
Retrospective studies that involve the use of patient data from electronic
sources or the medical record may require the researcher to supply a
disclosure statement to document access. Alternatively, the IRB may grant a
waiver that exempts the researcher from obtaining authorization, although
disclosure statements may still be required. Table 3.6 provides an example of
a disclosure statement.

While healthcare providers concede that sharing health data is crucial for the
development of population health programs and public policy, ethical
guidelines for the use of data from large clinical data warehouses are unclear.
Technological advances have outpaced the ability to develop and gain wide
agreement on ethical, legal, and social issues regarding the use of shared PHI
and the reuse of data for research. On the one hand, use of data housed in
large databases has enabled translational research projects that have been
used to improve practice on a grand scale. On the other hand, there are no
universal guidelines for transparency, trust, and security (Lamas, Barh,
Brown & Jaulent, 2015). The use of information drawn from large data
warehouses raises questions about the reuse of data collected for one


purpose for an entirely different purpose—in this case, research. Some of the
issues under debate include patients’ right to information about use of their
data and their right to consent, researchers’ agreements for data sharing,
rights to access data warehouses in public institutions (e.g., the Medicare
program), means to optimize data confidentiality, and considerations of the
common good.

Table 3.6 Sample Disclosure Statement for Research Records

Disclosure for Research Purposes

Date:_____________ IRB/Approval #_____________

Patient Name:_____________ Medical Record #_____________


The above-named patient’s record was accessed by the researcher for purposes of data collection
in a research study approved by this organization.

Information used from this record will not disclose any individually identifiable health information
and will be kept confidential as described in the research protocol on file with the organization’s
research review board.

Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice
Most studies will not explicitly describe the ethical or legal issues they faced
unless those issues were unusual or difficult to resolve. This is not a
weakness, but rather reflects the reality that ethical and legal compliance are a
given when planning any research study. Ethical and regulatory guidelines are
not negotiable, so it may be simply stated that the study underwent IRB
review. When such a statement is made, it is safe to assume the study was
reviewed by an objective panel and met basic ethical and legal requirements.

If explicit reference to the IRB is not made, then the nurse reader will need to
scrutinize the methods section to determine whether a breach of ethical or
legal requirements might have occurred. Particular attention should be paid to
the methods for selecting the sample, obtaining informed consent, assigning
subjects to treatment groups, and accessing their medical data. All of these
procedures should reflect a fundamental respect for the ethical principles
described in this chapter. The reader should be especially concerned if there
were significant risks associated with the study, or if data were collected from
medical records without a description of how privacy was protected. However,
the absence of any mention of procedures to safeguard subjects does not
mean these safeguards were not in place.



❏ Adequate protections are in place to protect subjects from any
potential harm.

❏ The authors document approval from the IRB.

❏ It is clearly indicated that subjects underwent informed consent.

❏ If vulnerable populations were involved, special consideration
was given to informed consent and study procedures.

❏ Steps were taken to protect the anonymity, confidentiality, and
privacy of subjects.

❏ There was no evidence of any type of coercion (implied or
otherwise) to motivate participants to agree to the study.

❏ The researchers provided full disclosure to potential subjects. If
deception was necessary to achieve the goals of the study,
participants were debriefed about the experience.

❏ The benefits of the study outweighed the risks for individual
subjects; a risk/benefit assessment was considered.

❏ Subjects were recruited, selected, and assigned to groups in an
equitable way.

Using Research in Nursing Practice
The nurse should be hesitant to use the results of research in practice if he or
she suspects the study was conducted unethically or in some way breached
the legal protections of subjects. The nurse should be aware that research
misconduct can occur, and that studies that are the result of such misconduct
cannot be trusted. Ethical and legal constraints also help ensure research
quality and validity of findings; results that were generated through deception
or duress will likely not represent the population well. In other words, if the
researcher cannot be trusted, then the research findings cannot be trusted

Creating Evidence for Practice
The nurse researcher can best deal with the potential ethical and legal issues
in a research study by focusing on strong designs that answer the research
question with a minimum of disruption in subjects’ lives. If the nurse
researcher focuses on doing the right thing, it is rare that an ethical or legal
issue will arise.

The researcher must keep in mind, however, that compliance with ethical and
regulatory issues is not confined to the design period. Some problems may
arise during the implementation of a research study. Adherence to the
principles that guide the legal and ethical treatment of subjects—whether in
preparation for an IRB review or for actual data collection—should be ongoing


throughout the study. Inadvertent problems and unforeseen issues may arise
during research. The careful researcher considers these fundamental
guidelines as a basis for decisions about the entire research process, not just
the IRB application.

New ethical challenges may emerge when investigators are conducting
research on the Internet. Through this medium, researchers can access
subjects worldwide, from settings that are rarely represented in studies. Yet,
gathering data on the Internet requires attention to additional ethical

Ensure subjects have a safe, private space to respond.
Support the ethical acquisition of web addresses; ensure that the list owner
has endorsed the study.
Assess the potential risk of harm to participants and the intrusiveness of
the study.
Evaluate the vulnerability of the subjects.
Implement a process to ensure subjects are of legal age to participate
(Williams, 2012).

Research contributes knowledge to a field. The public relies on this knowledge
to determine future courses of action, whether it is to decide on a course of
medical treatment or merely to keep abreast of trends and current data. All
research, then, must always be conducted with integrity, honesty, and respect
for all parties involved, and with the utmost attention to ethical guidelines and
regulatory limits.

Summary of Key Concepts
When humans participate as subjects in research studies, care must be
taken to preserve their rights.
Subjects have the right to be informed of the study processes and potential
risks, to be treated in a fair manner, and to withdraw from the study at any
The Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki are international
guidelines for the conduct of ethical research; the United States also has
the Belmont Report to guide researchers’ behavior.
Therapeutic research, in which the subject can be expected to receive a
potentially beneficial treatment, differs from nontherapeutic research, which
contributes to the body of knowledge but not to an individual’s health.
The foundational ethical principles that guide researchers in the treatment
of human subjects are respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.
The basic values that guide the research process include truthfulness,
trust, and the best interests of the participants.
Vulnerable populations include those groups with limited autonomy or
capacity to make decisions. These populations are subject to special
protections to ensure they are not exploited in research.


Informed consent is a process of information exchange that begins with
subject recruitment. Full disclosure of risks and benefits and the provision
of understandable information needed to make a participation decision are
hallmarks of a strong informed consent process.
Deception or incomplete disclosure should be avoided in research. When it
is necessary, there should be a strong rationale and subjects must be fully
debriefed after the experience.
Informed consent documents should be prepared in the most
comprehensible way possible so that subjects are fully aware of the
particulars of the study.
Research integrity extends beyond subject rights to the way data are
collected, analyzed, and reported.
The nurse researcher advocates for the participants in research studies
and must protect their autonomy and confidentiality at all times.
IRB requirements have their origin in federal regulations and require
varying levels of involvement in the approval process, depending on
whether they involve expedited, exempt, or full board review.
The IRB was established in response to the inhumane treatment of
subjects, and the protection of individuals who are asked to participate in
research remains the IRB’s primary concern. The IRB is also a helpful
group in providing critical feedback that can improve the design and
strength of a study.
Animal experimentation, much like human experimentation, raises
concerns about necessity, purpose, design, risks, and benefits. Guidelines
in this area focus on reducing the number of animals used in experiments,
refining experimental procedures to minimize animal pain and suffering,
and replacing animal subjects with nonanimal alternatives when
scientifically feasible.
HIPAA provides another layer of protection by guaranteeing the subject’s
right to protection of PHI. The researcher must plan carefully to ensure that
all legal requirements are met, particularly because violations can carry
with them serious consequences.

For More Depth and Detail
For a more in-depth look at the concepts in this chapter, try these references:

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knowledge: A framework for evidence-based research ethics review.
Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics, 40(4), 951–969.

Bradford, W., Hurdle, J., LaSalle, B., & Facelli, J. (2013). Development
of a HIPAA-compliant environment for translational research data and
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Cseko, G., & Tremaine, W. (2013). The role of the institutional review
board in the oversight of the ethical aspects of human studies


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Heffernan, E., & Brown, G. (2012). Research ethics application: A
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Hudgins, C., Rose, S., Fifield, P., & Arnault, S. (2013). Navigating the
legal and ethical foundations of informed consent and confidentiality in
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Retrieve the following full text article from the Cumulative Index to
Nursing and Allied Health Literature or similar search database:

DeGrazia, M., Giambanco, D., Hamn, G., Ditzel, A., Tucker, L., &
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Review the article, looking for evidence of any ethical or legal issues
that arose in the study and how the researchers dealt with them.
Consider the following appraisal questions in your critical review of this
research article:

1. In which ways are the subjects in this study vulnerable? Which
protections should be put in place to protect these subjects from


2. Identify the potential risks inherent in this study for the subjects.

What should specifically be included in the informed consent for
this study?

3. What evidence is provided by the authors that the study was
reviewed by the IRB and that appropriate informed consent was

4. How do the authors minimize the risks to the subjects?
5. In your opinion, do the potential benefits of this treatment

outweigh the potential risks to the infant? Why or why not?

Becker, K., & Levy, M. (2001). Ensuring patient safety in clinical

trials for treatment of acute stroke. Journal of the American
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animal research. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics,
24, 391–406.

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© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Part II: Planning for Research
4 Finding Problems and Writing Questions
5 The Successful Literature Review
6 Selecting an Appropriate Research Design


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 4: Finding Problems and Writing

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Discuss strategies for identifying evidence-based practice problems.
Describe the process for translating a practice problem into a
researchable question.
Define and contrast problem statements and purpose statements.
Develop and articulate problem statements and purpose
Perform a critical analysis of the question, problem statement, and
purpose statement from a research article.



Directional hypothesis



Nondirectional hypothesis

Null hypothesis

Problem statements

Purpose statements

Replication study

Research question

The best research starts with two words: “I wonder.” A sense of curiosity is all
that is needed to begin the research process. Observations about a practice
problem become questions, and these questions lead to nursing research that
provides evidence to solve the problem.

Finding and developing significant problems for nursing research is critical to
improving outcomes for patients, nurses, organizations, and communities. The


evolution of a research problem from a general topic of interest to the
articulation of problem and purpose statements serves to narrow the focus to a
researchable question. This progression moves the research problem from the
conceptual (abstract concepts) to the operational (measurable concepts or
variables). FIGURE 4.1 depicts how the individual steps in translating a
problem into a researchable question follow this path.

FIGURE 4.1 Traditional Evolution of the Research Process

The idea for this research study actually had its beginnings in a class
on critically reading research that I took. I work on a medical–surgical
unit, and my team decided that we would like to try to do a small
project. We decided to do some observation and find a question to
study, even though it is a really busy unit.

About that time, we had a physician who began doing more bariatric
surgery. The standing orders for these patients were to have physical
and occupational therapy personnel evaluate the patients and get them
up and walking. We had always interpreted that order as being
implemented on the next morning, because the therapists were


generally not available in the evenings when these patients were in
shape to start moving. We had patients who wanted to get up and start
walking the first evening, though, so we would help them walk. We
noticed that these patients seemed to get less nausea. Limiting nausea
and retching is important in these patients because we cannot get their
intravenous line (IV) out until they are not vomiting, and retching is very
painful for them. They get their pain medications through the IV, and if
they are vomiting we cannot switch to oral medications and pull their IV
lines. If the patients had to wait until the second day to walk, it seemed
they had more nausea and vomiting, and those reactions just
backlogged everything. It usually meant that their discharge was
delayed until the evening of the second day. We wondered if perhaps
the earlier walking was helping with the nausea.

We started with a literature search. Originally, we planned to find a
study and replicate it; we never thought we could do a study of our own.
We just wanted to duplicate what someone else had done. But there
were no studies to be found. We found lots of studies of the effects of
ambulation in the postoperative period, but nothing dealing with this
specific group of patients, and none of the studies measured nausea as
the outcome measure. So we thought, “Maybe we need to do a study.”
We were going to do something very simple—not even go through the
institutional review board (IRB), but instead undertake an investigation
that was more like a quality study. We were nervous about having to go
to the IRB; we thought that would be far too deep for us. We thought a
little study would be a good way—a really simple way—for the staff to
become involved in research, and we thought it was doable.

We had an opportunity to consult a researcher through our evidence-
based practice council. The researcher told us, “This is a good study;
this is publishable,” and that was a turning point for us. We realized that
this topic was as important as what other nurse researchers studied,
and we recognized that we had an opportunity to make a contribution to

What started as a simple little question—Does walking affect nausea?
—has evolved into something more complicated. Our research question
is now based on time—in other words, how soon does the patient have
to walk to get a benefit? The process forced us to produce criteria for
when a patient is ready to walk, which became a conversation in which
the whole staff participated. We introduced another element after
consulting with physical therapy personnel. We now have one group in
which patients use a bedside pedaler and a second group in which
patients walk, and we will see if one approach offers an advantage.
That would be helpful to know, because when we have really chaotic
days, we may not have a lot of time to stop and help someone walk. If
we find that the pedaler does help the patient’s gut “wake up” faster,


then we can use this device instead of providing walking assistance,
because it takes much less time.

When the people on the unit realized that our goal was publication, they
got on board with our research. We have learned to appreciate the
nurses with whom we work who have stayed in medical– surgical
nursing. One of the driving forces behind this effort was our quest to
gain some respect for the fact that we are a highly qualified group of
nurses who care deeply about patient care and doing the right thing for
patients. Taking our nursing practice to the next level through
publication of original research could be a real source of pride for the
staff—and we think that is why they are so solidly behind it.

Our study has encouraged us to look at our whole nursing practice and
realize it is not insignificant—that our research is something someone
would want to read. Now that we have finished the IRB process, we
have realized, yeah, we really can do that.

Maureen Wenzel, FNP-BC

The traditional method for finding and developing research problems suggests
a deductive, sequential process moving from a general interest to the
development of a research question. FIGURE 4.2 illustrates how the individual
steps might look in the development of a specific researchable question.

Deductive: A process of reasoning from the general to the specific.

In truth, the process of finding and developing research problems can be as
chaotic as a busy parking lot. Some motorists drive their cars headfirst into the
spaces, some motorists back their cars into the spaces, and still other
motorists drive their cars into and out of the spaces until their cars are properly
positioned. Research question development likewise is amenable to many
different approaches. Some researchers do, indeed, use a sequential set of
steps to arrive at a specific and well-articulated question. Many other nurse
researchers use nontraditional methods for finding and developing research
problems. These processes may be more inductive, in which specific
observations serve as the starting points, leading to a general focus or
interest. This approach is more common in evidence-based practice studies,
as specific problems generally spark interest in finding an overall solution via
research. FIGURE 4.3 demonstrates a nontraditional example of finding and
developing a research problem. Still other methods may begin somewhere in
the middle of the traditional process by recognizing a gap, then proceed to
identify the big picture as well as the specific research question.


FIGURE 4.2 Example of a Traditional Evolution of the Problem

Inductive: A process of reasoning from specific observations to
broader generalizations.


FIGURE 4.3 Nontraditional Example of the Evolution of a Research Problem

Regardless of the approach—deductive, inductive, or somewhere in between
— finding and developing research problems may be a process best
characterized as a work in progress. The goal is always the same, though: to
narrow the focus of the research problem so that a feasible research question
emerges. The importance of narrowing the focus of the research cannot be
overstressed. Research problems that have not been narrowed generate too
many concepts and relationships to test.

Concepts: Abstract ideas or topics of interest that must be narrowed to
researchable questions to be investigated.

The initial phase of implementing evidence-based practice is identifying the
need for change that will improve patient care (Facchiano, Snyder & Nunez,
2011). The need for change may become evident to nurses because of
emerging problems or new knowledge (Boswell & Cannon, 2012). During this
phase, the topic is selected and preliminary, problem-based questions are
considered. Key words in problem-based questions drive the search and
retrieval of literature and set the stage for research design. This narrowing


process is used both in the research process and in evidence-based practice
(Boswell & Cannon, 2012).

Subjects or topics that are overly broad are problematic for researchers
because they mean that methodological complexities increase, expert
methodologists are required, and resource demands (for example, money,
people, and time) increase. With every additional concept or associated
relationship examined, the feasibility of the study may be affected.

The primary objective of nursing research is to increase knowledge so as to
improve nursing practice, but, of course, it can be accomplished only if the
research is actually completed. Some researchers spend a lifetime studying a
single concept; others spend their careers completing multiple, small studies.
There is no shame in starting, or staying, small. Narrow questions are far
easier for the novice researcher to address and may help the nurse learn skills
that can then be applied to larger, more complex studies.

As the research problem moves from a broad topic of interest to a narrower,
researchable question, measurable variables and outcomes should become
evident. It is helpful to consider the type of concept under investigation when
approaching this determination. Concepts may represent many things, but
they generally fall into three categories: patient sensitive, staff member
sensitive, or organizationally sensitive. Concepts studied by nurses, especially
novice nurse researchers, should be limited to those within the nursing span of
control. For example, a nurse interested in the development and severity of
hematomas at arterial access sites after diagnostic or interventional
arteriography would be better suited to asking research questions about
positioning and turning the patient, rather than addressing questions about the
method of arterial access used for the procedure. The first research question
identifies nurse-sensitive concepts (repositioning and turning), whereas the
second research question identifies medically sensitive concepts (arterial
access methods). Table 4.1 provides examples of each of these kinds of

Nursing research concepts can be organized into three categories:

Patient sensitive
Staff member sensitive
Organizationally sensitive

Finding and Developing Research Problems
Often, research problems find the nurse, rather than the other way around.
Frustrations with ineffective procedures, the search for a “better way,” or the
need to help a single patient may motivate the nurse to seek research-based


evidence to improve patient care. The search for research problems is one of
the easiest parts of the research process; researchable problems surround the
contemporary nurse in practice.

Sources of Research Problems
Researchable problems can come from an almost unlimited number of
sources (American Association of Colleges of Nursing [AACN], 2013;
Boswell & Cannon, 2012; Schmidt & Brown, 2011). The following are some
sources for researchable problems:

Clinical practice observations
Educational processes and experiences
Consumer/customer feedback and personal experience
Theoretical models and frameworks
Professional literature
Performance improvement studies
Research reports and priorities
Social issues

Clinical Practice
Research problems may be generated from active, passive, or other
organizational activities. Active methods of problem discovery include
experiences with direct patient care and discussion with other members of the
healthcare team through formal or informal communications. Patient problems,
ineffective clinical procedures, and changes in protocols all present
opportunities for research. Passive methods for identifying problems include
medical record review and observation. Data collection activities, such as
those performed for quality improvement or risk management purposes, may
also bring problems to light.

Table 4.1 Examples of Patient-, Nursing-, and Organizationally Sensitive



Organizationally Sensitive

Anxiety Burnout Cost

Skin integrity Lower back injuries Length of stay

Functional independence Medication errors Readmission

Blood glucose Pain management Resource utilization

Blood pressure Patient falls Satisfaction with nursing care

Quality of life Restraint prevalence Satisfaction with nursing care


The need for confirmed evidence-based practice generates numerous
research questions. Nurses are in a unique position to change and confirm
clinical practices. Through structured decision-making processes, nurses,
other members of the healthcare team, and patients and families together
have the ability to improve healthcare-related processes, outcomes, safety,
satisfaction, and costs (Boswell & Cannon, 2012). Nursing practice
comprises a mixture of evidence and tradition. It is essential that nurses
continually ask themselves and one another the crucial questions: What is the
evidence for this approach to nursing care? Can I solve this problem with

Educational Processes and Experiences
Nursing students who are taking research courses are required to develop
problem, purpose, and research statements from required and/or self-
determined topics. Research-focused educational institutions may also
support institution-driven research activities examining interests such as age-
specific care, the effects of caring, or nursing shortage outcomes. Within the
assignments and disciplined inquiry that occur during the educational
experience, particularly graduate study, nursing students and their mentors
may generate many researchable problems.

Consumer Feedback or Personal Experience
Research problems may be generated from consumer or personal experience.
Such problems are distinguished from social issues; that is, consumers of
health care have the opportunity to share ideas about and perceptions of care
and treatment, and to suggest research questions that can potentially promote
health throughout the continuum of care, improve patient outcomes and
safety, and influence delivery models and cost-effectiveness (Centers for
Medicare & Medicaid Services [CMS], 2013; Hospital Care Quality
Information from the Consumer Perspective [HCAHPS], 2013; Patient-
Centered Outcomes Research Institute [PCORI], 2013). Nurses may also
have experiences as family members or as patients themselves. This unique
perspective, in which nurses view nursing care from the other side of the bed,
gives rise to opportunities to transform that care. Research problems
generated from personal experience may expose clinical, consumer, social,
and other opportunities for improvement and drive the research priorities of
both individuals and organizations.

Research problems generated from the results of activities aimed at soliciting
consumer and/or patient feedback may be generated from the following

Patients and customers of the institution, both external and internal
Leaders who represent the interests of specific services (e.g., cardiac care)
Departments (e.g., coronary care unit) and service lines (e.g., cardiac
services) within an organizational structure


Members of general or specialty professional organizations (e.g., American
Nurses Association, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses)
Advisory boards and other consumer/customer input organizations
Accrediting, regulatory, and safety organizations

The feedback garnered from these groups may be used to generate problem
statements, purpose statements, research questions, and testable
hypotheses, as well as to set priorities for performance improvement or other
research activities. Feedback may be solicited through surveys, during formal
and informal meetings, and at conferences and workshops, or it may be
received electronically.

Professional Literature
Research problems may be generated from the results of professional
literature reviews. Sources of professional literature reviews include clinical
and nonclinical works, databases, and letters and opinions. Clinical works
include books and journals addressing nursing and medical topics, both
general and specialty. Nonclinical works include books and journals presenting
non-nursing and nonmedical topics from other fields of study that may be
generalized into an appropriate, researchable problem to expand nursing
knowledge. Many databases, both clinical and nonclinical, are capable of
provoking inquiry. Examples of these databases include those that hold data
from previous studies (clinical) and census data (nonclinical). Many research
problems have been developed by using the data collected by other
researchers and taking a unique approach to the analysis.

Published letters and opinions are another interesting source of research
problems. Letters and opinions written by nurses and other medical
professionals often express concern, as well as issue directives, about
researchable problems, gaps in current knowledge, limitations of available
research, and recommendations for future research.

Performance Improvement Activities
Performance improvement activities, also known as quality improvement
activities, are used to improve processes and outcomes and to meet
regulatory requirements. Tools and techniques specific to performance
improvement activities do not meet the requirements of traditional research
methods. In particular, performance improvement studies are often
characterized by methodological limitations, a lack of control over extraneous
variables, violation of assumptions for statistical testing, and small sample
sizes in a single setting; all of these factors affect the generalizability of their
findings. Nevertheless, the results of performance improvement activities may
be used as a springboard to engage in formal research activities.
Researchable problems may start as performance improvement activities and
expand into formal research projects with alterations in methodological
approach, sampling strategy, and informed consent procedures.


Research Reports and Priorities
Research problems may also be generated from the outcomes of other
research studies and evidence-based practice reviews. Previous research
may influence the generation of research problems either directly or indirectly.
By convention, most research reports include a section on “suggestions for
future research,” which outlines ways to extend and expand on the currently
available research. Researchers may directly influence the generation of
subsequent research problems by explicitly stating remaining problems, gaps,
and questions. One means of directly influencing subsequent studies is the
type of research known as a replication study. Replication studies may be
used to validate findings and knowledge, increase their generalizability
(population and setting), or eliminate or minimize limitations (methodology).
Replication studies are good exercises because they increase the knowledge
of inexperienced researchers. Research also may indirectly influence the
generation of a problem when the reader identifies a problem with the written
report (e.g., a discrepancy, gap, inconsistency, or unidentified limitation) or
disagrees with the methodology and/or results of the original investigator.

Replication study: A study generated from previous research studies
in which the research is reproduced to validate findings, increase
generalizability, or eliminate or minimize limitations.

The directives and recommendations of individuals and organizations may
also serve as a source of research problems. In developing these directives
and recommendations, individuals (educators and researchers) and
organizations (clinical, educational, funding, and regulatory) apply their
expertise to identify problems and gaps in current knowledge. Some of these
experts may have developed problem statements and research questions to
prioritize future research.

Social Issues
Research problems may be generated from social issues. Social issues
include, but are not limited to, the effects of age, culture, education, gender,
income, race, religion, and sexual preference. Social issues may be examined
in the context of current events, the environment, and health policy. They may
also be addressed in relation to local, state, national, or international
populations. For example, obesity may be considered in terms of age, gender,
race, and other social classifications. Notably, the “obesity epidemic” has
given rise to equally epidemic rates of diabetes and heart disease.
Additionally, obesity and its associated comorbidities affect national issues
such as healthcare expenditures (percentage of the gross national product)
and the ability of the government to maintain military readiness. Given this
condition’s widespread impacts, it should not be surprising that a large number
of organizations are examining obesity-related research questions.
Collaborative, multidisciplinary studies addressing research questions that are


clinically and socially relevant and that could potentially improve outcomes in
local, national, and international communities are more likely to receive
support and to receive funding (White, 2012).

This list of sources for research problems is not exhaustive. Research
problems are often the product of both internal and external driving forces;
they are seldom generated from a single source. Any process or outcome
associated with patient care, staff members’ work environment, or
organizational success may become the basis for study. The potential nurse
researcher can scrutinize the current practices and ask the following

Why are we doing it this way?
Is there a better way of doing it?
Should we be doing it at all?

All of these questions may give rise to researchable problems, whose
solutions may add valuable evidence to the effective practice of nursing.

Articulation of Research Problem Statements
Research problem statements are declarations of disparity: the difference
(gap) between what is known and what needs to be known about a topic. They
articulate a discrepancy that is to be addressed by the research process. The
disparity, whether a small gap or a large chasm, defines the area(s) of concern
and focuses the research methods (Boswell & Cannon, 2012; Schmidt &
Brown, 2011). Most problem statements are explicitly stated; however, some
problem statements may be inferred. The inferred research problem statement
may describe the importance or potential consequences of the disparity as it
pertains to clinical practice.

Problem statements: Statements of the disparity between what is
known and what needs to be known and addressed by the research.

Problem statements, explicitly stated or inferred, are usually found at the
beginning of a research report, in the introduction, or in the review of literature,
and they may be repeated throughout the written report. The idea of a single
problem statement is misleading; problem statements may resemble problem
paragraphs and often can be several sentences long. Problem statements
may be written as either questions or statements, and well-written ones
contain clear, concise, and well-defined components.

Two examples of well-written problem statements from published articles


“The background research identified eight articles that looked at the
gendered experience of being a nurse, six from the male perspective and
two from the female, but none comparing these experiences” (Rowlinson,
2013, p. 218).
“The majority of studies were quasi-experimental, and all examined
disposable infant diapers under conditions of high humidity and/or radiant
heat sources. One study found that no significant changes occurred after
six hours; all others found that changes in diaper weights occurred. The
question remained unanswered as to what changes might occur in diaper
weights over time in open-air, open bed patient environments” (Carlisle et
al., 2012, p. 224).

Development of Research Purpose Statements
Whereas research problem statements identify a gap in knowledge that
requires disciplined study, research purpose statements are declarations of
intent. Purpose statements indicate the general goal of the study and often
describe the direction of inquiry (Boswell & Cannon, 2012; Schmidt &
Brown, 2011). The purpose of the research should be clearly stated.

Purpose statements: Declarative and objective statements that
indicate the general goal of the study and often describe the direction of
the inquiry.

Purpose statements are written as objective statements. They are easily
identified in reports by their inclusion of words such as aim, goal, intent,
objective, or purpose. They contain clear, concise, and well-defined
components including key variables to be studied, possible interrelationships,
and the nature of the population of interest.

Two examples of well-written purpose statements from published articles

“The objective was to explore, analyze, and compare and contrast the
gender differences with the existing literature” (Rowlinson, 2013, p. 219).
“The purpose of this study was to examine changes in disposable infant
diaper weights at selected intervals post-wetting” (Carlisle et al., 2012, p.

Researcher bias is a limitation that may cause readers to question the validity
of research processes and outcomes. When developing purpose statements,
researchers should use unbiased verbs such as compare, describe, develop,
discover, explore, test, and understand and avoid biased verbs such as
demonstrate, prove, and show.


Example of using an unbiased verb: The purpose of the study was to
explore the effects of music therapy on speech recovery in adult stroke
patients in a rehabilitation facility.
Example of using a biased verb: The purpose of the study was to prove
that music therapy improves speech recovery in adult stroke patients in a
rehabilitation facility.

Table 4.2 lists some useful verbs for purpose statements. Carefully writing the
purpose statement is the first step in demonstrating the research question’s
appropriateness for study. Although a purpose statement is relatively easy to
compose, completing a study is a time-intensive, arduous process. It should
be undertaken only when the researcher has a reasonable expectation of
successfully achieving the purpose as stated.

Fit of the Purpose Statement
Research purpose statements indicate how variables will be studied within
specific populations and settings. There should be a good fit between the
design suggested in the purpose statement and the methods used in the
research study (Boswell & Cannon, 2012; Schmidt & Brown, 2011). The
following examples demonstrate potential purpose statements for a
quantitative, correlation design:

The purpose of the study was to determine the direction and strength of the
relationship between depression and functional independence in patients
at an urban rehabilitation center.
The purpose of the study was to measure the effects of depression on
functional independence in patients at an urban rehabilitation center.

The purpose statement in the first example exemplifies a good fit between the
purpose statement and the study methods. Correlation methods measure the
direction and strength of a relationship; they are not appropriate for assessing
cause and effect. The purpose statement in the second example does not
have a good fit with this method because it indicates the researchers intend to
determine a causal relationship between the variables. This research focus
would be better addressed with a quantitative, experimental design.

Table 4.2 Research Methods and Examples of Purpose Statement Verbs

Qualitative Methods Quantitative Methods



Grounded Theory Descriptive






Differentiating Research Problem Statements and
Research Purpose Statements
Research problem statements are declarations of disparity (why); research
purpose statements are declarations of intent (what). Although problem
statements and purpose statements clarify and support each other, they
represent different levels of the deductive process—that is, the process of
moving from a general focus or interest to the development of a specific
research question. As researchers identify problems, explore disparities or
gaps, and develop problem and purpose statements, the focus of the research
narrows, increasing the feasibility of carrying out the study as intended.

Problem and purpose statements are not limited to research based on
empirical measurement—that is, to quantitative studies. Qualitative studies
use subjective means to describe and examine concepts and their meanings,
but will still have an identifiable problem focus and purpose statement. The
problem and purpose statements of qualitative studies may be vaguer and
less prescriptive than those for quantitative studies, primarily due to the
emergent nature of research design in qualitative research. Although an
overall problem is generally identified for a qualitative study, the purpose may
be broader and less detailed than that of a quantitative study because the
particulars of the study may become clear only after data collection has
commenced. In other words, qualitative problem and purpose statements are
more general and allow for the flexibility that is characteristic of an emergent
design (Boswell & Cannon, 2012; Schmidt & Brown, 2011). Quantitative
studies, by their very nature, are more prescriptive and use objective
measures to describe and examine concepts and the relationships between
concepts. Thus, quantitative problem and purpose statements are generally
detailed, are based in previous literature, and outline the variables,
populations, and settings to be studied.

It remains important for a clear problem to be identified and a purpose
statement to be articulated before either type of research design begins. Table
4.3 and Table 4.4 provide examples of problem and purpose statements for
selected qualitative and quantitative research designs.

Developing the Research Question


The problem statement is a general review of why a particular research study
is necessary; the purpose statement gives an overview of the intent of the
study. Neither of these is prescriptive enough to give specific guidance to the
design and methodology of the study. Instead, a focused research question is
necessary to fulfill this need. The research question is the final step prior to
beginning research design, and it outlines the primary components that will be
studied. In some cases, the research question is analogous to the purpose
statement, but it is constructed as a question instead of a statement.
Questions that are clear, simple, and straightforward provide direction for
subsequent design decisions and enable the researcher to focus the research

Research question: A question that outlines the primary components
to be studied and that guides the design and methodology of the study.

Table 4.3 Problem and Purpose Statements from Qualitative Research

Design Problem and Purpose Statements

Ethnography Title: Parental involvement in neonatal pain management: Reflecting on the
researcher-practitioner role (Skene, 2012)
Problem statement: “I have been surprised to find that while the neonatal
literature presents a description of what happens when parents in the
neonatal unit are excluded from their babies’ pain management, it does not
provide a picture of what happens when they are involved” (p. 27).
Purpose statement: “To fill this gap, I began a study to answer the following
research question: ‘How do parents interact with babies and nurses around
the provision of comfort care in a neonatal intensive care unit where
information and training in comfort care have been provided?’” (p. 27).

Grounded theory Title: Patients’ perspectives on timing of urinary catheter removal after
surgery (Bhardwaj, Pickard, Carrick-Sen, & Brittain, 2012)
Problem statement: “There is limited evidence to inform the patients’
perspective of short-term urinary catheterization after surgical procedures” (p.
Purpose statement: “The aims of the study were to: Explore patients’ beliefs
and perceptions regarding perioperative urinary catheterization [and] Relate
patients’ beliefs to current and future practice” (p. S4).

Phenomenological Title: Quality of life after ileo-anal pouch formation: Patient perceptions
(Perrin, 2012)
Problem statement: “Williams (2002), who studied preoperative pouch
patients, highlighted that little attention is given to addressing their
experiences of living with a pouch” (p. S11).
Purpose statement: “This phenomenological research study explored
whether having an ileo-anal pouch provides a good quality of life by asking
six individuals who have undergone ileo-anal pouch formation about their
own perception of their quality of life following ileo-anal pouch formation” (p.


Examples of well-written research questions from published articles follow:

“The research question explored was ‘Is the lived experience of being a
nurse different depending on your gender?’” (Rowlinson, 2013, p. 219)
“The research question was: Does volume of urine, diaper configuration,
and size of diaper lead to statistically significant changes over time in the
weight of infant disposable diapers?” (Carlisle et al., 2012, p. 224)

As questions are refined, they should be critiqued continuously. The simple act
of writing the question down and asking for input from colleagues may help to
focus and refine the question. Does it make sense? Is it logical? Is this
question important for clinical care? Could this research yield practical
benefits? This kind of feedback can help the nurse researcher generate a
strong research question that provides guidance for subsequent research
design and methodology. The time invested in carefully constructing the final
research question is well worth the effort; it provides a foundation for the
remaining decisions that must be made about the research process.

Table 4.4 Problem and Purpose Statements from Quantitative Research

Design Problem and Purpose Statements

Correlation Title: The relationship between clinical indicators, coping styles, perceived support
and diabetes-related distress among adults with type 2 diabetes (Karlsen, Oftedal
& Bru, 2012)
Problem statement: “To date, we have been unable to find any research that
compares the relative contribution of (i) essential clinical indicators of diabetes
regulation as listed in the introduction, (ii) coping styles, and (iii) perceived social
support to the variation in diabetes-related distress among adults with type 2
diabetes” (p. 393).
Purpose statement: “One aim of this study was to describe diabetes-related
distress, coping styles, and perceptions of social support among adults with type 2
diabetes. The main aim was to investigate the extent to which (i) clinical indicators
such as Hb , diabetes treatment, diabetes-related complications, disease
duration and BMI, (ii) coping styles, and (iii) perceived support from healthcare
professionals and family are related to diabetes-related distress” (p. 393).


Title: Quality of life after percutaneous coronary intervention: Part 2 (Cassar &
Baldacchino, 2012)
Problem statement: “Quality of life (QoL) has been found to be affected by
demographic factors and cardiac risk factors. Research that concentrates on
physical health and functional ability after this coronary intervention gives only a
partial picture of life quality (Groeneveld et al., 2007; Konstantina & Dokoutsidou,
2009; Moons et al., 2006; Seto et al., 2000; Szygula-Jurkiewicz et al., 2005)” (p.
Purpose statement: “The study aimed to: Assess the holistic QoL of patients who
have undergone a PCI [and] identify significant differences in QoL between
subgroups of patients by demographic characteristics and perceived cardiac risk



factors” (p. 1125).

Experimental Title: Pain after lung transplant: High frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO) vs
chest physiotherapy (CPT) (Esquerra-Gonzalez et al., 2013)
Problem statement: “Two studies used a randomized design to compare HFCWO
and CPT on outcome variables of comfort and preference . . . No published
studies have investigated which treatment is less painful and preferred by lung
transplant recipients” (p. 116).
Purpose statement: “Given the lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of
HFCWO and CPT among lung transplant recipients, the purposes of this pilot,
feasibility study were to (1) explore the effect of HFCWO versus CPT treatment on
patients’ pain patterns by measuring pain scores before and after treatment and
(2) compare lung transplant recipients’ preference for HFCWO versus CPT” (p.

The Elements of a Good Research Question
Two guides are helpful in developing a good research question. One of them
is described by the acronym PICO, which outlines the elements of a good
quantitative question. PICO stands for population, intervention, comparison,
and outcome. Using preoperative education for short-stay patients undergoing
prostatectomy as an example, a research question based on PICO might look
like this:

Population: In radical prostatectomy patients staying in the hospital one
day after surgery . . .
Intervention: Does customized preoperative teaching . . .
Comparison: Compared to standard preoperative teaching . . .
Outcomes: Lead to better pain control as measured by a visual analog

A qualitative research question is the least prescriptive type of research
question. It outlines, in a general way, the phenomenon to be studied and the
people who can best inform the question. The researcher defines the general
boundaries of the inquiry, but even these are subject to change. The study
begins with the researcher having a general question in mind, but the
researcher is flexible enough to change the particulars of the question if the
information gathered suggests that step would be appropriate. Measurements,
interventions, and comparison groups are irrelevant in qualitative research, so
they are not parts of the qualitative question. Specification of outcomes may
be incorporated into the qualitative question but are not necessary elements.
Because qualitative questions may actually evolve over the course of the
study, they are reported in detail only after the study is complete.

Clearly, the elements of the research question are very similar to those in the
purpose statement. The primary distinction relates to format—a purpose
statement is given as a statement, whereas a research question is stated as a
question. In addition, the research question often spells out the outcome in a


statement such as “as measured by the Wong Faces Pain Scale,” and so
gives more specificity to what is to be measured.

A Well-Done PICO Question
Among parents of children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in a small
Midwestern city, what are parents’ self-reported self-efficacy scores
related to diabetic care management pre- and post-implementation of a
web-based social support platform? (Merkel & Wright, 2012)

A Well-Done PICOT Question
Will the implementation of a popup prompt in the health record increase
adherence and decrease time to administration of aspirin from
Emergency Department presentation of women who are having
symptoms suspicious of acute cardiac syndrome? (Carman et al.,

Box 4.1 PICO Versus PECO Versus PICOT
Any research question will be strengthened by a systematic approach
to developing some fundamental elements.

Population: In almost every study, the population addressed needs
to be clearly identified. Begin by deciding how broad the population
should be. Who are the specific people of interest? Can selecting a
subset of this population as the sample make the study more
focused and feasible? Are there specific conditions, risk factors, or
characteristics that are of interest? By thinking through these
elements, a clear population of interest may emerge. Describe the
population as succinctly and specifically as possible.
Intervention: Determine exactly what the “intervention” is for the
study. What will the researcher introduce into the study or
manipulate? Is the “cause” a naturally occurring characteristic? The
former will be better represented in a PICO question; the latter in a
PECO question (discussed later in this feature). Interventions may
include process measures, specific treatment practices, or exposure
to an event or substance. Describe the intervention or risk factor in a
focused but clear way.
Comparison: Without a comparison, all we can say about the
intervention is that it was better than nothing. The object of
comparison will likely be the standard practice, but it may also be a
group without a risk factor. This issue does not usually require in-
depth description in the statement of the research question.
Outcomes: The outcome should reflect the nature, direction, and
degree of results anticipated. This definition should be precise and,
in most cases, will indicate the way the outcome will be measured.


In many cases, the “intervention” is not introduced, so much as it is
“found.” In these cases—where the effects of a naturally occurring
event are of interest—some researchers prefer the PECO approach.
PECO includes the following four elements:

Population of interest
Control or comparison group
Exposure to a factor of interest
Outcome of interest

It is clear that the PECO approach mirrors the PICO method closely,
except that the “intervention” is not manipulated or artificially introduced
into the experiment. PECO research questions are commonly
encountered in population health or epidemiology studies (McKeon &
McKeon, 2015).

Some researchers recommend adding elements to the model. The
most common extension is found in the PICOT model. The final “T” in
this acronym stands for time, referring to the duration of data collection
or the expected time to observe an effect (Carman et al., 2013).

The PICO model is not appropriate for every research problem. This
format must be modified for descriptive studies—in which no
intervention is applied—and for studies describing relationships. In
these cases, the research question should include at a minimum a clear
identification of the population and the variables being studied.

Another acronym—FINER—gives guidance in the appraisal of a research
question. This model gives the nurse researcher a framework for evaluating
the desirable characteristics of a good question:

Feasible: Adequate subjects, technical expertise, time, and money are
available; the scope is narrow enough for study.
Interesting: The question is interesting to the investigator.
Novel: The study confirms or refutes previous findings, or provides new
Ethical: The study cannot cause unacceptable risk to participants and does
not invade privacy.
Relevant: The question is relevant to scientific knowledge, clinical and
health policy, or future research directions.

Once the question is carefully defined, then the link to design elements often
becomes obvious. If not, then the researcher may need to provide more
specificity about the population, intervention, or outcomes in the research
question. These three elements of the question will later provide guidance in
the selection of a sample, the procedures, and the measurements.


The Link Between Questions and Design
Focusing the research question guides how that question will be answered.
The question will lead to a sampling strategy (Who is the patient population?),
an intervention protocol (Which treatment is being tested?), and the outcomes
measured (How will the effect be demonstrated?). There are also direct links
between the kind of words used in the question and the design that is used to
answer it.

Descriptive questions ask simple questions about what is happening in a
defined population or situation. For example, a descriptive question is “What
are the characteristics of surgical patients reporting high satisfaction with pain
management during their hospitalization?” Three general types of research
questions are best answered with descriptive studies:

Resource allocation questions
Questions about areas for further research
Questions about informal diagnostic information

Most qualitative questions are answered with descriptive studies, because a
qualitative study is generally descriptive of a single sample. The broad nature
of a qualitative research question lends itself to a variety of methods, ranging
from interviews to focus groups to observation. The specific verbiage used in
the qualitative question may guide the study’s design, but in general the
design emerges from the nature of the phenomenon under study, not from the
particular way in which the research question is written.

Analytic studies compare one or more interventions to specific outcomes. For
example, the questions “What is the effectiveness of individual or group
educational sessions for hip surgery patients?” and “Is breast cancer
associated with high fat intake?” may be answered with quantitative analysis.
The objective of an analytic study is to determine whether there is a causal
relationship between variables, so the research question reflects study of the
effect of an intervention on one or more outcomes. Statistical procedures are
used to determine whether a relationship would likely have occurred by
chance alone. Analytic studies usually compare two or more groups.

Analytic studies are logical means to address questions that will be answered
with numbers or with measurements. In this kind of quantitative study, the
researcher performs tests related to the research question using statistical
analysis. Although research questions are not directly testable with numbers,
their transformed version—the hypothesis—is subject to numerical analysis. It
is important, then, to translate quantitative research questions into hypothesis
statements that lend themselves to statistical analysis.

From Question to Hypothesis


Just as the research question guides the design of a study, so a hypothesis
guides the statistical analysis. A research hypothesis is a specific statement
that predicts the direction and nature of the results of a study. It can be
complex or simple, directional or nondirectional, and stated in statistical
symbols or narrative form (Connelly, 2015). The way a hypothesis is written
determines which tests are run, which outcome is expected, and how
conservative the results are. A hypothesis is a restatement of the research
question in a form that can be analyzed statistically for significance. It is
specifically used in causal tests, such as experimental designs and quasi-
experimental designs. For example, the research question “What is the
association of environmental factors and reactive airway disease in otherwise
healthy adults?” can be rewritten as the hypothesis “There is no association
between environmental factors and reactive airway disease in otherwise
healthy adults.” Although stating that no relationship exists might seem a
counterintuitive way to start a research analysis, it is, in fact, the only way that
statistical significance can be measured. Although we can never be sure that a
relationship exists, we can calculate the probability that it does not. Testing a
null hypothesis in effect tells us how much uncertainty is present in the
statistical conclusions, so the researcher can judge if it is within an acceptable

Hypothesis: A restatement of the research question in a form that can
be analyzed statistically for significance.

Two characteristics make a good hypothesis: the statement of an expected
relationship (or the lack of a relationship) and an identified direction of interest.
A null hypothesis states there is no difference between groups as a result of
receiving the treatment or not receiving the treatment, whereas an alternative
hypothesis specifies an expected difference between treatment groups. In
either case, the relationship between variables is defined.

Null hypothesis: A statement of the research question that declares
there is no difference between groups as a result of receiving the
intervention or not receiving the intervention.

With respect to directionality, a nondirectional hypothesis is one for which
the researcher is interested in a change in any direction, good or bad. In other
words, a positive or negative association would be of interest. If we were
testing a drug for hypertension, for example, a nondirectional hypothesis
would indicate we are interested in reductions in blood pressure, but we would
also be interested in rises in blood pressure. Sometimes called two-sided
hypotheses, nondirectional hypotheses are appropriate for exploratory
research questions or randomized trials of interventions. They require more
rigorous tests than directional hypotheses. Research questions are often used


alone, rather than being paired with hypotheses, when no direction of
influence is predicted (Connelly, 2015); thus, studies with nondirectional
hypotheses may not state them explicitly.

Nondirectional hypothesis: A two-sided statement of the research
question that is interested in change in any direction.

Directional hypotheses, or one-sided tests, are interested in only one
direction of change. They are appropriate for research questions in which a
great deal of literature or empirical support for an existing relationship can be
found. Directional hypothesis tests are more liberal than nondirectional ones.

Directional hypothesis: A one-sided statement of the research
question that is interested in only one direction of change.

A good hypothesis statement includes the population, variables (dependent
and independent), and the comparison (Boswell & Cannon, 2012). Using
preoperative education for short-stay patients undergoing prostatectomy as an
example, a research hypothesis might look like this:

Population: In patients who undergo radical prostatectomy and stay in the
hospital one day after surgery . . .
Comparison: There will be no difference in . . .
Dependent variable: Pain control as measured by a visual analog scale . . .
Independent variables: Between patients receiving customized
preoperative teaching and standard preoperative teaching.

It is easy to see the analogy between a PICO question and a hypothesis. In
this example, the “I” of the PICO question is the independent variable, and the
“O”, or outcome, is the dependent variable. Note, however, that hypotheses
are sequenced slightly differently than PICO questions. Hypotheses are best
used for experimental designs, but they can serve as a PICO statement when
the results will be statistically driven.

Examples of null, alternative, directional, and nondirectional research
hypotheses appear in Table 4.5.

Two essential aspects of a good hypothesis are

A statement of an expected relationship (or lack of one)
An identification of a direction of interest


Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice
The primary reason for critically reading problem statements is to identify
concerns or problems and to understand the disparities or gaps between what
is known and what still needs to be known about concepts. A secondary
reason is to determine the significance of the concerns or problems. The
primary reason for critically reading purpose statements is to identify the
variables and study design within the context and scope of specific
populations and settings. A secondary reason is to determine feasibility and fit.

When reading research as evidence for practice, many novice researchers are
tempted to search by key words, retrieve by titles, and scan conclusion
sections of abstracts and articles. In fact, novice researchers should avoid
such practices. Instead, the problem and purpose statements must be
reviewed to ensure fit between the nurse’s problem and purpose and the
researcher’s problem and purpose. Does the problem statement address the
same or similar concepts and gaps in knowledge? Does the purpose
statement address the same or similar variables, populations, and settings?
Often these elements are defined and explained in the introduction, literature
review, and study design sections of a research report.

Problem and purpose statements, as well as research questions, should be
stated early in the research report. The problem statement may be inferred
and incorporated into the introduction and review of the need for the study.
Often the context of the problem appears in the literature review. The purpose
statement should be explicit and found near the beginning of the study; it
might also be called “objectives,” “aims,” or “goals.” The research question
itself should be specific and made clear early in the study. The study may or
may not report hypotheses, even if it is clearly quantitative and experimental in
design. If they are reported, hypotheses often appear in the results section
with their associated statistical conclusions.

Table 4.5 Examples of Hypotheses

Research Question Null Hypotheses Alternative,


Do collaborative
interdisciplinary rounds
change the nurse’s
perception of
collaboration on a
patient care unit?

There will be no
difference in nurses’
perception of
collaboration when
interdisciplinary rounds
are implemented on a
patient care unit.

Nurses’ perception
of collaboration will
be different when
rounds are
implemented on a
patient care unit.

Nurses’ perceptions
of collaboration will
be improved when
rounds are
implemented on a
patient care unit.

Does a school-nurse
educational campaign
on the importance of

There will be no
difference in the
average amount of

Middle school
students will have a
different average

Middle school
students will have a
greater average


sleep change the
average amount of
school-night sleep of
middle school

school-night sleep
among middle school
students as a result of a
educational campaign.

amount of school-
night sleep as a
result of a school-
nurse educational

amount of school-
night sleep as a
result of a school-
nurse educational

Using Research in Evidence-Based Practice
By understanding problems, their related concepts or variables, the definition
of the population, and the context for a research study, the nurse may be able
to generalize the findings from that study to his or her specific nursing practice.
The best evidence may then be used to design changes to improve processes
and outcomes.

Literature searches may produce hundreds or even thousands of applicable
and nonapplicable results. To easily and quickly identify applicable studies,
look for the problem statements and the purpose statements in research
reports. Problem statements and purpose statements provide readers with the
focused context and scope required to generalize research findings to their
own nursing practice and establish and support evidenced-based practice
within their organizations. Efficient literature searches include not only key
words related to research problems, but also key words related to the level of
evidence. For example, key words such as meta-analysis, randomized, or
controlled may yield higher levels of evidence for critiquing, weighting, and
synthesizing activities (Facchiano et al., 2011).

Creating Evidence for Practice
Finding and developing research problems begins with a general concern or
focus related to a subject or topic. Subjects and topics consist of broad
categories and may include examples such as hospital-acquired infections,
pain management, patient falls, physiological monitoring, and pressure ulcer
prevention. As the process evolves, a problem is identified. Research
problems consist of narrower topics and may include examples such as
ventilator-associated pneumonia, patient-controlled analgesia, blood pressure
monitoring, and use of specialty beds to prevent skin breakdown.

Once a problem is identified, the gap between what is known about the
problem and what remains to be known about the problem is examined.
Special consideration should be given to exploring the gap within the context
and scope (population and setting) of the problem. This gap examination
occurs primarily through a literature review. Research activities should focus
on narrowing or filling in the gaps.

After the gap has been identified, the problem statement(s), purpose
statement(s), and research question(s) are developed. The problem statement
indicates the focus or interest of the study and raises concerns and questions
(disparities and gaps) about general concepts. The purpose statement


indicates why the study is being conducted and suggests methods for
examining the concepts or variables, and the relationships among them, within
a specific population and setting. The research question is a rewording of the
purpose statement into a question that suggests methods for examining the
concepts or variables and the relationships between them.


❏ Deductive narrowing from the general to the specific


❏ The problem is stated or inferred

❏ The statement is provided early in the article and is easy to find

❏ The concern, disparity, or gap is clear


❏ Develops, expands, or validates nursing knowledge

❏ Develops, expands, or validates conceptual models or theoretical

❏ Improves patient care, staff member, and/or organizational
processes and/or outcomes


❏ Deductive narrowing from problem statement


❏ The purpose is stated or inferred but can be described

❏ The statement is provided early in the article and is easy to find

❏ The purpose is written as a statement

❏ The statement uses an unbiased verb

❏ The design is described

❏ The variables are described

❏ The population is defined


❏ The setting is specified


❏ Required resources (people, time, money, equipment, materials,
and facilities) are accessible

❏ Ethical issues have been considered


❏ There is obvious alignment between purpose statement and

You should look for information about the research question or hypothesis in
the following places:

The research question may be explicitly stated in the research abstract, but
is often simply implied by the title of the article, purpose statement, or
objectives for the study.
Ideally, the question is discussed at the beginning of the article, often at the
end of the introduction. When it is stated early, it is followed by evidence
from the literature review to support the researcher’s contention that this
question is important to investigate further. It may be written as a statement
instead of a question. If it is not found at the beginning of the research
report, look for the question at the end of the literature review.
The null and alternate hypotheses are often found in the methods section
where statistical methods are discussed, along with the rationale for the
statistical tests used to test the hypotheses. Hypotheses are typically easy
to find and are explicitly identified as such.
Sometimes a separate section is created for a formal statement of the
problem, the purpose of the study, and the research question. It may be
labeled “Purpose,” “Aims,” or “Objectives.” The research question may
similarly have its own heading.
If the researcher used any inferential statistical tests, which most
quantitative studies do, then there were hypotheses, whether they are
stated or not. Sometimes the reader needs to guess what the hypotheses
were, based on the tests that were reported. Most studies do not report a
hypothesis. This is not a weakness; except for the most scientific of
journals, formal explication of hypotheses is not a standard part of a write-

That said, there may be no properly constructed research question explicitly
stated in the report. Three researchers in rehabilitation medicine reviewed
more than 250 research articles to identify what proportion of them described
appropriate research questions. More than 30% of the articles reviewed had


questions that required reworking to match the work undertaken (Mayo,
Asano & Barbic, 2013). When the research question is not specifically
identified, the reader may need to infer the elements of the research question
from the descriptions of the study’s design, methods, and sampling.

SKILL BUILDER Write Stronger Research
The most important part of the research process is getting the question
right. How the problem is stated determines which measures will be
used, which data will be collected, which kind of analysis will be used,
and which conclusions can be drawn. It is worth the time, then, to
carefully consider how this element of the research study is developed.
A thoughtful process does not necessarily mean a complicated process,
however. Here are some simple suggestions for creating strong
research questions:

Answer the “why” question first. With a solid understanding of the
reason for the study, the specifics of the research question become
easier to identify.
Review the literature before finalizing the question. Do not hesitate
to replicate the question of a research study that accomplishes
similar goals. It is flattering to researchers—even established, well-
known ones—to have their work replicated. Be sure to give credit
where credit is due.
Focus, focus, focus. Refine the research question, mull it over for a
bit, and then refine it again. The effort spent to get the question just
right will be worth it, because less confusion will arise later about
how to answer the question.
That said, do not wait until the question is perfect to begin the
design of the study. The question is, to some extent, a work in
progress as the specifics of the research unfold. The question can,
and likely will, be revised as new information, resources, and
constraints come to light.
Keep the research questions focused; do not include more than one
major concept per question. Compound questions are challenging to
study and make it more difficult to isolate the effects of a single
independent variable. Multiple research questions should be used
instead of multiple parts of a single question.

Summary of Key Concepts
Finding and developing significant problems for research are critical for
improving processes and outcomes for patients, staff members, and
organizations. For both the researcher and the reader, problem
statements, purpose statements, and research questions serve to guide
and direct research activities.


The evolution of a research problem from a general topic of interest to the
articulation of a problem statement and a purpose statement serves to
narrow the focus of the research to a researchable question. Subjects or
topics that are too broad are problematic for researchers—because
methodological complexities increase, experienced researchers or
consultants are required, and resource demands (for example, money,
people, and time) increase.
Sources for researchable problems include clinical practice, educational
institutions, consumer/customer feedback, personal experience,
frameworks and models, professional literature, performance improvement
activities, research reports and priorities, and social issues.
Research problem statements are declarations of disparity: the difference
(gap) between what is known and what needs to be known about a topic.
They are written as questions or statements and contain clear, concise,
and well-defined components (disparities or gaps and concepts).
Research purpose statements are declarations of intent: what will be
studied, how it will be studied, who will be studied, and what the context for
the study is. They are written as declarative, objective statements and
contain clear, concise, and well-defined components (design, variables,
population, and setting).
There should be a good fit between the design suggested in the purpose
statement and the methods used in the research study. There should also
be a good fit between the research question and the specifics of the
research design, sampling strategy, and measurement.
Qualitative problem and purpose statements, as well as research
questions, are generally broader, vaguer, and less prescriptive than those
created for quantitative studies. Qualitative designs are emergent and may
be revised frequently as the study unfolds.
Research questions for quantitative studies can be developed using the
PICO guide by specifying population, intervention, comparison, and
outcome. Some researchers add a “T” to the PICO acronym (PICOT) to
identify the time period of interest.
Epidemiology studies often use questions constructed in the “PECO”
format, in which an exposure of interest is substituted for an intervention.
All elements will not necessarily be in every question, because PICO
guidelines are most appropriate for experimental designs.
The FINER criteria—feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, and relevant—
serve as a good basis for analysis of the quality of a researchable
question. The research question should have an identifiable link to the
research design.

For More Depth and Detail
For a more in-depth look at the concepts in this chapter, try these references:

Chang, S., Carey, T., Kato, E., Guise, J., & Sanders, G. (2012).
Identifying research needs for improving health care. Annals of Internal


Medicine, 157(6), 439–445.

Curley, M. (2012). Clinical research: Together, stronger, bolder.
American Journal of Critical Care, 21(4), 234–241.

Houghton, C., Hunter, A., & Meske, U. (2012). Linking aims, paradigm
and method in nursing research. Nurse Researcher, 20(2), 34–39.

Krill, C., Raven, C., & Staffileno, B. (2012). Moving from a clinical
question to research: The implementation of a safe patient handling
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O’Brien, M., & DeSisto, M. (2013). Every study begins with a query:
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Pereyra, L. (2011). Developing the research hypothesis. Journal of
Investigative Surgery, 24(5), 191–194.

Welford, C., Murphy, K., & Casey, D. (2011). Demystifying nursing
research terminology: Part 1. Nurse Researcher, 18(4), 38–43.

Welford, C., Murphy, K., & Casey, D. (2012). Demystifying nursing
research terminology: Part 2. Nurse Researcher, 19(2), 29–35.

Retrieve the following full-text article from the Cumulative Index to
Nursing and Allied Health Literature or similar search database:

Baker, N., Taggart, H., Nivens, A., & Tillman, P. (2015). Delirium: Why
are nurses confused? MedSurg Nursing, 24(1), 15–22.

Review the article, looking for information about the problem and
purpose statements and the research questions and hypotheses.
Consider the following appraisal questions in your critical review of
these elements of the research article:

1. These authors do not specify a problem statement, or a
statement about the gap between what is and what is not known
about the problem. From the authors’ introduction and review of
the literature, what can you infer is the problem they want to

2. Are the research questions appropriate to achieve the given
purpose of the study?

3. Does the research question meet the FINER criteria? Why or
why not?


4. Which elements of the PICO question are evident here? How
could these questions be strengthened using a PICO approach?

5. Are these hypotheses directional or nondirectional?
6. Discuss whether and how this study will contribute to nursing


American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). (2013).

Nursing research. Retrieved from

Bhardwaj, R., Pickard, R., Carrick-Sen, D., & Brittain, K. (2012).
Patients’ perspectives on timing of urinary catheter removal
after surgery. British Journal of Nursing, 21r(18), Urology
Supplement, S4–S9.

Boswell, C., & Cannon, S. (2012). Introduction to nursing
research: Incorporating evidence-based practice (3rd ed.).
Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Carlisle, J., Moore, A., Cooper, A., Henderson, T., Mayfield, D.,
Taylor, R., . . . Sun, Y. (2012). Changes in infant disposable
diaper weights at selected intervals post-wetting. Pediatric
Nursing, 38(4), 223–226.

Carman, M., Wolf, L., Henderson, D., Kamienski, M., Koziol-
McLain, J., Manton, A., & Moon, M. (2013). Developing your
clinical question: the key to successful research. Journal of
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Cassar, S., & Baldacchino, D. (2012). Quality of life after
percutaneous coronary intervention: Part 2. British Journal
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Connelly, L. (2015). Research questions and hypotheses.
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Facchiano, L., Snyder, C., & Nunez, D. (2011). A literature
review on breathing retraining as a self-management
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between clinical indicators, coping styles, perceived support
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Mayo, N., Asano, M., & Barbic, S. (2013). When is a research
question not a research question? Journal of Rehabilitation
Medicine, 45, 513–518.

McKeon, J., & McKeon, P. (2015). PICO: A hot topic in
evidence-based practice. International Journal of Athletic
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Merkel, R., & Wright, T. (2012). Parental self-efficacy and
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Journal of Nursing, 22(4), 218–222.

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© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 5: The Successful Literature

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Discuss the rationale for conducting a thorough search of the
Discuss tools that measure the impact of studies.
Review the concept of “open access” and describe how it is making
research information more accessible.
Describe the types of literature used to support a research study,
including studies that constitute the “evidence pyramid.”
Understand the steps of a well-thought-out search strategy to find
evidence-based information.
Compare a literature search for research to a literature search for a
practice guideline.
Critically appraise the literature review section of a research article.
Reflect on the ways that research literature can be used as
evidence for nursing practice.



Boolean operators

Cited reference search

Empirical literature

Evidence pyramid h-Index

Information literacy

Journal impact factor

Levels of evidence

Literature review

Open access

Peer review

Primary sources



Search concepts

Search strategy

Search terms

Secondary sources

Seminal work

Subject headings

Systematic review

Theoretical literature

An Introduction to the Literature Review
The literature review is a critical component of the research process. It
provides an in-depth analysis of what is known and what is missing related to
a specific subject. This forms the foundation for research and ultimately patient
care. Through online access to health information, today’s students and
professionals can tap into a wide variety of complex resources that provide an
unending source of data. Moreover, this information is so dynamic that the
nurse researcher or clinician can no longer rely on a handful of familiar
resources, but rather must constantly remain alert to new findings from a
multitude of sources. In turn, nurses must develop the skills needed to search
health sciences databases efficiently and to assess the authority, objectivity,
and validity of the information they retrieve.

Literature review: A critical component of the research process that
provides an in-depth analysis of recently published research findings in
specifically identified areas of interest. The review informs the research
question and guides development of the research plan.

I was on the Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) Council for my hospital,
and one of the questions we wanted to study was whether hourly
rounding—a nurse checking every patient, every hour, and
documenting it—was worth the amount of time it required of the nurse.
The policy had come down from administration, and the rank and file
who were expected to carry it out were not sure it would achieve the
expected outcomes of decreasing the number of adverse events and
enhancing patient satisfaction.

We talked about designing our own little study, but concluded we would
see if there was already enough literature to show its effectiveness. We
started with the question, “What are the outcomes associated with


hourly rounding?” and identified search terms. We found quite a bit of
literature through our initial search, but much of it focused on
physicians’ rounds, not nurses’. We asked the health sciences librarian
for help, and she combined our terms in novel ways that brought us
more focused literature. She also helped us search dissertations and
conference proceedings. This turned up a few dozen applicable
abstracts. After applying our criteria to the list, we ended up with six
articles that measured some aspect of hourly rounding. One of them
was a review of other articles, so that was like hitting the evidence

We started the study expecting to prove that hourly rounding did not
really improve things. What we found—when we used objective criteria
for including studies—was that evidence supported the effectiveness of
this policy. Adverse events were decreased in two of the studies;
patient satisfaction improved in almost all of them. So we were both
surprised and a bit dismayed by the findings: We found something we
did not expect that supported continuing a time-consuming policy.

When we looked closer, however, it became clear that it was the nurse
contact that made the difference. That did not surprise us when we
thought about it. There really was no evidence that we needed in-depth
documentation of the rounding for it to be effective. So we suggested to
our nurse administrator, “We recognize the evidence for hourly rounds,
but can we find a faster way to show it was done?” We brainstormed for
some time and decided the rounds could just be marked off on a small
whiteboard in the room. Check the patient, check the whiteboard.

This was a case when the literature showed us something we did not
expect but helped us pose alternative solutions. I think it convinced
most of the team of the value of going to the literature first—you do not
have to reinvent the wheel—and doing so in an objective, deliberate

Eunice Nolan, RN, DNP

While this chapter can serve as a guide for nurses to help them find evidence-
based information, both students and professionals should not hesitate to
contact a health sciences librarian for further assistance. Whether they work at
a major academic center or in a one-room hospital library, such librarians are
skilled at searching the relevant resources and are experts in the science of
comprehensive literature retrieval.

Purpose, Importance, and Scope of the Literature
Literature reviews add credence to the researcher’s assertions of the
importance of the topic proposed for investigation. It is the researcher’s


responsibility to determine what others have discovered on the same topic. A
thorough literature review may turn up studies that can be replicated,
instruments that have been standardized and tested for use, or procedures
that can be adapted to the proposed study. In addition, the literature often
reveals an appropriate theoretical framework.

The literature review may enhance the body of knowledge on a particular
issue, or it may establish that there is a paucity of knowledge on the subject in
question. Although many researchers are discouraged by a lack of published
findings on a specific topic, this may actually be a benefit. A gap in the
knowledge of a healthcare issue creates an area that is ripe for exploratory or
interventional study and signals that the researcher is pioneering a new issue
for investigation. It also increases the likelihood of publication and can serve
as the basis for advanced academic study. Either way, the literature review is
the first step in evaluating the importance of a research question and potential
methods for its study.

Although the researcher needs to provide substantial literature support that
directly relates to the problem, it is important to resist the temptation to include
everything. A researcher must decide when to stop searching—perhaps an
obvious point in theory, but one that is sometimes difficult to put into practice.
A researcher may want to consciously note that nothing new is being revealed
or that literature resources are exhausted. The scope of a scholarly literature
review will obviously go into greater depth than a literature review for a small
bedside science project. Likewise, a study directed toward a journal focused
on practice may have fewer references than one intended for publication in a
research journal. The type of study, the expectations of the readers, and the
level of scholarly sophistication required will drive the scope of the literature

Scholarly: Concerned with or relating to academic study or research.

A literature review will

Add credence to the importance of the topic proposed for
Identify studies that can be replicated, instruments that have been
standardized and tested, or procedures that can be adapted
Reveal appropriate theoretical frameworks
Contribute to the body of knowledge or establish the lack of
published research on a subject

Types of Literature Used in the Review

Multiple types of information are used to enhance the scope and depth of the
review, and one way to consider them is to recognize theoretical versus
empirical literature. Theoretical literature includes published conceptual
models, frameworks, and theories. It provides a basis for the researcher’s
belief system and a road map for ways to think about the problem under study.
Empirical literature, by comparison, includes works that demonstrate how
theories apply to individual behavior or observed events. Both types of
literature may take the form of research journals, books, theses and
dissertations, conference proceedings, government reports, and practice

Theoretical literature: Published conceptual models, frameworks, and
theories that provide a basis for the researcher’s belief system and for
ways of thinking about the problem studied.

Empirical literature: Published works that demonstrate how theories
apply to individual behavior or observed events.

Scholarly literature includes the following types of sources:

Conference proceedings
Practice guidelines
Theses and dissertations
Government reports

Comprehensiveness in terms of both the time period reviewed and appropriate
coverage of the subject matter is important. The delay between completion of
a research study and the publication of its results can be significant; thus
articles that are more than a few years old may refer to findings that are, in
reality, much older. Researchers continually discover new facts, methods, and
outcomes, which in turn change what is known about a subject. Consequently,
the healthcare literature is highly dynamic. Failure to keep up with the latest
findings or recommendations can potentially affect patient care, so it is
essential for healthcare providers to keep abreast of the evolving literature.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. A seminal work—one that is a
classic in its field—may go back many more years than is common in the
healthcare literature and is not bound by time. For example, the important
contributions to the literature made by Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Orem,


and Jean Watson—all trailblazers in the field of nursing theory—are
considered seminal works. Likewise, research supporting statistical treatments
or measurement instruments may be from less recent literature, if one can
show that they are still relevant and their properties are still applicable to
today’s practice.

Seminal work: A classic work of research literature that is more than 5
years old and is marked by its uniqueness and contribution to
professional knowledge.

Research literature may be further defined in terms of its sources. Primary
sources are reports of original work that are published in a peer-reviewed
journal, government report, manuscript, or other scholarly work. Secondary
sources include comments on and summaries of multiple research studies on
one topic. For example, reviews of studies that provide synopses of clinical
studies are secondary sources. If the conclusions drawn in the secondary
source are based on that author’s interpretation of the primary work, it is
necessary, then, to review primary sources whenever possible to ensure
accuracy. Table 5.1 defines primary and secondary sources and gives
examples for each.

Primary sources: Reports of original research authored by the
researcher and published in a scholarly source such as a peer-
reviewed research journal or scholarly book.

Secondary sources: Comments and summaries of multiple research
studies on one topic, such as systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and
meta-syntheses, which are based on the secondary author’s
interpretation of the primary work.

Searching for the Evidence in a Research Problem
Selecting the appropriate resource, often an online database, is among the
most important initial steps in the literature search. Electronic databases vary
in subject (e.g., biomedical versus nursing), search interface (the search
engine and appearance), content type (e.g., bibliographic records versus full
text), and indexing (e.g., subject headings versus searching for key words),
among other characteristics. A researcher can spend an inordinate amount of
time searching in a broad science database when, in fact, the question is more
appropriately addressed in a specialized database. Additionally, books,
dissertations, websites, and individual journals will yield relevant and
authoritative information not included in major databases.


Table 5.1 Primary and Secondary Sources of Information

Primary Source Definition Resources that publish the findings of original research and
other types of studies in their first and original form

Examples of resources with
primary source information

Clinical trials

Potential search tools and

Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials

Secondary Source Definition Resources that synthesize, summarize, or comment on original

Examples of resources with
secondary source information

Systematic reviews
Qualitative synthesis
Reviews of individual articles
Clinical practice guidelines

Potential search tools and

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
National Guidelines Clearinghouse (AHRQ)
Professional association databases of practice guidelines
Clinical point-of-care tools (e.g., UpToDate)

A well-planned search strategy is helpful in ensuring that the literature search
is comprehensive and unbiased. The PICO statement (population,
intervention, comparison, outcome) is a useful tool that aids in identification of
major concepts for the search (Carman et al., 2013).

Open Access
Many databases and sources of literature are proprietary; in such a case,
individual researchers or an organization must be a subscriber to gain access
to them. In recent years, digital technology has dramatically increased the
ease of dissemination and access to research results, building an expectation
that everyone—not just subscribers—should have access to articles published
in scholarly journals, especially publications resulting from government-funded
(i.e., taxpayer-funded) research. The open access movement has gained
prominence in response to readers and authors alike demanding that research
information be readily available. The most frequently quoted definition of open
access (OA) literature, attributed to Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Open
Access Project, is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright
and licensing restrictions” (Suber, 2004).


Open access:Information that is freely available online with few or no
copyright restrictions.

Researchers, healthcare professionals, patients, and funding agencies have
been urging scholarly publishers to provide research information freely and to
permit unlimited downloading, copying, distributing, and printing of the articles,
or data-mining for analysis. In the United States, the National Institutes of
Health’s (NIH) Public Access Policy requires that authors of articles that result
from research funded by NIH submit their work to PubMed Central, a free
digital repository of peer-reviewed articles, within 12 months of publication
(Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2007). In early 2013 and again in 2015,
Congress introduced and reauthorized the Fair Access to Science and
Technology Research Act (FASTR) (2015a, 2015b), which takes the NIH
policy a step further, by requiring open access within 6 months of publication
in a peer-reviewed journal.

With the growing strength of the open access movement, it is increasingly
feasible for nurses, whether affiliated with an academic institution or not, to
readily access evidence-based information.

Assessing Study Quality and Its Influence
How can readers of research publications be assured of the quality of the
information? One of the hallmarks of high-quality research is peer review of
the study’s rationale, design, methodology, results, and conclusions. Peer-
reviewed publications have been subjected to critical assessment provided by
“blinded” reviewers who are unaware of the author’s name, credentials, or
professional status. This practice ensures a thorough evaluation of the paper
using the same standard applied to other, similar works, without being
influenced by the status of the author. When a researcher submits his or her
manuscript to a peer-reviewed (sometimes called refereed) professional
journal, it is understood that it will be evaluated by a team of experts who are
experienced in the content and methodology reflected in the manuscript. This
rigorous review process adds legitimacy to the findings reported in the study.

Peer review: The process of subjecting research to the appraisal of a
neutral third party. Common processes of peer review include selecting
research for conferences and evaluating research manuscripts for

The peer review process itself, however, may vary. Quantitative research
studies are generally subjected to a thorough analysis that focuses on
potential sources of bias and error and then applies strict standards to the
evaluation of methodology and design. Qualitative research, in contrast, lends


itself more appropriately to peer review that focuses on the efforts the author
has made to ensure credibility and trustworthiness.

Readers and authors alike may obtain further evidence of a study’s quality by
examining the subsequent references to its publication. Authors must always
attribute an idea or finding first reported in another publication by citing the
source. In turn, the number of times an article is cited in other articles is an
indication of the visibility and credibility of the work. With the help of online
tools and applications, the discipline of bibliometrics (a term coined by Alan
Pritchard in 1969) collects data on the impact of a publication. Pritchard
(1969) defined bibliometrics as “the application of mathematics and statistical
methods to books and other media of communication.” With the rise of digital
information, the ability to track a scholarly publication’s impact and reach has
greatly expanded.

Bibliometrics: The study of publication patterns.

Many methods exist that try to quantify this reach. The journal impact factor
is a measure of the influence and ranking of a journal within a discipline
(Thomson Reuters, 2015). The h-index is a calculation that provides a
measure of a particular individual researcher’s output (Hirsch, 2005). A newer
tool that looks at the extent of a publication’s influence is altmetrics, a method
developed by Jason Priem. On his website (, Priem and
his colleagues (2010) define altmetrics as “the creation and study of new
metrics based on the Social Web for analyzing and informing scholarship.” In
their own literature searches, nurses will notice that publishers use various
tools to discern an article’s impact.

Journal impact factor: A way to measure the visibility of research by
calculating a ratio of current citations of the journal to all citations in the
same time period.

h-Index: An indicator of a researcher’s lifetime impact in his or her field.

Altmetrics: The creation and study of new metrics based on the Social
Web for analyzing and informing scholarship.

Competencies for Information Literacy
It is clearly important that clinicians and researchers alike possess the
competencies necessary to access, retrieve, and analyze research evidence
for their practice throughout their career. Information literacy is important for


nurses to acquire because they must decipher the vast expanse of knowledge
generated through healthcare research. Nurses are required to make patient
care decisions on a daily basis, so they must be able to incorporate evidence-
based research into their clinical nursing practice. These skills can be
mastered through repeated practice and application throughout the nursing
curriculum, with feedback and instruction from the faculty in partnership with
the health sciences librarian (Schardt, 2011). When students graduate, they
then bring their information literacy skills to their employing organizations.

Information literacy: The competencies necessary to access, retrieve,
and analyze research evidence for application to nursing practice.

Today, competent nurses must possess lifelong learning and information
literacy skills that include the following abilities:

Identifying and succinctly stating the question or problem to be researched
Using the appropriate online databases, websites of professional and
government organizations, and other reliable resources for the retrieval of
scholarly research and the best evidence
Creating effective search strategies that yield relevant, current, research-
based results
Thinking critically to analyze problems and issues, and to appraise
Integrating evidence into practice
Working with computers, the Internet, word processing, spreadsheet
analysis, databases, and new applications that are relevant to the job

The process of searching the literature for evidence-based nursing resources
begins with a focused clinical question that is limited in its time frame so that
the evidence is current and directly applicable to nursing practice. Table 5.2
highlights some of the differences between a literature review for a research
study and a literature review for the development of practice guidelines.

Table 5.2 Contrast of Literature Review for Research and for Practice
Guideline Development

For a Research Study For Practice Guidelines


Provides background and context for the
particular study that is planned
Incorporates a theoretical framework
Specific to the research question

Provides evidence that can be applied
to a clinical problem Focuses on
application of research to practice
Specific to the clinical question

Type of

Scholarly works that are published in
peer-reviewed journals
Research reported in other peer-

Scientific works that are published in
peer-reviewed journals
Systematic reviews, meta-analyses,


reviewed venues such as symposia,
dissertations, and monographs

and integrative reviews published in
journals, by professional associations,
or by other organizations
Opinions presented by expert panels or
task forces

skills used

Critical appraisal of single focused
research reports

Critical appraisal of single studies and
aggregate research report

A literature search for evidence-based nursing practice should meet the
following criteria:

Be focused on a clinical question
Be limited in its time frame so that the evidence is current
Be applicable directly to nursing practice

Reading the Literature Review Section
The literature review section of a research study provides rich information
about the context of the study in the field and its potential for use in direct
practice. Studies based on thoroughly searched and synthesized literature
produce evidence that is more standard, easily aggregated, and likely to be
valid. A well-done literature review section will support the authors’ contention
that the research question is important and has significant implications for
practice. It may also provide a link to the theoretical basis of the question and
offer support for the methods and procedures used. The literature review
should present a logical argument, in essence, that builds a case for the
significance of the study and its particular design.

The literature review should include a variety of sources of data; these sources
should be sorted and analyzed for their usefulness to the study. The literature
review can be arranged in chronological order or by subject matter. The review
should also be unbiased; that is, there should be a mix of previous studies
related to the research question—some that support the author’s viewpoint
and some that do not. Contradictory results from the literature should be
reported, because one goal of nursing research is to clarify previous confusing
results. Ideally, the studies should be dated within the past 5 years, unless the
work is a seminal one or a theoretical selection.

A review of literature can appear throughout a published research
article, but typically will be concentrated in a special section that follows
the introduction, purpose statement, and research question. Citations to
literature that support and discuss the scope of the research problem
generally first appear in the literature review section, which may be


labeled straightforwardly as “Literature Review”; alternatively, it may be
called “Background” or “Context of the Problem.” On occasion, this
information might not be presented in a separate section, but rather will
be embedded into the introductory paragraphs.

Literature may also be cited to support the measurements that were
used, the intervention protocol, or the data analysis procedures. The
literature is often referred to during discussion and conclusions; it is
here that the authors compare their findings to the findings of previous
studies. In discussing the findings of their own study, the researcher
should identify results that confirm previous studies, clear up
contradictions, or highlight inconsistencies with the findings of other
studies. Each citation in the text should be linked to an entry in the
references list.

The use and placement of the literature review is standardized in most
quantitative studies. Qualitative studies, however, may refer to and cite
the literature in various ways. Some qualitative researchers believe the
researcher should not have preconceived notions about a study and so
should complete the literature search only after completing the study.
Others use a fairly traditional approach. The literature review for
qualitative studies often appears sprinkled throughout the sections
noted earlier but may also appear in the results section, supporting the
themes recorded and the words of informants.


❏ The literature review relies primarily on studies conducted in the
last 5 years.

❏ The relationship of the research problem to the previous research
is made clear.

❏ All or most of the major studies related to the topic of interest are

❏ The review can be linked both directly and indirectly to the
research question.

❏ The theoretical or conceptual framework is described.

❏ The review provides support for the importance of the study.

❏ The authors have used primary, rather than secondary, sources.

❏ Studies are critically examined and reported objectively.

❏ The review is unbiased and includes findings that are conclusive
and those that have inconsistencies.


❏ The author’s opinion is largely undetectable.

❏ The review is logically organized to support the need for the

❏ The review ends with a summary of the most important
knowledge on the topic.

Using Evidence-Based Literature in Nursing
Nurses use literature reviews for a variety of reasons. Students will use them
to compose scholarly papers and to design research studies. Practicing
nurses may rely on literature reviews to make decisions supported by
evidence when dealing with specific patient care problems. For the use of the
profession as a whole, articles may be combined to develop evidence-based
practice guidelines. All of these applications require competency in retrieving
and using the literature appropriately. Table 5.3 highlights how nurses are
expected to use the literature in education and in practice, while Table 5.4
reviews some of the ways that research literature is integrated into clinical

When thinking about evidence-based literature, it may be helpful to visualize
the various levels of information as a pyramid. Although many versions of this
pyramid exist, one that has been widely cited and adapted for nursing
research was produced through the efforts of librarians at Yale University and
Dartmouth College (Glover, Izzo, Odato & Wang, 2006). The evidence
pyramid (FIGURE 5.1) illustrates the hierarchy of literature related to the
strength of the evidence presented. This literature may be associated with a
level of evidence tool—that is, a ranking system that allows a clinician to
quickly assess the quality of the evidence supporting a claim.

Evidence pyramid: A pyramid diagram illustrating evidence-based
information that depicts the potential quality of information, the amount
available, and the amount of searching required to find evidence.

Levels of evidence: A scale that provides the user with a quick way to
assess the quality of the study design and, therefore, the strength of the
study conclusions.

Table 5.3 Expectations for Use of Literature in Education and Practice

Baccalaureate (BSN)
Conduct literature reviews on a clinical subject


Critically appraise the data retrieved
Synthesize summaries of literature
Apply research findings to clinical practice
Write academic papers
Prepare academic presentations

The BSN skills plus the following:

Test the efficacy of nursing interventions yielding evidence for “best practices”
Develop research and/or evidence-based proposals
Develop research and/or evidence-based scholarly projects

The BSN and graduate skills plus the following:

Conduct research on proposals
Publish research and/or evidence-based findings from own research
Develop systematic reviews
Collaborate with other nursing colleagues to develop future studies

Conduct literature reviews on a clinical subject being studied
Critically appraise the data retrieved
Synthesize summaries of the literature reviewed
Apply research findings to clinical practice
Develop research and/or evidence-based proposals
Develop research and/or evidence-based scholarly projects

Table 5.4 Integration of Literature Review into Clinical Practice

Definition Application to Clinical Practice


Personal reading for enrichment
and professional knowledge

Improvement of patient care
Improvement of professional self

Journal clubs Group discussions regarding
clinical issues and the scientific
evidence that addresses them via
critical appraisal of selected journal

Improvement of patient care
Improvement of professional self
Increase in new knowledge of
issues with associated evidence
Learning research methodologies
Learning new clinical practice
Discussing professional nursing


Professional meetings focusing on
research findings

Improvement of patient care
Improvement of professional self
Increase in new knowledge of
clinical issues with associated
Learning research methodologies
Learning new clinical practice


Discussing professional nursing

Nursing practice

A forum to research, craft, and
revise nursing practice standards

Learning about evidence-based
Development of professional
practice guidelines: standards of
care, procedures, protocols, and
practice changes Identification of
“best practices”


A forum that focuses on analysis
and improvement of care

Evidence-based measurement
outcomes: nursing-sensitive
Use of the plan–do–check–act
(PDCA) or PICO assessment form
for quality management

Peer reviews Processes wherein nurses review
the practice of other nurses and
compare actual practice to
evidence-based professional

Promoting excellence in professional
Identification of the need for safety
and quality interventions

Data from Levin, R. F., & Feldman, H. R. (2006). Teaching evidence-based nursing. New York, NY:

The evidence pyramid model shows both filtered and unfiltered resources.
Filtered resources are those that are reviewed by experts in the subject area
and distilled into a publication such as a review, guideline, or evidence-based
synopsis of a problem. The bottom section of the pyramid includes unfiltered
works such as clinical trials, qualitative studies, and opinion pieces published
by authors but not reviewed or appraised by others.


FIGURE 5.1 Evidence Pyramid of Research Information

Reproduced from EBM Pyramid and EBM Page Generator, copyright 2008 Trustees of Dartmouth

College and Yale University. All Rights Reserved. Produced by Jan Glover, David Izzo, Karen Odato

and Lei Wang. Retrieved from

Systematic reviews are positioned at the top of this pyramid example. This
type of literature is typically considered the highest level of evidence because
multiple studies are judged related to a specific research question and
reviewed to reveal the best practices or results pertaining to that question. As
the pyramid indicates, there is generally less literature available at this level.
The Cochrane Collaboration—a global partnership whose members have
been developing systematic reviews since the early 1990s—creates such
reviews, which are found in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
(CDSR), part of the Cochrane Library. These systematic reviews are
considered to be the gold standard of evidence. The Preferred Reporting
Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses Guidelines describe steps for
developing systematic reviews and provide specific guidance on the literature
search involved in creating the review (Liberati et al., 2009).

Systematic review: A highly structured and controlled search of the
available literature that minimizes the potential for bias and produces a
practice recommendation as an outcome.

Critically appraised topics and articles are the next level in the evidence.
These sources include guidelines developed on a specific health problem or


articles reviewed for a journal club exercise.

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) fall in the middle of the evidence pyramid.
They include original research published in scholarly journals and indexed in
bibliographic databases such as CINAHL and MEDLINE. The quantity of
information here is vast, so a specialized topic is more likely studied. The most
relevant information may be hidden in this abundance, however, and only
someone with well-practiced search skills may be able to effectively locate it.
Furthermore, these studies are not preappraised or filtered, so it is up to the
researcher to assess the quality of the studies. Cohort and case-controlled
studies are single studies that are also indexed in the bibliographic databases.
The have less rigorous study designs than RCTs and, therefore, represent a
lower level of evidence.

Expert opinion and background publications, such as encyclopedias and
textbooks, fall at the lowest level of the pyramid. While important, these
sources simply present the authors’ viewpoint based on their experience and
knowledge or general information about a topic and may not be supported by

Creating a Strong Literature Review
To successfully conduct a literature review, an organized approach must be
used to address the clinical problem and research question. The most
important steps are described here.

Identify the Research Problem and Question
Clinicians and researchers are often inundated by information and data
coming from many sources: the medical record, a physical examination, the
patient’s story, practice guidelines, expert opinion, and the research literature.
In the face of this wealth of data, it is easy to become overwhelmed. The key
to finding evidence-based information is to boil it down to a handful of—and
perhaps even one—searchable and ultimately answerable questions. The
identification of these questions, in turn, presents the basic terms that are
used for the literature search process. The study population, health problem,
treatment options, differential diagnoses, prognosis, and expected outcomes
are common considerations when formulating the research question. The
PICO mnemonic takes many of these factors into account to help the searcher
identify major concepts in the research problem.

Select the Resources
Table 5.5 includes many resources for clinical and research information.
Increasingly, clinical resources are available as mobile applications, which are
also noted here. Professional journals that commonly focus on nursing
research and evidence-based practice are listed in Table 5.6.


Early in the literature review process, the researcher selects appropriate
resources to locate prior studies that address the topic. The resource could be
a review article with a lengthy bibliography, but it is often more fruitful to
search an electronic resource that contains millions of records. This type of
bibliographic database—that is, an electronic index of journal article citations
—is searchable by key words, subject, author names, journal names, and
other relevant categories.

Among the most important databases for nursing research is CINAHL
(Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature), a collection of
bibliographic records of articles, books, dissertations, and conference
proceedings in nursing, biomedicine, and allied health. A subscription-based
service, it is currently offered through EBSCO, a scholarly publisher.

Table 5.5 Databases and websites used for nursing Literature Searches

Databases Proprietary
or Free


Academic Search Premier (EBSCO;

Proprietary General science, social
science bibliographic

ACP PIER (American College of Physicians;

Proprietary Point-of-care database
available online and as a
mobile app.

CINAHL: Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied
Health Literature (EBSCO;

Proprietary Nursing and allied health
bibliographic database.
Mobile app available.

Cochrane Library (Wiley;

Proprietary Includes the Cochrane
Database of Systematic
Reviews (CDSR),
Cochrane Register of
Controlled Trials
(CENTRAL), Database of
Abstracts of Reviews of
Effects (DARE), and other
evidence-based databases.

Epocrates Rx ( Free Point-of care drug
database available as a
mobile app and online.

ERIC: Educational Resources Information Center
(U.S. Department of Education;

Free Education bibliographic

EMBASE: Excerpta Medica Online (Elsevier;

Proprietary Biomedical bibliographic
database having
considerable overlap with


PubMed. Strength is in
drug information; focus is
somewhat more European
than PubMed.

Google Scholar ( Free Conducts citing-articles

Grey Literature Reports ( Free Gray (unpublished)
literature such as
government reports and
white papers focusing on
the health sciences.

Joanna Briggs Institute

Proprietary Based at the University of
Adelaide in Australia, the
Joanna Briggs Institute
develops systematic
reviews and other
resources with evidence-
based information,
particularly for nursing.

Micromedex (Truven Health Analytics;

Proprietary Drug database used by
pharmacists as well as
other clinicians. Available
online and as a mobile app.

National Guidelines Clearinghouse (AHRQ;

Free Practice guidelines.

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database
(Therapeutic Research Faculty;

Proprietary Database of natural
products searchable with
brand names. Includes
herbals and other
supplements. Online and
via mobile app.

Networked Digital Library of Theses and
Dissertations (

Free Bibliographic database of
dissertations and theses.

Nursing Best Practice Guidelines

Free Guidelines developed by
theRegistered Nurses
Association of Ontario

PubMed (U.S. National Library of Medicine;

Free Biomedical bibliographic
database with wide global
reach. Mobile app

PsycINFO (American Psychological Association;

Proprietary Behavioral health,
psychology, and psychiatry
bibliographic database.

SCOPUS (Elsevier; Proprietary General science

182 bibliographic database.
Conducts citing-articles

Web of Science (Thomson Reuters;

Proprietary General science and social
science bibliographic
database. Conducts citing-
articles searches.

Another key resource is MEDLINE, a large biomedical database that is freely
available through the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed portal as well as
via other search interfaces such as Ovid and EBSCO. Additional relevant
databases include the Cochrane Library—in particular, the CDSR and the
Cochrane Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL). Health and Psychosocial
Instruments (HaPI) is a unique bibliographic database of behavioral
instruments and scales, while PsycINFO includes citations on behavioral
medicine and mental health. Google Scholar is the academic database offered
by and an increasingly important source of scholarly information.

Table 5.6 Professional nursing Research and evidence-Based Practice

Advances in Nursing Science

Applied Nursing Research

Biological Research for Nursing

Canadian Journal of Nursing Research

Clinical Nursing Research

Evidence-Based Nursing

Journal of Nursing Measurement

Journal of Nursing Scholarship

Journal of Research in Nursing

Nurse Researcher

Nursing Research

Nursing Science Quarterly

Oncology Nursing Forum

Research in Nursing and Health

Research and Theory for Nursing Practice

Western Journal of Nursing Research


Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing

Information from websites must be used with caution. Not every site,
database, or other Internet resource is supported by a reputable provider. The
reader in general has little assurance that information on Internet sources is
authoritative and objective and must do his or her homework to confirm that a
source is reputable.

Researchers must secure information from bona fide, established, and
credible sources. Nursing associations, healthcare organizations, major
hospital systems, and government agencies are often reliable and objective
hosts for evidence-based information. To aid researchers and users, the
Medical Library Association (2015) has developed guidelines for evaluating

Identify Inclusion and exclusion Criteria
When beginning the literature review, it is important to determine which types
of studies will be included and which will be excluded. Common questions to
address when identifying appropriate criteria relate to the study design,
publication year, population of interest, intervention, and outcomes of
significance. If the researcher is interested in just the effectiveness of an
intervention, for example, then citations may be retained only if the studies
used experimental or quasi-experimental designs. If the evidence that is
needed relates to patient preferences, however, then the researcher may
choose to focus on qualitative studies. Using criteria related to the topic and
type of studies ensures that the researcher remains focused on the most
relevant studies without getting bogged down by literature that is only indirectly
related to the topic.

Build the Search Strategy and Conduct the Search
The search strategy starts with identification of major search concepts—that
is, ideas and themes in the research question—that will serve as the
foundation for the search strategy. These concepts may be the exact words
and phrases included in the problem statement.

Search strategy: The identification of search concepts and terms and
the way they are combined that will be used to search for resources for
the literature review.

Search concepts: Major ideas or themes in a research question.

The researcher next determines which search terms most closely describe
each of the concepts and utilizes Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to


connect the terms and create the search strategy. Finding many similar terms
or synonyms to describe the concepts ensures that the search strategy is
extensive, helping the researcher avoid the problem of overlooking a key study
that happens to use slightly different terminology.

Search terms: Words or phrases that describe each search concept
used to conduct the literature search. They may include variables in the
research question, characteristics of the population of interest, or the
theoretical framework of the research problem.

Boolean operators: The words AND, OR, and NOT, which are used to
join or exclude search terms.

An example of basic search strategy development can be found in Table 5.7.
While the approach illustrated is applicable across databases, the specific
syntax used for each strategy will vary from one resource to another,
especially in databases that utilize subject headings, meaning fixed key
words assigned by the publishers and authors that describe many concepts in
the database’s subject field. Furthermore, many search interfaces include
filtering tools to limit the retrieved records by publication date, language of the
article, and evidence-based criteria. PubMed, for example, supports Clinical
Queries (, a tool with built-in
search strategies that provides a quick way to retrieve controlled trials or
systematic reviews on a particular topic.

Subject headings: Fixed “official” key words used by many databases
to describe major concepts and assigned by indexers to bibliographic

Database searching usually involves the location of specific words or phrases
in the content of the resource within one or more of the bibliographic fields
(e.g., article title field, abstract field, author field). Another, quite different way
of searching is the process of finding citing articles. Unlike the usual approach
of locating words in the text, a cited reference search finds works included in
the list of references. It is based specifically on the bibliography. The results
turned by a cited reference search may be often quite different from the
results retrieved using conventional searching for key words, sometimes
reflecting more closely the authors’ deliberations on what they regard as
important (see Table 5.5 for a list of databases that conduct a cited reference


Cited reference search: A search that finds articles that are cited by
another article.

Screen the Initial List of Citations and Organize
The initial literature search will almost certainly return a list that includes both
relevant and irrelevant citations. Rather than expending time reading articles
that are not appropriate, the researcher should start by screening the citations
list for relevance using the preestablished set of inclusion and exclusion
criteria, as discussed earlier.

Organizing citations using a bibliographic management application is a
valuable time-saving step. The initial exploratory search of a broad topic may
result literally in thousands of citations, but using applications such as Endnote
( or RefWorks ( to store and
organize them can save time and help the researcher keep track of the
citations. While many applications that perform this function require the
purchase of software or an institutional license, there are also several free
online resources, such as Zotero (, CiteULike
(, and Mendeley (
Notably, Mendeley serves as a social-networking site where researchers can
exchange information or discover new studies shared by other members.

Table 5.7 Developing the Search Strategy

a. Planning Table. Included are the research question, major concepts, and the terms that describe
the concepts.


What are the metabolic consequences of traumatic brain injury in pediatric patients?


pediatric patients traumatic brain injury metabolic consequences


children traumatic brain injury TBI metabolic consequences

child metabolic response

pediatric hypothermia

b. Search Strategy Using Sets

Sets Search Terms and Combinations

1 children


2 child

3 pediatric

4 1 OR 2 OR 3

5 traumatic brain injury


7 5 OR 6

8 metabolic consequences

9 metabolic responses

10 hypothermia

11 8 OR 9 OR 10

12 4 AND 7 AND 11

c. All-at-Once Search Strategy
(children OR child OR pediatric) AND (traumatic brain injury OR TBI) AND (metabolic
consequences OR metabolic response OR hypothermia)

Retrieve the full Text and Summarize Relevant
Although full-text versions of many articles will be available electronically
through a library’s subscription, others may be available only through
interlibrary loan—a nationwide borrowing and lending service available at most
libraries. The librarian’s assistance can be very helpful in this process.

Most researchers will find they need to organize the review of the full-text
articles so the summary of their content is both complete and efficient. The
research question, methods, findings, and conclusions of each study should
be summarized. The review should focus on relevant results and the quality of
the evidence. At this point, it is helpful to record any quotes the researcher
may want to include in the write-up, along with page numbers so the quote can
be attributed appropriately. All of these elements can be recorded in
bibliographic management software. In general, it is helpful to record the
following items for any study that may end up in the literature review:

Full article citation
Purpose of study
Research design
Sample size
Methodology and measurements


Implications for the current research question
Implications for nursing practice

Critically Appraise the Study Quality and findings
Once the researcher has a final stack of relevant articles, the next step is to
appraise the studies for quality of design and methodology. Many useful
articles and books can serve as guides to critical appraisal; while their details
may differ, they tend to ask some of the same fundamental questions
(Greenhalgh, 2010; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network, 2013;
Young & Solomon, 2009):

Is the study question relevant, and how do the findings add to the body of
Was the study design appropriate for the question?
Are there potential sources of bias?
Does the conclusion match the data results?
How does this study contribute to patient care?

CASP (Critical Appraisal Skills Programme), a nonprofit organization based in
the United Kingdom, has created tools and checklists to assist in the appraisal
process (

Summarize and Synthesize the findings
The final step of any literature review is to compose a synthesis of the key
findings of the studies that organizes them into a coherent summary. This
summary should not be a simple reiteration of the studies that were reviewed,
but rather a logical unfolding of the relationships discovered in the research
studies. It should emphasize the significance of the research that was
reviewed and link it to the current research question.

Skill Builder Develop a Strong Literature
It is easy to see the literature search as a task that must be done to get
at the “real” work of research. In fact, if it is done well, a thorough
review of previous work can actually save the researcher time in the
long run. The literature search can help focus the research question,
develop the details of a study design, and put the study in a larger
context. Doing a literature search requires time and a bit of frustration
tolerance—but there are ways to get the most from this critical step.

Use a broad range of sources, including “gray literature” such as
conference proceedings, dissertation abstracts, and government
reports. Though time consuming, manual searches of the tables of
contents of the most relevant journals may reveal studies that were
missed in the electronic search.


Involve a health sciences librarian in the literature search early in
the process. Searching the literature is a methodical science, and
the expertise a librarian brings can prove invaluable. A health
sciences librarian can help locate databases and assist in
developing a search strategy, both of which can improve the
chances of a successful search.
Go from general to specific in the search strategy. Look for studies
on the overall topic first, and then search for research that is more
specific to the unique question.
Select references to review from the lists of the most relevant
Resist the urge to look only at full-text databases. Valuable studies
may be missed, and the research may end up with an incomplete
literature review if the focus is exclusively on easily accessible
Rely on primary sources—in other words, the original studies—
instead of quotes or summaries from other articles. Studies may be
misquoted and findings reported incorrectly, so the primary source
must be evaluated to ensure the findings are reported correctly.

A strong literature review will include studies that both support and
refute the researcher’s ideas. Any gaps, particular strengths, or evident
weaknesses in the current evidence should be revealed. The goal of a
literature review is to explore the support for a research project, not to
prove a point. The best literature reviews provide direction while
reinforcing the need for specialized inquiry.

Summary of Key Concepts
The literature review provides an in-depth analysis of recently published
research findings.
Health information is dynamic and vast in quantity. Nurses must learn to
search effectively for evidence-based information.
Peer review is critical for ensuring the credibility of research publications.
Bibliometrics includes various measures that try to quantify the influence of
journals, articles, and researchers.
The open access movement is making research information more readily
Information literacy is a key competency for students and practicing nurses
to ensure nursing practice is based on appropriate evidence.
Evidence-based information can be represented in the form of an evidence
pyramid that depicts the potential quality of information, the amount of
information, and the amount of work required to find evidence.
To find evidence, it is important to formulate a handful of searchable and
answerable questions.


Numerous health databases exist. Some are accessed only via a library
subscription, some are open and freely accessible, and some are available
as mobile applications.
Plan a search strategy by identifying major search concepts and in turn
search terms. Combine the terms using appropriate Boolean operators.
Critically appraise studies by examining their designs and assessing the
importance of the research question and the findings.
Take advantage of librarians. They have the experience and skills to
search many healthcare resources.

For More Depth and Detail
For a more in-depth look at the concepts in this chapter, try these references:

Facchiano, L., & Snyder, C. (2012). Evidence-based practice for the
busy nurse practitioner: Part two: Searching for the best evidence to
clinical inquiries. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse
Practitioners, 24, 640–648.

Greenhalgh, T. (2010). How to read a paper: The basics of evidence-
based medicine. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Lefebvre, C., Manheimer, E., & Glanville, J. (2011). Searching for
studies. In J. P. T. Higgins & S. Green (Eds.), Cochrane handbook for
systematic reviews of interventions. Version 5.1.0 (updated March
2011). The Cochrane Collaboration. Retrieved from

Winsett, R., & Moutseous, M. (2012). Collaborating with hospital
librarians to engage nurses in evidence-based practice education.
Journal of Hospital Librarianship, 12(4), 309–316.

Retrieve the following full-text article from the Cumulative Index to
Nursing and Allied Health Literature or similar search database:

Assante, J., Collins, S., & Hewer, I. (2015). Infection associated with
single-dose dexamethasone for prevention of postoperative nausea and
vomiting: A literature review. AANA Journal , 83(4), 281–288. Retrieved

Refer to the authors’ procedures for searching and reporting the
literature to address the following questions:


1. What is the goal of this literature review? How is it related to
nursing practice?

2. What do the authors of this literature review do to ensure they
retrieved the largest number of relevant articles? How could
they have expanded their search?

3. Which actions are taken by these authors to reduce bias in
selection and review of articles?

4. Which level of evidence is provided by this article, on the
evidence pyramid?

5. How do these authors link the review to practice?

Carman, M., Wolf, L., Henderson, D., Kamienski, M., Koziol-

McLain, J., Manton, A., & Moon, M. (2013). Developing your
clinical question: The key to successful research. Journal of
Emergency Nursing, 39(3), 299–302.

Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-161 §
Div G, Title II, Sec 218. (2007).

Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act of 2015,
H.R. 1477, U.S. House of Representatives. (2015a).

Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act of 2015,
S.779, U.S. Senate. (2015b).

Glover, J., Izzo, D., Odato, K., & Wang, L. (2006). EBM
pyramid. Dartmouth University/Yale University. Retrieved

Greenhalgh, T. (2010). How to read a paper: The basics of
evidence-based medicine. New York, NY: John Wiley &

Hirsch, J. E. (2005). An index to quantify an individual’s
scientific research output. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Science U.S.A., 102(46), 16569–16572.


Liberati, A., Altman, D. G., Tetzlaff, J., Mulrow, C., Gotzsche, P.
C., Ioannidis, J. P., . . . Moher, D. (2009). The PRISMA
statement for reporting systematic reviews and meta-
analyses of studies that evaluate health care interventions:
Explanation and elaboration. Journal of Clinical
Epidemiology, 62(10), e1–e34. doi:

Medical Library Association. (2015). Find good health
information. Retrieved from

Priem, J., Taraborelli, D., Groth, P., & Neylon, C. (2010).
Altmetrics: A manifesto. Retrieved from

Pritchard, A. (1969). Statistical bibliography or bibliometrics?
Journal of Documentation, 25(4), 348–349.

Schardt, C. (2011). Health information literacy meets evidence-
based practice. Journal of the Medical Library Association,
99(1), 1–2. doi: 10.3163/1536-5050.99.1.001

Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network. (2013). Critical
appraisal: Notes and checklists. Retrieved from

Suber, P. (2004). Open access overview. Retrieved from

Thomson Reuters. (2015). The Thomson Reuters impact factor.
Retrieved from

National Library of Medicine. (2015). Fact sheet. MEDLINE,
PubMed, and PMC (PubMed Central): How are they
different? Retrieved from


Young, J. M., & Solomon, M. J. (2009). How to critically
appraise an article. Nature Clinical Practice
Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 6(2), 82–91. doi:


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 6: Selecting an Appropriate
Research Design

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Establish the link between the research question and the study
Evaluate the characteristics that are the basis for design decisions.
Differentiate the kinds of questions that require quantitative,
qualitative, and mixed method designs.
Identify the types of variables that reflect the concepts in a research
Review designs that describe populations, test relationships, or
examine causality.
Relate the type of design to the strength of evidence it can support.

Confirmatory studies

Correlation research

Dependent variable

Descriptive studies

Descriptive variables

Exploratory studies

Extraneous variables

Independent variable

Predictive research

Research design


In the best of all possible worlds, evidence would be the result of well-
controlled, perfectly designed studies. Of course, most nurses do not practice
in the best of all possible worlds; nursing research is planned by making a
series of decisions, each of which involves weighing alternatives and options
in the search for knowledge. It is important, then, to understand each of the


predominant research designs so a study can be planned that best answers
the research question and therefore is the strongest evidence for practice.

To call this process “design” may give the wrong impression. This singular
word implies that design is an event that happens and then is complete. In
reality, design may be a circuitous process, with each decision having a
variety of implications that require consideration and that may even compel the
researcher to revisit earlier decisions. The ultimate result of this process is a
detailed plan for the ensuing research project, which addresses the research
question with a minimum of bias. Bias may come from several sources in a
research study—the researcher, the subjects, the measurements, the
sampling procedures—and solid design is the best way to control the threat
that bias presents to the overall credibility of the results.

I used to just accept that the way things were done on my surgical unit
was the way they should be done, until I went back to school to get my
BSN and took a course in evidence-based practice. My instructors
taught me to be curious and to question the status quo if I suspected I
could find a better way to care for patients.

One day, I was pulling up pressure hosiery on one of my postoperative
patients and cursing under my breath. It was the third time that day I
had found the hosiery either wadded up around her ankles or rolled
down at the top into something that looked disturbingly like a tourniquet.
She was 78 years old and had experienced abdominal surgery, but was
otherwise quite healthy. For the hundredth time in my career, I asked
myself, “Do these darn things do any good?” It occurred to me that I
had my first evidence-based practice project right in front of me—or,
more accurately, around my patient’s ankles.

I did not find anything compelling in the literature, so I decided to
conduct my own study. I approached our quality department and asked
for help setting up a randomized trial, because I knew that it would
provide the most compelling evidence. Our unit quality representative
told me that I was unlikely to persuade any of the surgeons to let me
forgo the hosiery without at least a pilot test, so we put our heads
together and came up with a way to demonstrate that my question
might have merit. The quality representative reminded me that we had
several surgeons who did not use the hosiery routinely. We decided to
do a retrospective chart review, and chose a causal-comparative design
for the study. In other words, we found surgical patients who had
received compression hosiery and those who had not, and compared
the rates of postoperative deep vein thrombosis (DVT) for the two
groups. We knew this design was weaker than a randomized trial, so
we controlled the extraneous variables we could. Because we knew the
risk factors for DVT could affect the outcome, we collected data about


each individual patient’s risk factors. A big extraneous variable was the
surgeon—we knew that factor would exert an effect because the
patients without hosiery would all belong to a single set of surgeons.
Thus, we identified the surgeon for each patient as well, along with
information about the surgical procedure performed and some basic
demographic data.

The result was very satisfying for me: I was able to show that the
pressure hosiery was effective in preventing DVT only in patients who
had preexisting risk factors. Compression devices were the most
effective intervention for this group of patients, followed by pressure
hosiery. In contrast, the patients without risk factors did not benefit from
either intervention. The quality representative took my findings to the
medical care committee, and they endorsed a randomized trial to
confirm what we found in the pilot test. It took a while, but now—two
years later—we have a preoperative checklist of DVT risk factors that
determines whether a patient is prescribed compression hosiery.
Patients get the evidence-based care they need, and those without risk
factors do not have an unnecessary charge for a treatment that will not

Janice Leeper, RN

No design is perfect. The researcher can predict some threats that will require
attention during design; others may arrive, unanticipated, in the midst of the
study. The design process entails a series of decisions, balancing research
rigor with reality. If a researcher considers design options thoughtfully, makes
decisions based on the goals of the study, and can provide a rationale for
each decision, the final product will be valid.

What Is a Design?
A research design is an outline of the study, in both a macro sense and a
micro sense. From a macro perspective, design refers to an overall approach
to the study, grounded in a set of beliefs about knowledge and the question
that must be answered. When this macro view is adopted, only a handful of
research classifications are apparent. Each has specific characteristics that
confer unique strengths and weaknesses in producing credible knowledge.
These macro research approaches have specific kinds of questions that they
best serve, and part of the researcher’s job is to match the requirements of the
question to the uniqueness of a study type.

Research design: The overall approach to or outline of the study that
details all the major components of the research.


Macro decisions are among the first to be made, but each large classification
of studies encompasses numerous ways to conduct the study. Dealing with
these choices requires a micro view of the research process, including
decisions that will give the researcher specific guidance in implementing the
study. This micro view is called research design. For quantitative studies, the
design details how the subjects will be selected and assigned to groups, the
way the intervention will be applied, a measurement strategy, and a plan for
data analysis. The goal of design in a quantitative study is to minimize error,
limit the potential for bias, and address clinical questions as well as statistical
issues (McCusker & Gunaydin, 2015). In qualitative studies, the design
describes the planned approach to data gathering, including the researcher’s
beliefs about the nature of the information to be generated. Criteria for
selecting informants, general guides for data collection, and plans for data
analysis may be explicit in a qualitative research design.

Both the macro and micro views of research design are focused on one
outcome: answering the research question with the greatest level of credibility.
Reflecting on this overriding purpose can guide the researcher in the decisions
that must be made.

The Basis for Design Selection
Ultimately, the basis for selecting a design is the demands of the research
question. If a research question has been carefully considered and
purposefully constructed, then it can be matched to a specific design. This
match between well-constructed question and best possible answer is the goal
of the research design process (Delost & Nadder, 2014).

The nature of the variables of the study may keep the ethical researcher from
manipulating the environment or the treatment situation. These ethical
limitations are strong influences that may require implementation of a weaker
design in exchange for stronger subject protections. For example, it would be
unethical to intentionally inflict a disease on a patient so as to test a treatment
for that disease.

Other factors affecting the design selected include the sampling plan and the
measurements, which often present a challenge. A population may be
inaccessible, or an instrument may possess low reliability. The researcher also
brings his or her own strengths and limitations to the study. A specific
researcher may not possess the skill and competence to conduct a wide range
of study types; researchers often focus on one tradition, or even one design,
for most of the studies they conduct. Even when the researcher has the skill
and competence to conduct the type of research needed, he or she may not
have the resources necessary to carry out a study in an ideal way. These
resources may range from measurement instruments to data collection forms
to software, all of which are often expensive and difficult to obtain. Almost all
research studies require funding for expenses; all of them require time. Both


may be in short supply for the nurse researcher. Without the necessary
resources, even a strong design may be subject to compromises during
execution. Thus, consideration of the available resources—people, money,
and materials—should also be part of the research planning process.

The time frame is another important consideration in research design. The
length of time available to the researcher from planning to implementation to
write-up is a critical concern when finalizing design decisions. It would be
unrealistic to plan a longitudinal study of the development patterns of infants
as they mature into toddlers, for example, if the researcher has only a year for

The amount of control the researcher needs in the study provides guidance in
the design of the study. Studies that require a high level of control (e.g., drug
trials and intervention studies) will need a high level of structure. Threats to the
validity of the results must be anticipated and dealt with a priori, or before the
study begins. Quantitative studies are often concerned with managing threats
to internal validity.

In some studies, particularly qualitative or descriptive ones, control is not much
of an issue. The qualitative paradigm is a naturalistic one, requiring only that
the researcher have a general direction in mind prior to starting the study. The
research design may be planned, but is allowed to evolve as the study
progresses. Emergent designs are expected in qualitative research.
Qualitative researchers are less concerned with the effects of extraneous
variables because they are not measuring effects at all, but rather attempting
to understand phenomena. This understanding requires using the subject’s
frame of reference—not the researcher’s perspective—as the guiding voice in
the study. For these studies, very little may be prescribed a priori.

Finally, the researcher must consider the ultimate audience for the study
results. Some clinical fields focus on specific designs; for example, the
practice of pharmacy is based almost exclusively on evidence produced via
randomized controlled trials. The profession of nursing uses a variety of
research paradigms to answer questions about nursing care; yet even within
the profession some audiences expect specific types of research. For
example, critical care nursing, with its focus on data-driven decision making
and managing physiological responses, relies heavily on the scientific method
to produce evidence. Mental health nursing, in contrast, often seeks guidance
from the results of qualitative studies. The expectations of the audience that
will be reached with the study should be incorporated into the design

It is not always possible to control a research process as well as one might
desire, because a host of practical issues may affect design. The subjects are
human beings, after all, and they may behave in unpredictable ways. They


may be difficult to recruit or to keep in a study. The researcher may have
limited access to the subjects’ information or may have to rely on secondary
data. Subjects may be untruthful, behave unnaturally, or refuse treatment.

It is important to emphasize that all studies have strengths and weaknesses;
no single study can be definitively and perfectly designed. In turn, it is the
convergence of findings across a wealth of studies that adds knowledge to
professional practice, not the perfection of a single design (Wallace & Clarke,
2012). Although the researcher should strive to control extraneous variables
and threats to validity as much as possible, every study will have its
limitations. If the nurse researcher waits until the perfect design is achieved,
research will never get accomplished.

The Design Decisions
Design decisions paint the study in broad strokes first and then hone in on a
more detailed level as the study is planned. Different decisions may be
assigned different relative weights depending on the amount of structure
needed in the study. For example, sampling might be more important in a
case-control study, where matching of cases and controls is essential.
Conversely, qualitative studies require more emphasis on the way information
is elicited and checked with informants, so willingness to communicate
verbally may be a primary concern.

Study design always involves tradeoffs. Some design flaws may have little
impact on the study’s outcome; others may fatally affect the credibility of the
results. The researcher’s obligation is to clarify the purpose of the study and
design the study to achieve this purpose in a trustworthy way.

In the end, there is no single best design. Even expert researchers often
disagree on the merits of a particular design decision. Although some designs
provide stronger levels of evidence for nursing practice, all good designs share
the virtues of being rigorous and systematic. The nature of the data collected
may vary substantially, but a focus on finding truth should be unwavering in
good research design. A great deal of a study’s credibility is based not on the
researcher making a single correct decision, but rather on the researcher
making a sequence of defensible, rational decisions.

It is probably unrealistic to think of these decisions as occurring in a particular
sequence. Researchers often move back and forth between decision levels
that are interrelated, rather than mutually exclusive. In general, however, the
decision-making process has three major phases:

1. Identify assumptions about the knowledge to be gained from the study.
2. Select a design that serves the purpose of the study.
3. Develop detailed plans for implementation of the study.


These phases start with a high-level, macro view of the problem and purpose
of the study and hone in on more detailed decisions as the design plan
unfolds. Think of these phases as looking at the study with a series of ever
more powerful microscopes, focusing more tightly with each subsequent look.

Identify Assumptions About the Knowledge to Be
Gained from the Study
When designing a research study, the researcher must reflect on any
assumptions he or she has made regarding the nature of the knowledge
needed to answer the question. These assumptions will guide the researcher
to a quantitative or qualitative design or may reveal that a mix of both methods
is required.

Quantitative designs are appropriate when the purpose of the study is to
measure the effect of an intervention, test a theory about relationships, or
describe a phenomenon with precision. Quantitative designs involve
measurement of some sort, so they will ultimately involve the analysis of
numbers. Such studies require control of internal validity for trustworthiness
and strong external validity for generalizability. Quantitative designs are
appropriate when the results must reveal the true relationship between a
cause and an effect or between two variables. Measurement gives the
researcher a level of certainty about the relationship that is quantifiable, and
the effects of error and random chance can be calculated (Khudyahov,
Gorfine, Zucker & Spiegelman, 2015). The control inherent in a quantitative
design allows the researcher to rule out rival explanations for the results and
quantify the amount of confidence the reader can place in the findings.

Qualitative approaches to design are appropriate when the purpose of the
study is to understand the meaning of a phenomenon. The qualitative
researcher has a goal of describing social reactions and interactions with such
vividness that the reader can understand the meaning of the event, even if he
or she has not experienced it. Qualitative research can also be used to
develop theories, build models of relationships and interrelationships, and
develop instrumentation (Wener & Woodgate, 2013). Such research places
little emphasis on control. The context for the study is a natural one, and the
study is allowed to unfold as information is gathered and analyzed. Often, a
qualitative study follows a path marked by twists and turns as the investigator
strives to understand the phenomenon by exploring its meaning with
informants. The design is an emergent one, with only general guidelines
planned up front. This emergent design enables the qualitative researcher to
follow leads provided by informants to understand the social context for the
behavior being studied (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011).

A mixed method design is appropriate when a combination of meaning and
control is needed. Frequently, this type of design is adopted when a qualitative
approach is used to design an instrument or an intervention that is


subsequently tested for effectiveness using quantitative methods. A mixed
method study may also be indicated for evaluation research, where
effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction are important elements (Terrell,
2012). The desirability of a treatment may be measured using qualitative
measures, while the effectiveness of the treatment is documented
quantitatively. Mixed methods seem attractive—it makes intuitive sense to
consider the meaning of an event prior to testing its effectiveness—but they
are complex, difficult designs to implement. The rigorous nature of both
research methods must be reflected in the design, and the researcher must be
competent in both traditions.

Although the quantitative and qualitative traditions may seem diametrically
opposed, in actuality they have much in common. By their very nature, the
characteristics of one may overlap with those of the other. Both quantitative
and qualitative approaches are characterized by rigorous attention to the
scholarly nature of the work. Both aim for reliability of results, confidence in the
conclusions, and a focus on creating credible evidence. Both research
traditions also have a single goal—to establish truth. Although the specific
methods applied during these types of research may be quite different, the
goal of each is to produce quality results that answer the question in a
trustworthy way. In that way, quantitative and qualitative research approaches
are very much alike.

Select a Design That Serves the Purpose of the
Once assumptions of the study question have been determined, the
researcher selects an approach that will answer the research question and
meet the goals of the study. This selection process is the result of a series of
decisions based on reflection on the aim of the study, the concepts under
study, and the nature of the research question. The researcher can make
these decisions by answering a series of questions.

Is the Aim of the Study Exploratory or Confirmatory?
Exploratory studies are often qualitative or mixed methods studies, but they
may also be quantitative if measurement is employed. Exploratory studies are
classified as descriptive, even if they happen to describe relationships and
associations. They explore and describe a given phenomenon. Survey
methods are frequently used for exploratory studies; mixed methods are also
popular choices for the initial exploration of a topic. For example, a study that
explores the reasons that nurses choose a clinical specialty may determine
the specific characteristics that the nurse was looking for, such as
certifications required and work hours, but also examine the value-based
reasons a particular selection was made. The former might be measured by a
survey instrument, whereas the value-based information would be more
appropriately gathered through an interview.


Exploratory studies: Research to explore and describe a
phenomenon of interest and generate new knowledge.

Confirmatory studies are those in which a relationship between variables
has been proposed, and the study is designed to test the relationship
statistically while minimizing bias. In this case, some form of study to
determine relationships or examine causality is required. Confirmatory studies
are more structured and controlled than exploratory studies. They require
careful definition of the variables and concepts of interest so they can be
adequately measured and analyzed. Confirmatory studies are often “next
steps” from exploratory studies. For example, an analysis of the results of a
knowledge-based questionnaire administered to patients with diabetes might
be used to design a specific diabetic education program that is subsequently
tested for effectiveness.

Confirmatory studies: Research in which a relationship between
variables has been posed and the study is designed to examine this

Which Concepts Will Be Studied?
A clear definition of the concepts that will be studied guides the design of a
study and the subsequent measurement strategy. In quantitative research, the
concepts that are of interest are translated into measurable characteristics
called variables. A variable is a characteristic, event, or response that
represents the elements of the research question in a detectable way.
Variables are carefully described up front to guide the design of quantitative
studies. Several types of variables may be used to represent the intent of the
research question. Table 6.1 depicts some research questions in terms of
their respective variables and concepts.

Variable: Characteristic, event, or response that represents the
elements of the research question in a detectable or measurable way.

Table 6.1 Research Questions and Correlated Concepts/Variables

Research Question Concepts/Variables

What is the perception of the effectiveness of
complementary medicine among intensive care
unit nurses?

Descriptive variable: perception of

Is music therapy an effective treatment for
patients who experience anxiety in the intensive
care unit as compared to patients who receive no

Research variables: independent—music
therapy; dependent—anxiety Extraneous
variables: sound level in the ICU; preexisting


music therapy? anxiety disorder

What are the emotional and psychological
reactions of patients who have been patients in
the intensive care unit for more than 5 days?

Concepts: emotional and psychological

Descriptive Variables
As the name implies, descriptive variables describe the sample or some
characteristic of the phenomenon under study. A descriptive variable may
represent demo-graphic data about the subjects (e.g., age, gender, and
ethnicity) or measurable characteristics (e.g., blood pressure, weight, and
hematocrit). The variables of interest may be perceptual, as in responses on a
pain scale, or attitudinal, as in patient satisfaction. The primary characteristic
of a descriptive variable is that it is used solely to provide a composite picture
of the subjects of study. Descriptive variables are not considered part of a
cause-and-effect equation, and although the researcher may look for
associations between variables, no attempt is made to manipulate or control
descriptive variables.

Descriptive variables: Characteristics that describe the sample and
provide a composite picture of the subjects of the study; they are not
manipulated or controlled by the researcher.

Research Variables
Research variables are introduced into a study explicitly to measure an
expected effect. A research variable may be categorized as either
independent or dependent. An independent variable is one that is applied to
the experimental situation to measure its effects. Such a variable is
independent of the naturally occurring situation and is introduced into the
experiment so that its impact on a specified outcome can be quantified. In a
true experiment, the independent variable is manipulated, meaning it is
introduced by the researcher. It may also be called a treatment, experimental
variable, or intervention. One can think of an independent variable as the
“cause” in “cause and effect.” For example, if a nurse is interested in studying
the effects of therapeutic touch on postoperative pain, therapeutic touch is the
independent variable—that is, it is artificially inserted into a situation to
measure its effects.

Independent variable: A factor that is artificially introduced into a study
explicitly to measure an expected effect; the “cause” of “cause and

Some designs consider causal variables to be independent even if they are
not manipulated; in these cases, the variable of interest is found in its naturally


occurring state, and subjects with the specified characteristic are compared to
those without it to understand its potential effects. For example, a researcher
might be interested in studying the effects of breast cancer on body image.
Although breast cancer is not manipulated, its effects are of interest in this
study, and it may be referred to as an independent variable. Technically,
independent variables are only those that are artificially introduced to subjects,
but the term is used loosely to apply to other types of causal variables.

A dependent variable is the outcome of interest. In an experiment, it is
expected that an independent variable will have an effect on the dependent
variable. In other words, the outcome is dependent on the independent
variable having been introduced into the experiment. Thus the dependent
variable can be considered the “effect” in “cause and effect.”

Dependent variable: An outcome of interest that occurs after the
introduction of an independent variable; the “effect” of “cause and

In a specific type of design that is focused on prediction, the independent
variable is more accurately called a predictor variable, and the dependent
variable is referred to as an outcome variable. Although the terms independent
and dependent are commonly used to describe the predictive relationship,
technically the terms are not accurate descriptions of these variables because
the predictor variable is not manipulated. Predictive studies are classified as
descriptive, so these variables are more accurately referred to by their
function, rather than by their dependent nature. For example, a nurse
researcher may want to identify the characteristics of patients who present to
the emergency department who are at high risk for multiple visits. In this case,
demographic variables such as age, diagnoses, socioeconomic status, and
family support might be studied to determine whether they are predictive of
repeat admissions. In this example, age, diagnoses, socioeconomic status,
and family support would accurately be described as predictor variables and
repeat admissions identified as the outcome variable.

Extraneous Variables
One goal in study design is to control external influences on a process so that
rival explanations for the outcome can be ruled out. These rival explanations
are considered extraneous variables, meaning variables that exert an effect
on the outcome but that are not part of the planned experiment. Realistically,
extraneous variables exist in every study, but they are most problematic in
experiments. Extraneous variables can be controlled if they are expected or
recognized when they occur. The most problematic extraneous variables are
those that cannot be predicted, are difficult to control, or go unrecognized until
the study is complete. Extraneous variables confuse the interpretation of the
results and may render an experiment so flawed that the results cannot be


used in practice. A primary goal of research design, particularly experimental
designs, is the elimination or control of extraneous variables.

Extraneous variables: Factors that exert an effect on the outcome but
that are not part of the planned experiment and may confuse the
interpretation of the results.

A specific type of extraneous variable is a confounder. Confounding occurs
when the association between cause and effect is partially or entirely due to a
third factor that is not part of the experiment. For example, a study might show
that alcoholism is a causative factor in lung cancer, when in reality the
relationship is due to a confounder—smoking. Because smoking rates are
higher among alcoholics, this third factor confounds the true relationship
between alcoholism and lung disease. For a variable to be a true confounder,
it must be associated with the independent variable and a true cause of the
dependent variable (Nieswiadomy, 2012). When a confounder is suspected,
the research design must be altered to control or account for its effects. The
most common approaches used to control confounders are random sampling,
matching subjects, and statistical analysis of covariates.

Qualitative Concepts
The term variable is rarely used in qualitative research. Its rarity in this setting
occurs because a variable, by definition, is something that is measurable, and
measurement is not typically part of qualitative designs. However, qualitative
studies do have goals related to understanding a phenomenon, belief,
perception, or set of values (Cooper, 2012). In the case of qualitative
research, the design is driven by the nature of the information to be gained
from the study, and establishing this relationship requires thoughtful
consideration of the particular phenomenon of interest. Although it is not
necessary to develop operational definitions for qualitative phenomena, the
researcher should be able to articulate the concepts, theories, or processes
that are of interest. In the case of grounded theory—a specific type of
qualitative research design—the researcher may also plan to study
relationships between these phenomena.

Whether the researcher plans to measure variables or study phenomena,
consideration of these characteristics will help determine the specifics of the
research design. Sometimes it is necessary to incorporate elements of both
types of study. Identifying the variables and concepts in a study is an
important precursor to design. By clarifying the conceptual focus of the study,
the researcher can begin to implement the research question in a way that
lends itself to study.

What Is the Nature of the Research Question?


Once the conceptual basis of the study has been articulated, the research
question becomes the focus of more specific design decisions. The nature of
the research question serves as the foundation for the next set of decisions—
namely, classification of the specific research study design. Most research
questions can be classified into one of four categories:

Questions that seek to describe a phenomenon or population
Questions that seek to quantify the nature of relationships between
variables or between subjects
Questions that seek to investigate causality or the effects of interventions
or risk factors
Questions that determine effectiveness of interventions as evidence for

Descriptive Research
Descriptive research is appropriate when very little is known about the
question at hand. Often, researchers seek to fix problems without
understanding the current problem as it exists. Descriptive research can help
the investigator discover a baseline performance level, describe a subject’s
responses to treatment, or determine the desirability of a new service.
Research questions that begin with “what” and “why” generally indicate that a
descriptive study will be undertaken. Descriptive studies set out to describe
in detail some process, event, or outcome; they document the characteristics
of a “subject” of some sort. “Subject” appears in quotes here because it
represents a broad range of possibilities other than individuals. For example, a
subject may be a child, a patient, a patient care unit, an emergency
department, a county’s health, or a unit’s adverse event rate. Once a subject
of interest has been described, an exploratory study sets out to discover as
much about the subject as possible and to find themes that can help the
researcher effectively derive meaning from the study.

Descriptive studies: Research designed to describe in detail some
process, event, or outcome. Such a design is used when very little is
known about the research question.

Descriptive qualitative studies rarely have detailed procedures identified up
front; instead, the design of a qualitative study is “emergent” in that the details
of the study become apparent as information is gathered and the nature of the
information is evaluated. The qualitative researcher will identify a specific
approach to data gathering and a philosophical basis for the approach, but
rarely creates a detailed plan prior to initiating a qualitative study. In contrast,
most quantitative descriptive studies feature a clear plan for implementation
that outlines the sample, the measurement procedures, and statistical
processes that will be used to summarize the data.


Descriptive studies are often exploratory, but they can also be confirmatory,
meaning the researcher suspects that a phenomenon or event exists in a
population, and he or she sets out to confirm those suspicions. Most often,
however, descriptive studies are applied when very little is known about the
situation, and baseline knowledge is required to be able to design effective
nursing practices. Table 6.2 highlights the commonly used descriptive designs
and the characteristics of each; details of the various designs are described in
depth later in this text.

Research That Examines Relationships
The research question often reflects a need to go beyond describing single
characteristics to determining whether a relationship exists between variables
or between subjects. This type of research can fall into either of two
categories: correlation research or predictive research.

Correlation research involves the quantification of the strength and direction
of the relationship between two variables in a single subject or the relationship
between a single variable in two samples. For example, a researcher might
want to determine if there is an association between anxiety and blood
pressure in the preoperative patient, or the researcher may seek to compare
the nature of anxiety between mothers and daughters.

Correlation research: Research designed to quantify the strength and
the direction of the relationship of two variables in a single subject or
the relationship between a single variable in two samples.

The purpose of predictive research is to search for variables measured at
one point in time that may predict an outcome that is measured at a different
point in time. For example, given a patient’s total cholesterol, can the
occurrence of myocardial infarction be predicted?

Predictive research: Research designed to search for variables
measured at one point in time that may forecast an outcome that is
measured at a different point in time.

Both correlation and predictive research are considered descriptive because
the variables are not manipulated and the relationships are not controlled.
Correlation and predictive research also may be used legitimately to search for
suggested causal relationships that may subsequently be studied through
experimental designs. Experimental designs are discussed in more detail later
in this chapter. Table 6.3 summarizes common designs that are used to
describe relationships and their associated characteristics.

Table 6.2 Some Common Descriptive Designs


Design Description Example of a

Strengths Limitations

Survey design Describes the
characteristics of a
sample or event at
a single point in
time through self-

Which coping
strategies do
adults use when
diagnosed with

Description of
current state
provides a basis
for planning

Unable to
causes of
change or


Describes the
characteristics of
samples that differ
on a key
measured at a
single point in time

Which coping
strategies do
adults use when
newly diagnosed
with cancer?

Uncomplicated to

Does not
changes that
occur over


Data collected from
a sample at
selected points
over time to
describe changes
in characteristics or

Which coping
strategies do
adults use when
managing their
cancer in the 5
years after

exploration of
issues affected by

Affected by
attrition of
time period
required for

Case study Explores in depth a
single individual,
program, event, or
action through the
collection of
information using a
variety of data

What are the
responses of a
group of adults
to participating
in a holistic
support group?

evaluation of rare
events or
conditions Allows
for the study of the
uniqueness of
individual people
or situations


Single subject

Studies the
response of a
single individual to
an intervention,
based on
measurement of a
baseline and
measurement after
introducing a

What are the
responses of a
diagnosed with
breast cancer
after introduction
to a holistic
support group?

Allows for the
study of the
unique responses
of individuals to
Enables the
determination of
timing of
responses after an

Does not
to larger

Phenomenology Investigates the
meaning of an
experience among

What is the
meaning of the
experience of

Produces rich data
from the

Requires a
high level of
analytic skill


those who have
experienced the
same phenomenon

receiving a
diagnosis of

perspective Can
be used to study a
wide range of

Ethnography Intensive study of
the features and
interactions of a
given culture by
immersion in the
natural setting over
an extended period
of time

How do women
in Muslim
society respond
to a diagnosis of
breast cancer?

Produces rich data
that enable the
development of
culturally sensitive

contact over
long periods
of time

Table 6.3 Some Designs That Describe Relationships

Design Description Example of a

Strengths Limitations

Correlation Describes the
between two
variables in a
single population
or the relationship
between a single
variable in two

Are coping skills
status related in
a sample of
adults newly
diagnosed with

Enables scrutiny of a
large number of
variables in a single
study Provides an
evaluation of the
strength of relationship
between two variables
Provides a basis for
experimental testing

May be
affected by
Does not
enable a
conclusion to
be drawn


Describes the
between a
predictor variable
(or a group of
predictor variables)
and an outcome

Can coping
skills in adults
with newly
cancer predict
their level of
compliance with
the treatment

Describes the predictive
capacity and quantifies
the explanatory ability
of a variable or group of

May be
affected by


Qualitative method
in which the
attempts to
develop a theory of
process, action, or
interaction based
on in-depth
analysis of the
words of

How do social
support systems
affect the
and use of
coping skills in
adults newly
diagnosed with

Enables development
of theoretical models of
action and interaction

analytic skills
collection of
large amounts
of data

Tests of Test theories of Does the Enable quantification of Complex


model fit causal
between variables
based on fitting
data to a

introduction of a
support group
affect the type
effectiveness of
coping skills
used by adults
with newly

the fit of a theoretical
model to real life

studies that
require large

Research That Examines Causality
Evidence-based nursing practice commonly focuses on determining the
effectiveness of nursing interventions—a quest that requires a research design
that can establish and quantify causality. Measuring cause and effect is
complex, however; several requirements must be met before a researcher can
conclude that the cause did, indeed, result in the effect to the exclusion of all
other causes. To establish that a causal relationship exists, several criteria
must be met. These criteria form the basis for the elements that make up the
set of research designs known as experimental and quasi-experimental
methods. The criteria include the following considerations:

Temporality: The time sequence between independent and dependent
variables must support causation.
Influence: The effect that the independent variable has on the dependent
variable can be detected statistically, and the probability that the
relationship was caused by chance is small.
Specificity: Rival explanations for the specific relationship between
independent and dependent variables have been eliminated or controlled
(Hartung & Touchette, 2009).

Other sources of rival explanations are extraneous variables. For this reason,
control of extraneous variables is a central part of experimental design.
Accounting for rival explanations is an important concern in establishing that
the independent variable—and only the independent variable—produced the
effect that was observed.

A research question that requires establishing causality forces the researcher
to consider how all these elements will be managed in an experiment. The
more carefully thought out the details of a study, the stronger the design will
be and the more confidently the nurse can apply the findings as evidence for
practice. Once the considerations that are inherent in the research question
have been made explicit, the researcher can begin focusing even more closely
on the structure of the explicit design that will be used to answer the question.
Table 6.4 highlights the designs commonly used for examining causality and
the characteristics of each; these designs are discussed in depth later in this


Research That Compares Effectiveness
New research designs have emerged specifically in response to the need to
provide evidence for practice. These studies seek to compare the
effectiveness of a set of interventions with the effectiveness of alternative or
traditional practices. Comparative effectiveness studies assess competing
interventions for efficacy, cost, and usefulness to specific populations. Such
studies have many of the characteristics of randomized controlled trials but are
adapted to allow for a more naturalistic approach, a shorter timeline, and
easier translation into practice.

Comparative effectiveness research emerged in response to the necessity of
answering real-world questions in settings in which a range of possible options
are available, and the best choice may vary across patients, settings, and time
(Armstrong, 2012). Oftentimes, double-blinded, randomized controlled trials
are impractical, costly, and time consuming in these settings—yet the
importance of generating evidence about clinical effectiveness has never been
more important. Comparative effectiveness research encompasses both the
generation of evidence and its synthesis. Evidence is generated using both
experimental and observational methods. Synthesis of the evidence uses
systematic reviews, decision modeling, and cost-effectiveness analysis to
draw conclusions.

Table 6.4 Some Designs That Examine Causality

Design Description Example of
a Research

Strengths Limitations


Studies causality by
introducing an
intervention to one
group (the treatment
group) and
comparing the
outcome to that of
another group that
has not experienced
the intervention (the
control group);
subjects are
randomly assigned to

coaching to
result in
with the
program for
adults with

Provides the most
rigorous test of
effectiveness of

Difficult to
implement May
be impossible or
undesirable to
treatment from
the control group


A treatment is
introduced to a
group, but random
assignment and/or a
control group are

strategies in
adults with

Enables scrutiny of

causality Level
of evidence
provided is


cancer who
in a support

weaker than with


study in which
groups are selected
because they do or
do not have a
characteristic of
interest and are
examined for a
dependent variable;
groups are carefully
matched based on
the independent

Do adults
with newly
cancer who
comply with
plan more
than those

Useful when the
variable cannot be
Provides evidence
that suggests causal
relationships that
can be tested

Inferences about
causality are
variables may
affect the
outcome May be
difficult to find

Time series

Studies the effects of
an intervention by
measuring a
implementing a
treatment, and
collecting data about
an outcome at
specified periods
over time

coaching to
coping skills
after initial
with the
plan for
adults with

Treatment group
serves as its own
control group, so
subjects’ effects are
minimized Extended
time period for
strengthens the
capacity to attribute
effects to the
intervention More
powerful in detecting
changes over time

May be affected
by attrition of
Outcome may
be affected by
historical events
or maturation of
subjects No
group measured
to determine the
effects of

While randomized trials are increasingly seen as artificial and difficult to
implement, they will likely continue to form the cornerstone of any comparative
effectiveness research. In addition, modifications of the randomized trial—
such as pragmatic trials and adaptive trials—may render these studies more
naturalistic and practical. Comparative effectiveness research also relies on
observational studies, in which the population of interest is assigned to
alternative interventions based on patient, provider, and system factors and
observed for the natural occurrence of an outcome of interest.

Collectively, these adaptations are emerging in response to widespread
demand for evidence that will be immediately useful, yet still rigorous. Such
new designs are expected to become more acceptable and relevant for


evidence-based practice as the field evolves. Table 6.5 depicts some of the
research designs used in comparative effectiveness research.

Develop Detailed Plans for Implementation of the
Many of the decisions that guide the research will be dictated by the type of
design chosen. For example, an experimental design requires a random
sample or random assignment of subjects to groups, whereas a qualitative
study will engage in purposeful sampling. Even after an explicit design is
chosen, however, many decisions remain to be made— for example, the
procedures to be used for recruiting subjects, applying interventions, and
measuring outcomes, to name a few. Other decisions are required to ensure
that an adequate sample can be accessed and that ethical considerations are

A research plan guiding implementation of the study describes the following
design elements:

The sampling strategy
The measurement strategy
The data collection plan
The data analysis plan

The research plan is used like a road map to ensure that all the steps of the
research process are systematically and rigorously applied. The research plan
provides documentation of steps that were taken and the rationale for specific
decisions, and it represents the primary way a researcher can increase the
study’s replicability. A detailed research plan also helps the researcher recall
the decisions that were made when the time comes for writing the final report
of the research.

Reading Research for Evidence-Based Practice
The research report should provide a clear description of each step that was
taken in the design and implementation of the research study. This description
is often summarized in the abstract of the article under the heading “Methods.”
The methods section is relatively standard. A good quantitative methods
section, for example, will review the sampling strategy, design of the study,
instruments, procedures, and analysis. A qualitative methods section should
describe the sampling criteria, identify the method for gathering information,
and provide an overview of data coding procedures. Although the length
limitations imposed by journals may restrict the depth of detail an author can
provide, the nurse reader should be able to find enough key elements to
assess the validity or trustworthiness of the study.

Table 6.5 Some Comparative Effectiveness Designs


Design Description Example of
a Research

Strengths Limitations


Population of interest is
assigned to alternative
interventions based on
patient, provider, and
system factors and
observed for the
outcome of interest

Does the
of treatment
for postnatal
vary by
region of the

Incremental cost of
adding subjects is
low, so samples are
usually large Easier
to implement; a
natural variation of
care Naturalistic; not
highly artificial, so
easier to generalize

Low control of
Feasible only
if the
intervention is
already being
used Subject
to selection
bias and


Patients are assigned
to a treatment
randomly, but
accumulating evidence
from the trials is used
to modify the trial to
increase efficiency and
the probability that
subjects will benefit
from participation

that is
treated with
be improved
by adding

Can test whether
treatments will work
Lessons learned can
be incorporated into
the trial Patients for
whom initial
treatments do not
work may benefit
from later treatments

More difficult
to isolate the
effects of a
Subject to


Relaxes some of the
traditional rules of
randomized trials to
maximize the
relevance of the results
(e.g., inclusion criteria
may be broadened,
flexibility in application
of the intervention)

in those
women who

Easier to recruit and
enroll subjects More
naturalistic design
so easier to
generalize Lessons
learned during the
trial can be
incorporated into
future tests

Low control of

Validity of the research is primarily a quantitative concern; a valid study is one
in which enough control has been exerted so the effect of the concepts under
study can be isolated from other effects. In contrast, trustworthiness of the
research is the primary concern in qualitative studies; a trustworthy study is
one in which the researcher has drawn the correct conclusions about the
meaning of an event or phenomenon. Achieving validity and trustworthiness is
not a minor task, but meeting each criterion is essential for the respective
application of the evidence to practice. Judging the validity or trustworthiness
of the data is primarily based on how well the study design accomplished the
purpose of the study and how thoroughly the design allowed for the answer to
the research question.


The nurse can follow several steps when evaluating the study design to
determine the quality of the research report:

1. The methods section should be complete. It should present an
accurate and thorough account of every important step in the design
and conduct of the research. This thorough account allows the reader
to make decisions about accepting the results of the study. Providing
sufficient detail about the methods used in the study enables readers
to decide for themselves how much confidence they have that the
experimental treatment did, indeed, lead to the results.

2. A strong methods section supports replication—one of the hallmarks of
sound research that makes a valuable contribution to the overall
professional body of knowledge. In practical terms, the nurse should
be able to get enough information from the description of the methods
to conduct the study exactly as the author did, using different subjects,
to determine whether the results can be generalized to another

3. A thorough methods section allows comparison of findings across
studies. This is critical for the systematic review process, which is a
key way that studies are transformed into evidence-based practice. A
thorough account of the subjects, intervention, measurement, and
analysis allows for a comparison across studies to draw conclusions
about both the size of the treatment effect and the consistency with
which outcomes are achieved (Fain, 2013).

The design section of a research study serves as the basis for the conclusions
drawn about the validity and trustworthiness of the findings. A critical appraisal
of study methods should lead the nurse to the conclusion that inconsistency in
procedures is not an explanation for the results. In other words, can all other
rival explanations for the outcome be eliminated, except that of the
intervention? If the methods section is sound, the answer to this question
should be an unequivocal “yes,” giving the nurse confidence to apply the
findings to practice.

Where to look for information about the methods and procedures:

The design of the study is usually described in the abstract of the
study and again in the introduction. It should be identified in a
straightforward way and clearly described. If not, it should be
described early in the section labeled “Methods.”
The design section may be called “Research Design” or “Plan.”
Other words may appear in the heading, such as “Methods and
Procedures” or “Methods and Materials.”
The description of the design should be easily identifiable and a
major part of the research study write-up. The description may be


concise, but it should provide enough detail that an informed reader
could replicate the study.
If the intervention or measurement is complex, the write-up may
include a separate section for procedures, which may be labeled as
such or called “Protocols.” This section may describe the specific
steps for applying the treatment, the specific steps for measuring its
effects, or both.


❏ The design is clearly identified and described using standard

❏ A rationale is provided, or can be easily inferred, for the choice of
a design.

❏ The characteristics of the design can be clearly linked to the
nature of the research question.

❏ The variables are explicitly identified and definitions are written
for each.

❏ Enough detail is provided that an informed reader could replicate
the study.

❏ If the study is qualitative in nature, the researcher has
documented the basis for decisions as the design emerged.

Using Research in Evidence-Based Practice
All types of research designs are useful in application to practice. Although the
hierarchy of evidence puts more weight on the results of experimental designs,
all types of knowledge can, in fact, contribute to the effective practice of
nursing. The task of the nurse is to choose the type of knowledge—and,
therefore, the range of designs—that produces the kind of information needed
to solve a clinical problem.

Descriptive research is useful when determining the characteristics of specific
populations, identifying the practices that are used at other organizations, or
measuring baseline performance. This type of research is helpful when little is
known about the existing state of a phenomenon or when exploring
perceptions, attitudes, or beliefs. Descriptive research focuses on what is, so it
is not used for quantifying the effectiveness of interventions; nevertheless, it
can provide valuable information about the status quo. This baseline
information is often necessary to establish the overall desirability of a change
in practice.


When the focus of the nurse is on improving a clinical intervention, then
quantitative research is more valuable. Quantitative research enables the
nurse to determine whether an intervention has produced a desired effect and
to estimate the probability that it will continue to do so, even with different
populations. If the nurse needs to change a procedure, standardize practices,
measure relationships, or determine cause and effect, then quantitative
studies are the most useful.

Often, the nurse also needs to determine the acceptability of a nursing
intervention. If the goal is to provide emotional or social support for patients
and their families, for example, then qualitative research is more likely to
produce the evidence needed for practice. When design of an appropriate
intervention requires that the nurse understand the meaning of a life event for
a patient, then qualitative studies are more likely to provide the insight that is
needed to design acceptable treatments.

The nurse should evaluate the soundness of the design for answering the
specific research question to determine whether it can be applied to nursing
practice. This includes an appraisal of the match between the purpose of the
study and the kind of knowledge generated for it, the links between the nature
of the research question and the explicit design chosen to answer it, and the
appropriateness of the specific procedures put in place to carry out the study.

Creating Evidence for Practice
Creating an effective research plan involves a systematic process of
considering the purpose of the study and the nature of the question and then
making decisions about the way the study will be carried out to draw the
correct conclusions. These designs are rarely clear cut; almost always the
investigator is charged with weighing the relative strengths and weaknesses of
various design elements to arrive at the best possible decision given the
specific characteristics of the study at hand. That said, the researcher is well
served by spending the time to consider and create a careful research plan,
because it will serve as a blueprint for the study as well as its documentation.

SKILL BUILDER Design a Stronger Study
Although the hierarchy of evidence-based practice identifies
randomized controlled trials as the strongest designs, such studies are
not always possible or even desirable. Although experimental designs
do often yield strong evidence for nursing practice, it is difficult to
conduct a pure experimental design. There may not be enough subjects
to ensure that the study will attain sufficient power, and those subjects
who are available may not consent to participate in the study.
Extraneous variables abound, and it is often unethical to withhold
treatment from a control group. Once the study has begun, it is difficult
to ensure that the experimental group always gets the exact same
treatment, particularly in an applied setting. Time constraints and


availability of individuals to collect data can hinder the validity of the

Although it may be challenging to conduct a true experiment in a
nursing practice environment, there are still some measures that can be
undertaken to strengthen the validity of a study:

1. Use a comparison group of some kind. Although it may be
difficult to randomly assign patients to groups, the use of a
comparison group does strengthen validity, even if it comes
from a convenience sample.

2. If using a nonrandom comparison group, match the groups as
closely as possible on potential extraneous variables (e.g., age,
severity of illness, and number of comorbid conditions).

3. Measure a baseline in a group of subjects, which becomes the
comparison group, and then repeat the measure as the
treatment is applied. This design, called a repeated measure
design, has a great deal of power.

4. If the sample is less than desirable, use a strong and valid
measurement system. Sampling error can be balanced
somewhat by a reduction in measurement error.

5. Clearly identify the variables of interest and write formal
operational definitions of each. These definitions can help
determine the criteria for inclusion in the study, treatment
protocols, and measurement systems. For a qualitative study,
explicitly identify the concepts that are of interest to the

6. Replicate the studies of others whenever possible. Finding a
similar study can help jump-start your own study by describing
procedures and measures that you might be able to use. The
original author will likely be flattered; contact with him or her
may garner you free advice as well.

7. Use standard designs, methods, and procedures whenever
possible, even if they do not exactly match your question.
Standardized approaches allow for the aggregation of similar
studies into practical guidelines that make a contribution to the
overall body of nursing knowledge.

The researcher needs to determine the answers to the following questions:

What is the nature of the knowledge that will be required to address this
research problem? Quantitative studies are needed to test interventions;
qualitative studies are needed to discover the meaning of phenomena.
Which concepts are involved in answering this question? Describing the
variables that will be studied, or the phenomena of interest, guides the
measurement strategy.


What is the nature of the research question? A descriptive design is
required for research questions that ask about what is or that are
exploratory. If the question focuses on the nature of relationships, then
correlation studies are needed. Questions related to causality or the
effectiveness of interventions demand experimental designs. The specifics
of the design will depend on the accessibility of the population, the skills
and resources of the researcher, and the expectations of the ultimate
audience for the research.
Which specific procedures will be required to answer the question? Once a
design is selected, the researcher must determine how the subjects or
informants will be recruited, how the concepts will be measured, and how
data will be analyzed.

Summary of Key Concepts
A design is a plan that outlines the overall approach to a study, while being
grounded in a set of beliefs about knowledge and inextricably linked to the
nature of the research question.
The research design focuses on answering the research question with the
greatest level of credibility.
Selection of a design is based on the purpose to be achieved by the study,
the availability of subjects, ethical limitations, the skills and resources of the
researcher, the time frame, the amount of control required, and the
expectations of the audience for the research.
The phases of the research process include identifying assumptions about
the knowledge needed, selecting an overall approach that serves the
purpose, specifying an explicit design for the study, and developing
detailed plans for implementation.
Assumptions about the knowledge needed to answer the research
question will result in the choice of a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed
methods approach.
The overall approach of the study is determined by considering whether a
study is exploratory (generating new knowledge) or confirmatory (testing
theories or hypotheses).
The concepts reflected in the research question are translated into
measurable variables for a quantitative study; these variables may be
descriptive, independent, dependent, or extraneous. The concepts in
qualitative questions describe characteristics, experiences, or phenomena
that are of interest to the researcher.
Once these decisions have been made, the research design is translated
into a specific plan of study—one that can be used to guide and replicate
the study.
Detailed plans for research implementation form a road map for the
research and include specification of procedures for sampling,
measurement, and analysis.
The four major classifications of research designs are those that seek to
describe a phenomenon or population, those that seek to quantify the


nature of relationships, those that seek to investigate causality, and those
that compare the effectiveness of interventions for application to practice.
Three conditions must be met to establish causality: The cause must
precede the effect; the probability that the cause influenced the effect must
be established; and rival explanations for the effect must be ruled out.

For More Depth and Detail
For a more in-depth look at the concepts in this chapter, try these references:

Brouwers, M., Thabane, L., Moher, D., & Straus, S. (2012).
Comparative effectiveness research paradigm: Implications for
systematic reviews and clinical practice guidelines. Journal of Clinical
Oncology, 30(34), 4202–4207.

Cantrell, M. (2011). Demystifying the research process: Understanding
a descriptive comparative research design. Pediatric Nursing, 37(4),

Higgins, J., Altman, D., Gotzsche, P., Juni, P., Oxman, D., Savovic, A.,
. . . Sterne, J. (2011). The Cochrane Collaboration’s tool for assessing
risk of bias in randomized trials. British Medical Journal, 343(7829), 1–

Levin, G., Emerson, S., & Emerson, S. (2013). Adaptive clinical trial
designs with pre-specified rules for modifying the sample size:
Understanding efficient types of adaptation. Statistics in Medicine,
32(8), 1259–1275.

Liodden, I., & Moen, A. (2012). Knowledge development in nursing:
Pragmatic, randomized controlled trials as a methodological approach
to support evidence-based practice. Nordic Nursing Research, 2(3),

Ruggeri, M., Lasalvia, A., & Bonetto, C. (2013). A new generation of
pragmatic trials of psychosocial interventions is needed. Epidemiology
and Psychiatric Sciences, 20, 1–7.

Retrieve the following full text article from the Cumulative Index to
Nursing and Allied Health Literature or similar search database:

Koli, R., Kohler, K., Tonteri, E., Peltonen, J., Tikkanen, H., & Fogelholm,
M. (2015). Dark chocolate and reduced snack consumption in mildly
hypertensive adults: An intervention study. Nutrition Journal, 14(84), 1–


Review the article, looking for information about the research design.
Consider the following appraisal questions in your critical review of this
element of the research article:

1. What is the specific design chosen for this research? Why is it
the most appropriate design for this question?

2. Is the design clearly discernible early in the article? Is it
described in such a way that the reader could replicate it?

3. Are the primary variables clearly identified and defined
(independent and dependent)?

4. Why did the researchers ask subjects to reduce snack
consumption during the study period?

5. Which extraneous effects did the cross-over aspect of this study
control? Which others might be present and uncontrolled?

6. What are the strengths of this design for answering the research
question? How could the nurse apply these findings in practice?

Armstrong, K. (2012). Methods in comparative effectiveness

research. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 30(34), 4208–4214.

Cooper, K. (2012). Qualitative research in the post modern era:
Contexts of qualitative research. Dordrecht, Netherlands:
Spring Science.

Delost, M., & Nadder, T. (2014). Guidelines for initiating a
research agenda: Research design and dissemination of
results. Clinical Laboratory Science, 27(4), 237–244.

Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (2011). The Sage handbook of
qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fain, E. (2013). Reading, understanding, and applying nursing
research (4th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: F. A. Davis.

Hartung, D., & Touchette, D. (2009). Overview of clinical
research design. American Journal of Health System
Pharmacy, 66(15), 398–408.

Khudyahov, P., Gorfine, M., Zucker, D., & Spiegelman, D.
(2015). The impact of covariate measurement error on risk


prediction. Statistics in Medicine, 34(15), 2353–2367.

McCusker, K., & Gunaydin, S. (2015). Research using
qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods and choice based
on the research. Perfusion, 30(7), 537–542.

Nieswiadomy, R. (2012). Foundations of nursing research (6th
ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Terrell, S. (2012). Mixed-methods research methodologies.
Qualitative Report, 17(1), 254–280.

Wallace, J., & Clarke, C. (2012). Making evidence more
wanted: A systematic review of facilitators to enhance the
uptake of evidence from systematic reviews and meta-
analysis. International Journal of Evidence Based
Healthcare, 10(4), 338–346.

Wener, P., & Woodgate, R. (2013). Use of a qualitative
methodological scaffolding process to design robust
interprofessional studies. Journal of Interprofessional Care,
27(4), 305–312.


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Part III: Research Process
7 The Sampling Strategy
8 Measurement and Data Collection
9 Enhancing the Validity of Research


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 7: The Sampling Strategy
The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Define a population and discuss the rationale for sampling.
Contrast probability sampling with nonprobability sampling.
Discuss sampling options and select an appropriate strategy.
Describe methods for estimating necessary sample size.
Discuss methods for avoiding selection bias.
Appraise how the sampling method affects research as evidence.

Convenience sampling

Ecological validity

Effect size

Exclusion criteria

External validity

Inclusion criteria



Population validity


Probability or random sampling

Purposeful selection

Random selection


Sampling error

Sampling frame

Selection bias

Snowball sampling (referral sampling, respondent-driven

Unit of analysis


No aspect of the research plan is more critical for ensuring the usefulness of a
study than the sampling strategy. It determines whether the results of the
study can be applied as evidence and contributes to the trustworthiness of the
results. Good sampling is critical for the confident application of the study
findings to other people, settings, or time periods.

Disasters produce stressors for everyone, but for women who are
pregnant or who have a new baby, a disaster offers another layer of
difficulty in staying healthy. We experienced Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
We believed that pregnant and postpartum women had unique needs in
postdisaster settings, and we wanted to measure those stressors so we
could design services to help these patients. We quickly realized,
however, that traditional sampling methods to find such subjects were
not effective. In any case, finding pregnant or postpartum women is
especially challenging because fewer than 5% of women are pregnant
or postpartum at any time. In postdisaster periods, typical community
surveys may not find any of them.

We began to look for ways to increase the number of pregnant or
postpartum women whom we could include in our assessment of unmet
needs after a disaster. We partnered with the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health to pilot
test a new cluster sampling method that involved asking the people who
responded to our survey to refer us to pregnant or postpartum
neighbors. In the first stage, we randomly selected 10 census blocks
proportionate to the population. In the second stage, we used
geographical information systems (GIS) software to select 7 random
households. Sampled households were asked, as part of the interview,
to refer all pregnant or postpartum women they knew who lived close to
them. Theoretically, the selection of individuals discovered in this way
remains a random representation, even though it is technically a
snowball sample.

We tried our system in three pilot tests: after flooding in Georgia and
after hurricane-related flooding and tornadoes in North Carolina. In
each of the three pilots, we were able to increase the proportion of our
sample by twofold and even by fourfold. When we used the method
again after Hurricane Irene, we were able to demonstrate that pregnant
and postpartum women living in homes that had been damaged by the
disaster reported significantly more stressors than their peers who lived
in homes that were not damaged. We demonstrated that this process
could be used to document unmet needs and subsequently target
disaster recovery assistance to the women and children at greatest risk.
Furthermore, we identified several factors that could be considered to
improve efficiency, including using local official disaster information and


census data to localize the assessment. We were able to begin thinking
about services that could help these women cope better in the
aftermath of a disaster.

We felt comfortable that the sampling methods were effective, but we
also realized that there were challenges with their use. We had to
dedicate substantial resources and staff time to the sampling process—
both of which may be in short supply following a major disaster. We
developed an online toolkit to help others use this method.

This sampling approach is novel and takes a lot of work, but it can help
public health practitioners use a population-based sampling method
when trying to reach a small, specific subgroup of the general
population after a disaster. Our goal was to maximize generalizability by
ensuring that our study included a representative sample, and it seems
this method worked. This is the biggest benefit of this approach.

Jennifer A. Horney, PhD, MPH

Marianne Zotti, DrPH, MS

Samples are drawn to represent populations in a research study. A
population, sometimes called the target population, is the entire set of
subjects who are of interest to the researcher. It is rarely possible, or even
necessary, to study the entire population of interest. Rather, it is more likely
that the researcher will study a subset of the population, called a sample.
Samples, if selected carefully, can effectively represent the broader
population. Because samples are more efficient and economical to study, their
use enables researchers to study phenomena when reaching the entire
population would be impossible.

Population: The entire set of subjects that are of interest to the

Sample: A carefully selected subset of the population that reflects the
composition of that population.

Sampling has a downside, however. Measures acquired from a sample cannot
be as precise and accurate as those drawn from the entire population; that is,
the results from a sample will never match the population perfectly.
Researchers use statistics to measure and account for this difference,
resulting in a value called sampling error. Sampling error is a critical
consideration in statistical testing; sometimes referred to as “chance” or
“standard error,” it is the criterion used to determine whether statistical results
reflect real effects. It is critical, then, to use a selection strategy that minimizes


sampling error by maximizing the chance that the sample will represent the

Sampling error: A number that indicates differences in results found in
the sample when compared to the population from which the sample
was drawn.

The sampling plan is important whether the research is qualitative or
quantitative; the plan serves different purposes, however, based on the type of
research. In qualitative research, the sampling plan is central to establishing
credibility. The individuals who participate in such a study are referred to as
informants or respondents and are chosen specifically for their capacity to
inform the research question. In a quantitative study, the sampling strategy
aims to maximize the potential for generalization or the ability to apply the
findings to larger groups. The individuals who participate are referred to as
subjects and are chosen using methods that ensure the sample represents the
overall population. Therefore, the way samples are recruited and selected will
determine our overall confidence in the results.

The sampling strategy is the primary way that researchers control selection
bias. Selection bias occurs when subjects are selected for the study or
assigned to groups in a way that is not impartial. When subjects are assigned
to treatment groups using a random method, selection bias is reduced.
Selection bias poses a threat to the validity of a study and is controlled almost
exclusively by a sound sampling strategy.

Selection bias: Selecting subjects or assigning them to groups in a
way that is not impartial. This type of bias may pose a threat to the
validity of the study.

No less critical is the sample’s capacity to detect the effects of the intervention.
Having an adequate number of subjects provides the study with power, or the
ability to detect effects. Power increases confidence in the results of the study
and depends on an adequate sample size. The researcher controls a study’s
power by ensuring that an adequate number of subjects are represented in the

These aspects of research design—the method for selecting subjects and
assigning them to groups and the number of subjects studied—are the most
important considerations in the sampling strategy. Nevertheless, the sampling
strategy often is given little attention in a research study and may be the
weakest aspect of otherwise well-designed projects. A recent systematic
review of the sample size adequacy of nearly 900 health education research
studies revealed that only two of the studies were of an adequate size to


detect a small effect. Between 22% and 27% of the reviewed studies could
detect a large effect (Cook & Hatala, 2015). The authors concluded that most
health education research studies can detect only large effects, suggesting
there should be a lack of confidence in those studies that find no differences at

Shortcomings in the sampling approach may not be a reflection of the skill of
the researchers. Even when effort is spent to design an effective sampling
strategy, conditions beyond the researcher’s control may limit the capacity to
apply the sampling strategy as planned. In one study of a nursing intervention
in a population of HIV-positive persons, 639 clients were eligible for the study.
Despite multiple attempts to recruit subjects, only 43 agreed to participate; of
those, only 16 finished the study (Nokes & Nwakeze, 2007). The authors
noted the multiple challenges of obtaining adequate samples from this highly
marginalized population and concluded that less rigorous sampling strategies
may be the only recourse for studying such persons’ care. New ideas about
sampling—such as service- or respondent-driven sampling for hard-to-recruit
populations—are also being tested and bring a fresh perspective to the
interpretation of “generalizable sampling.”

When reading published research, the sampling strategy is assessed to
determine the level of confidence that the results are accurate and potentially
valuable to practice. A sampling strategy that is not representative limits the
ability to apply the research results in nursing practice. Creating an adequate
sampling strategy requires that the nurse researcher maximize the
representativeness and size of the sample. This endeavor frequently requires
creativity and persistence, but is critical to ensure that the results can be
confidently applied to nursing practice.

Selection bias may occur under the following conditions:

The accessible sample is not an accurate representation of the
The researcher is able to influence selection or assignment of
Inclusion or exclusion criteria systematically leave out a key group.
The ease of recruitment for various subpopulations skews subject
The subjects elect not to participate or drop out of the study.

Selection Strategy: How Were the Subjects
The first step of a sampling strategy is to clearly define the population of
interest. Often, this definition begins to emerge during development of the


research question. The final definition should be clear, unambiguous, and
detailed enough to avoid misinterpretation. Populations are frequently defined
in terms of age (e.g., adults, children, and neonates), diagnosis, setting, or
geographic location. The available population is called the sampling frame; it
comprises the potential participants who meet the definition of the population
and are accessible to the researcher. Here, the term “accessible” does not
necessarily mean physically accessible; for example, the sampling frame for
the population of critical care nurses in acute care might be the membership
roster for the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.

Sampling frame: The potential participants who meet the definition of
the population and are accessible to the researcher.

Once the population is clearly defined, a selection strategy is designed to
choose the actual subjects from the sampling frame. The selection strategy
involves making decisions about how subjects will be recruited, selected, and,
if appropriate, assigned to groups. The goal of the selection strategy is to
prevent bias, support the validity of the study, and enhance the credibility of
the results.

All samples may be threatened by selection bias, meaning the sample is not
an accurate representation of the population. This divergence may occur for
many reasons— some related to design of the study, but others related to its
execution. Selection bias can occur when a researcher can influence the
selection of the subjects for the study or the assignment of subjects to groups,
perhaps resulting in a sample that is biased toward success of the experiment.
For example, a researcher may select an intervention group consisting of
individuals who are healthy and, therefore, more likely to improve, and select a
control group of sicker patients who are unlikely to experience improvement.
This bias may be conscious, but it is more commonly unconscious. The
potential for selection bias is of particular concern when the researcher has
preconceived ideas about how the study will turn out.

Inadequate sampling can also lead to sampling bias. A biased sample under-
represents or over-represents some characteristic in the sample.
Unfortunately, the samples that are the easiest to recruit may introduce
sampling bias into a study. Convenience samples, in particular, run the risk of
over-representing characteristics that are local to the study. For example,
subjects who are recruited primarily from a tertiary care center may inherently
include more seriously ill patients. Conversely, recruiting from outpatient
settings may under-represent the severity of a condition. Sampling bias
increases sampling error as well as the chance the researcher will draw
misleading conclusions.


Even when the researcher has developed a rigorous sampling plan, certain
segments of the population may refuse to participate or be unable to
participate in the proposed study. Sampling bias may be present when a group
is too homogeneous, such that it does not reflect the diversity in the broader
population. A homogeneous sample is one in which the subjects are very
similar in terms of their characteristics, and it makes generalizing the study
results to other populations difficult. Historically, samples for medical research
have been heavily weighted toward white males. In the past decade,
researchers have become more sensitive to the need to include a broader
scope of ethnic and gender groups in research, but gaps in this area still exist.

Another kind of selection bias occurs when subjects elect not to participate in
a study. Systematic sampling error can occur when response rates are low or
attrition is high. Many reasons explain why subjects might decline to
participate in a study or drop out once it has started. A certain amount of
refusal or nonresponse is to be expected in any study. However, the
researcher should describe the reasons for refusal or attrition to ensure that
systematic sampling error is not exhibited. For example, if all the individuals
who refuse to participate are from a particular ethnic group, socioeconomic
status, or educational level, then the final sample will not represent the entire

The Sample Selection Strategy
A sound selection strategy is one of the best ways to control bias in an
experiment. Several aspects of this strategy may enhance validity and control
bias. The use of objective selection criteria and sound recruitment methods is
appropriate for all types of research. These should be some of the earliest
decisions made about the study, because objective selection criteria help
minimize bias in both qualitative and quantitative studies.

The sampling strategy for a qualitative study has a different goal than that for
quantitative research; in turn, the sampling procedures for these two types of
studies can be quite different. In the case of qualitative research, the goal is
credibility rather than generalizability, so selection methods are purposeful in
nature. This approach makes the sampling strategy less complicated for
qualitative studies, but no less thoughtful. Careful attention to selection criteria
can help minimize the effects of both researcher bias and selection bias in a
qualitative study (Polit & Beck, 2014).

For quantitative studies, the use of probability in sample selection or group
assignment reduces bias and enhances the representativeness of the results
(Carman, Clark, Wolf & Moon, 2015). In addition, subjects are recruited and
selected for the study based on criteria that are carefully considered to
represent the population under study while minimizing the effects of
extraneous variables. The criteria are applied objectively, and all subjects who
meet the criteria are generally invited to participate.


Objective selection criteria may consist of inclusion criteria, exclusion criteria,
or both. Inclusion criteria provide guidelines for choosing subjects who match
a predetermined set of characteristics. These criteria define the major factors
that are important to the research question and may include clinical,
demographic, geographic, and temporal criteria as appropriate. The primary
function of inclusion criteria is to limit the potential for selection bias by
objectively identifying who can be considered a subject.

Inclusion criteria: Guidelines for choosing subjects with a set of
characteristics that include major factors important to the research

Many authors also include exclusion criteria, meaning characteristics that
are used to exclude a potential subject from the study. Some individuals are
not suitable for the study, even though they may meet the inclusion criteria.
These subjects might meet clinical exclusion criteria (e.g., comorbid conditions
that might affect the study) or behavioral exclusion criteria (e.g., high likelihood
of being lost to follow-up). Exclusion criteria fulfill the same function as
inclusion criteria and help to control extraneous variables.

Exclusion criteria: Characteristics that eliminate a potential subject
from the study to avoid extraneous effects.

Sampling in Qualitative Studies
Although objective criteria for recruitment and selection strengthen the
credibility of a qualitative study, informants in this type of research are
selected from the potential pool of subjects in a way that is controlled and
executed by the researcher. This purposeful selection has as its aim the
selection of those subjects most likely to inform the research question. Criteria
for selection of informants for a qualitative study often look quite different than
criteria for selection of informants for a quantitative study. Qualitative selection
criteria may include requirements that an individual has experienced a
phenomenon, possesses a particular attribute, or even expresses a
willingness to talk openly about sensitive issues. Qualitative selection criteria
are formulated through a thoughtful reflection on the type of individual who is
most likely to inform the research question. The researcher then seeks out
these individuals and invites them to participate in the study. FIGURE 7.1
depicts the general progress of a sampling strategy.

Purposeful selection: A technique used in qualitative research in
which the subjects are selected because they possess certain
characteristics that enhance the credibility of the study.


FIGURE 7.1 Stages of the Qualitative Sampling Strategy

A purposeful sample is in some ways easier to procure than a probabilistic
one, but that does not imply the process is not systematic. A variety of
techniques can be employed to achieve a purposeful sample, and each is
appropriate under specific conditions to meet research objectives. Examples
of strategies for purposeful selection appear in Table 7.1. Snowball sampling,
also known as referral or respondent-driven sampling, violates many principles
of quantitative research but is commonly used to generate qualitative samples.
This type of networked sample, in which early respondents are asked to recruit
subsequent subjects, is particularly appropriate when studying social
structures and interpersonal relationships (Bhutta, 2012).

Table 7.1 Methods for Purposeful Selection

Strategy Appropriate Use Example

Typical case

Used when the
study requires
subjects who

Pooe-Monyemore et al. (2012) selected Africans with an
inherited disorder resulting in a lack of eye and skin
pigment to determine their unique psychosocial and


have some
characteristic in

healthcare needs.


Used when
concern arises
that special or
outlier cases may
skew responses

Ko et al. (2014) recruited 15 participants who had
schizophrenia but were not currently experiencing acute
psychosis to determine how people with this chronic
disease live with their illness experiences.


Used when the
study requires
subjects who
have an
experience in

Matthew-Maich et al. (2013) studied strategies that clinical
managers used to successfully implement evidence-based
practices by recruiting health professionals who met four
prespecified criteria.


Used when the
study will benefit
from a diversity of

Kurth et al. (2014) examined the practices of both first-time
and experienced mothers in response to infants’ crying by
observing and interviewing mothers of diverse parity and
educational backgrounds.

Extreme case

Used to obtain a
sample that has
extreme target

Tan et al. (2012) studied the bereavement needs of
parents following the death of a child by finding a sample
with variation in race, socioeconomic status, prenatal
diagnosis, and number of gestations.


Used when
additional sources
of data are
needed during
grounded theory

Cognet and Coyer (2014) studied the practices of nurses
discharging patients from the intensive care unit by
interviewing focus groups, analyzing the data concurrently,
and proposing a model of actions and interactions to
explain problems with the procedure.

The researcher has an obligation to design a sound sampling strategy that will
meet the goals of the research regardless of the nature of the research.

Sampling in Quantitative Studies
Quantitative samples have the best generalizability when subjects are
selected and assigned to groups randomly. The resulting samples are often
referred to as probability samples. In quantitative studies, the development
and use of inclusion and exclusion criteria are only the first steps in a highly
controlled, objective selection strategy. The goal of quantitative studies is
excellent representation of the population, and the use of probability in sample
selection or group assignment helps the researcher achieve this goal
(LoBiondo-Wood & Haber, 2014). Probability sampling (also called
random sampling) refers to a sampling process in which every member of
the available population has an equal probability of being selected for the
sample. FIGURE 7.2 depicts the general steps of the quantitative sampling


Probability or random sampling: A sampling process used in
quantitative research in which every member of the available population
has an equal chance of being selected for the sample.

The only way to be sure a sample represents a population is to confirm that it
meets two essential criteria: Each member of the population has an equal
probability of selection for the sample, and each subject selection is an
independent event. A random sample is one in which mathematical probability
is used to ensure that selection of subjects is completely objective—a method
called random selection. Independence is ensured when the selection of
one subject has no effect on the selection of other subjects. In other words,
each member of the population has exactly the same chance of being in the
sample, and the selection of one subject has no influence on the selection of
another. For example, if a subject were asked to recruit his or her friends and
family members for the study, the assumption of independence has been
violated. Randomness and independence are central to ensuring that a
sample is representative of the population, and both are also underlying
assumptions of most inferential statistical tests.

Random selection: A method of choosing a random sample using
mathematical probability to ensure the selection of subjects is
completely objective.

Independence: A condition that occurs when the selection of one
subject has no influence on selection of other subjects; each member of
the population has exactly the same chance of being in the sample.


FIGURE 7.2 Stages of the Quantitative Sampling Strategy

The strongest evidence is produced by quantitative studies conducted with
samples that are either randomly selected or randomly assigned to
experimental groups. In some cases, however, a researcher might have no
choice except to ask accessible subjects to join the study—a practice that
potentially introduces bias. Even so, if the researcher randomly assigns the
subjects to experimental groups, then any differences between the sample
and the population will be evenly spread out over all groups in the experiment.

Random sampling and assignment do not have to be complicated processes.
Several types of random samples meet the essential criteria of both equal
probability and independence.

Simple Random Sampling
Simple random sampling is used when a table of random numbers (either from
a textbook or generated by a computer program) is used to select subjects
from the sampling frame. As noted earlier, the sampling frame includes the
entire population that is eligible for the study. The researcher must have
access to a listing of all eligible individuals who both are part of the population


and meet the selection criteria. The subjects are then numbered. Random
numbers are drawn, and the subjects with the drawn numbers are asked to
participate in the study. For example, if the drawn set of random numbers is
“21, 11, 143, 86, . . .,” then the 21st, 11th, 143rd, and 86th subjects on the list
would be asked to participate in the study. Common statistical texts generally
include a table of random numbers as an appendix that can be used as part of
a manual process. Most spreadsheet programs can generate a list of random
numbers, and statistical software can automatically select a simple random
sample from an imported list of potential subjects.

To draw a simple random sample from a population, the researcher must have
access to a list of the individuals who are in the population; however, access
to a listing of the entire sampling frame is rarely available to the researcher.
For example, how would a researcher get a list of all people with
hypertension? All nurse managers who work in critical care units? All
adolescents who are sexually active? In addition to these logistical problems,
most researchers do not have unlimited access to the population. If nothing
else, most studies are limited by geography or availability of resources. In
these cases, other kinds of random samples that do not require access to a list
of the sampling frame may be more efficient and feasible to use. Table 7.2
lists the major types of random sampling methods and provides examples that
demonstrate the characteristics of each.

Systematic Random Sampling
Systematic random sampling is useful when the researcher is unsure how
many individuals will eventually be in the population or when there is an
indefinite sampling frame. It is also a practical way to draw a sample from a
prospective group—that is, a group that will be created in the future. In
systematic random sampling, the first subject is drawn randomly, and
remaining subjects are selected at predetermined intervals. For example, if a
researcher needed a 10% random sample from the visitors to the emergency
department over 12 months, the researcher might select the random number 6
from a table of random numbers. In this case, once the study began, the
researcher would invite the 6th visitor (based on the initial random number, 6)
to the emergency department and every 10th visitor (based on the random
sample percentage, 10%) after that. Systematic random sampling does not
produce a strict probability sample, but for all practical purposes it is usually
just as good a method. It has the advantage that it is a relatively
uncomplicated way to draw a representative sample.

Table 7.2 Types of Random Samples and Examples

Type of




The researcher wants to survey 40% of the nurses regarding their perceptions of the
work environment. A list of all nurses who work on the patient care units is generated
by the human resources department. This list is numbered. Random numbers are
generated by computer, and the nurses with those numbers by their names on the
list are invited to participate in the study.


The researcher is studying the relationship between time spent in an examining
room and patient satisfaction, and wants a 10% random sample of patients who will
present in the next 6 months. The nurse selects the number 5 from a table of random
numbers. The 5th patient to present to the clinic is invited to participate. Every 10th
patient who presents is invited to participate until the 6-month period has ended.


The researcher is studying the relationship between educational level and the
identification of early symptoms of myocardial infarction. The researcher wants to
ensure that neither gender is over-represented. A list of individuals who have
presented to the emergency department with symptoms of myocardial infarction is
generated by the health information management department. This list is divided by
gender. A 20% random sample is selected from each list so that gender is
represented equally in the sample.


The researcher is studying the baseline knowledge of school nurses relative to
managing childhood diabetes. A list of all school districts in the state is generated,
and the districts are numbered. Random numbers are generated, and the associated
school districts are identified. All school nurses in the selected school districts are
invited to participate in the study.

Stratified Random Sampling
Stratified random samples are structured so that important characteristics are
evenly distributed across all groups. Such sampling is a good way to reduce
the probability that a subgroup will be under-represented or over-represented
in some way. Stratification based on some important characteristic helps
ensure that all subgroups are represented in proportion to their prevalence in
the defined population. Stratified random samples are more difficult to
accomplish than simple or systematic random samples, and their creation
involves two steps. First, the researcher divides the population into groups
based on some characteristic (e.g., gender, ethnicity, and diagnosis); then, the
researcher picks a representative sample from each group. Often, a proportion
from each subgroup is predetermined and is used to control a potential
extraneous variable. For example, in a study of community-acquired
pneumonia, the researcher might want to ensure that nonsmokers and
smokers are represented in the sample in the same proportion as they appear
in the general population. If the population had a 17% smoking rate, then the
researcher would first identify the smokers and nonsmokers in the sampling
frame, and then randomly select subjects from each group so that the sample
had 83% nonsmokers and 17% smokers.

Cluster Random Sampling
Sometimes it is impossible to draw single subjects from groups, because of
either geographic limitations or accessibility issues. In cluster sampling, the
researcher randomly selects entire groups and then randomly selects subjects


from only those groups. For example, an organizational researcher might want
to study the effect of care delivery models on patient satisfaction within
Magnet facilities. Instead of randomly selecting subjects from all patient care
units in all Magnet facilities, the researcher would first randomly select Magnet
facilities and then solicit participation from all the units in those facilities.
Cluster random sampling is useful when subjects naturally fall into groups
(e.g., schools, hospitals, and counties) and can be more economical in terms
of time and money than other types of probability samples (LoBiondo-Wood &
Haber, 2014).

Ensuring Independence
Independence, the second criterion for a probability sample, is a statistical
concern rather than a representation issue. Independence is violated if
subjects are related in some way or if more than one score is collected from
the same subject. It would be expected that subjects who are not independent
would share some characteristic. When data are not independent, then the
score on one measure shares some of its variability with the score on another
measure. As a consequence, the results might be correlated in a way that is
unrelated to the study.

The most common nonindependent sample is a pretest/posttest design. Time
series data, meaning data collected on the same sample over time, are also
nonindependent. A researcher can compensate for nonindependence with
specific statistical tests, but the nonindependent nature of the data must be
recognized and dealt with.

The Most Common Sample: Convenience Sampling
When random sampling is not realistic, the researcher often relies on
convenience sampling. Convenience sampling relies on subjects who are
accessible to the researcher. Sometimes called accidental sampling,
convenience samples have obvious advantages over probability samples,
primarily with respect to logistics and cost. However, selection using
convenience methods can introduce bias into the sample. Even greater
potential for selection bias exists if the researcher is involved personally in
selecting the subjects. In such a case, either consciously or unconsciously, the
researcher’s predetermined ideas about the research might affect subject

Convenience sampling: A nonprobability method of selecting a
sample that includes subjects who are available conveniently to the

A specific kind of convenience sample that violates both randomness and
independence is snowball sampling (also called referral sampling or
respondent-driven sampling). In snowball sampling, each subject is asked


to identify and/or recruit other subjects. Although this may be the only way to
reach some groups whose members possess sensitive characteristics (e.g.,
alcoholics, drug addicts, or sexually active teens), the subjects are not
independent and randomly selected, so the ability to generalize the results of
the study may be limited. Sadler et al. (2010) suggest that the weaknesses of
snowball sampling can be compensated for, in part, by randomly selecting
subjects from those who are referred. An additional quality control is to
increase the sample size; for studies using respondent-driven sampling, the
currently accepted practice is to collect a sample twice as large as the number
needed for simple random sampling (Johnston, Chen, Silva-Santisteban, &
Raymond, 2013).

Snowball sampling (referral sampling, respondent-driven
sampling): A non-probability sampling method that relies on referrals
from the initial subjects to recruit additional subjects. This method is
best used for studies involving subjects who possess sensitive
characteristics or who are difficult to find.

Convenience sampling is often used in pilot studies when the specifics of a
research study have yet to be completely determined. A small study
conducted with a convenience sample can help guide the specifics for a larger
study. In this situation, convenience sampling is acceptable and expected,
because the intent is to inform the research design, not to generalize the
results. However, even in pilot studies when convenience sampling is
necessary, the researchers should take all steps possible to limit the bias that
is inherent in this sampling method.

The best way to reduce bias in a convenience sample is to assign subjects to
groups randomly once they have been recruited. A simple flip of a coin is
considered a random event and can be used to assign subjects to groups.
Using random assignment minimizes the bias of a convenience sample
because it ensures extraneous variables are randomly spread over both

Sampling Methods for Hard-to-Reach Populations
Some populations are inherently difficult to recruit. Members of those groups
may avoid healthcare providers, or come from a vulnerable or marginalized
population. Subjects may fear legal or immigration consequences, be
ashamed of their condition, have difficulty reading or speaking English, or be
compromised by addiction. These may be difficult populations to define and to
access, yet they often have some of the most pressing health-care needs that
could benefit from evidence-based care. Sampling methods have been
developed to compensate for these difficulties. Table 7.3 outlines some
contemporary sampling methods and their appropriate application.


Table 7.3 Sampling Methods for Hard-to-Reach Populations

Strategy Specialized


Speak to potential
subjects in their
native tongue to
promote response

When subjects have
a native language
other than English,
such that they may
be reticent to
consent to studies

Mundt et al. (2012) used bilingual recruiters in
one sample and English-only speakers in another
when recruiting from a multiethnic population. The
bilingual recruiters achieved a response rate
nearly 6 times as high as did the English-only

Experience sampling
methods, in which
experiences are
sampled individually
over time

When the variable
under study
happens at random
times that cannot be

Moreno et al. (2012) asked adolescents to
respond to text message surveys sent at 6
random times during the day to ask for recall of
Internet use in the past 4 hours.

sampling, in which
respondents are
incentivized both for
participating and for
recruiting their peers

When subjects are
in marginalized or
populations due to
shame or other
interpersonal issues

Hope et al. (2015) used respondent-driven
sampling to study injection-site infections and
injuries in persons who were addicted to heroin.

sampling, in which
individuals who seek
out a service are
recruited into a study

When subjects’ only
contact with the
healthcare system
is through
accessing public or
other services

Gunnell et al. (2015) studied the best way to
provide recently resettled refugees with the
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
(SNAP) by collecting data from refugee attendees
at English as a second language classes at a
worksite-training center.

Mixing Methods
Some studies have as their goal the study of phenomena that do not occur
frequently in the lifespan or are uncommon in the general population. Good
examples include the study of rare diseases in populations and the study of
disaster response. At any given time, the chance of an individual having the
condition is relatively small. Horney et al. (2012) demonstrated the
effectiveness of combining strategies when the target is hard to reach by using
a combination of cluster and referral sampling. These researchers randomly
selected geographic areas (cluster sampling) and then asked respondents to
identify others (referral sampling) in the area who had the condition. These
kinds of combined methods may be the only practical alternatives for
achieving both representativeness and a good response rate in the sample for
studies of rare conditions.

Sampling in Survey Designs
Recruiting subjects to answer surveys can be particularly difficult. In the case
of survey sampling, an additional complexity is added: the response rate.
Traditionally, the response rate is measured by dividing the total number of


surveys distributed by the number who returned the survey. Additionally, the
usable response rate is a third measure of importance: Of the surveys
returned, how many were usable and complete? The response rate is
important, because it reflects the degree to which representativeness of the
population exists for the study and, therefore, indicates the generalizability of
the results. This consideration is particularly important when assessing the use
of survey results as evidence for practice.

The most common flaw in survey sampling is basing conclusions on response
rates that make answers nonrepresentative of the population. Nonresponse
error occurs when the respondents to a survey differ from the population from
which they are drawn. In other words, the individuals who are invited to
participate in a survey differ on some characteristic from those who ultimately
respond. These errors threaten the validity of results when important
demographic groups—for example, the young, the institutionalized, or the poor
—are under-represented in the sample (LaRose & Tsai, 2014).

Kramer et al. (2009) report that a 50% response rate is needed to draw
accurate conclusions about a population from a surveyed sample; this is a
commonly reported requirement. Although recommendations in the literature
are variable and inconsistent (ranging from 15% to 80%), there are typically
strong reservations about the adequacy of response rates less than 40%.

However, some thinking—specifically about Internet surveys—supports the
contention that smaller response rates of 15% to 25% may be adequate if the
overall sample size is sufficient to assume generalizability (Berger et al.,
2005; Dillman et al., 2009). Davern et al. (2010) noted that the costs of
attempting to get a larger response rate may not be worth the returns; these
researchers found only incremental differences between statistical results
before and after multiple attempts at increasing response rate. Their research
showed that making multiple contacts increased the response rate, but did not
change the outcome of the study. Jelinek and Weiland (2013) challenge the
notion that representativeness necessarily and automatically increases with a
greater response rate. They describe the challenges of administering surveys
via the Internet—and recognize the “survey fatigue” created by the sheer
number of solicitations received by healthcare providers—and conclude that
response rates as small as 10% may be adequate if the sample size itself is
large enough to detect the phenomenon of interest. Given the findings of
Davern et al. (2010) and Jelinek and Weiland (2013) that “larger is not always
better,” researchers should consider whether the costs and efforts required to
obtain a larger response are worth the amount of additional information they
will receive. The term “effective sample size” was coined to reflect the final
number of respondents needed to draw representative conclusions, rather
than a strict response rate standard.


Web-based sampling has been demonstrated to be feasible, effective, and
efficient in soliciting participation (Fan & Yan, 2010), yet current methods of
assessing response rates have demonstrated lower overall rates from this
method that may create response bias. Social networking sites and online
questionnaires make it possible to do survey research quickly and
inexpensively, with rapid growth now being seen in personal device–based
sampling strategies (Bhutta, 2012). Research guidelines have not yet
produced a method for determining the response rate for Internet and other
electronic survey methods. One solution may be to issue a read receipt with
the delivery of an email containing the survey link, with the number of
openings then being used as the denominator for the calculation of the
response rate. This method may be biased, however, toward younger
respondents with better computer skills and greater access to technology.

Some researchers maintain that nonresponse error can be reduced only by
using both paper and Internet surveys simultaneously. Funkhouser et al.
(2014) found that the results of an electronic survey differed in significant ways
from the results of an identical survey administered in paper form. They
maintain that, even in an era of increasingly electronic communication,
omitting a paper option altogether can result in the over- or under-estimation of
certain age- and gender-related characteristics.

Other Sample Selection Considerations
Although the subjects in an experiment are most likely to be people, this is not
always the case. Populations and samples are not restricted to human beings.
Subjects might refer to documents (such as medical records), counties, or
whole hospitals. In a particular kind of evidence-based research called meta-
analysis, the subjects are actually research studies. When the subject is
something other than an individual human being, it is referred to as the unit of
analysis. If a researcher wants to study the relationship between
socioeconomic status and teen pregnancy rates in counties, for example, then
the researcher needs a sample made up of whole counties; in this case, the
unit of analysis is a county. The unit of analysis may be groups of people,
whole organizations, or cities. When the unit of analysis is quite large, then it
becomes more difficult to recruit an adequate sample. For example, if the unit
of analysis is a hospital, and the researcher needs a sample size of 60, then
60 hospitals must be recruited for the study. Careful consideration of the unit
of analysis involves thought about the difficulty of recruitment as well as the
characteristics that are needed in the sample.

Unit of analysis: The definition of the major entity that will be
considered a “subject” for analysis.



Getting a good response rate is critical for determining the
representativeness of the sample and, therefore, the generalizability of
the study for practice. Several evidence-based ways to improve
response rate have been developed.

Dillman et al. (2009) found that offering multiple means of data
collection improved the response rate. In his study, members of the
sample were offered one of four randomly selected data entry methods:
telephone interview, mail, interactive voice response, or Internet. When
nonrespondents were switched to a different means of answering the
survey, the response rate went up.

Fan and Yan (2010) conducted a systematic review of elements that
enhanced survey response rate. Their recommendations are grouped
into four stages: (1) survey development (how to better format a
survey); (2) survey delivery (how to better contact subjects); (3) survey
completion (how to enhance completion of the survey); and (4) survey
return (how to ensure completed surveys are submitted.) Attention to
each stage of the process led to better response rates overall.

Li and colleagues (2015) found that text messages were an effective
way of improving response rates, but noted that the rate declined over
time. Multiple text messages on the same day were not effective in
increasing responses; the researchers hypothesized that annoyance
with the flood of messages likely contributed to nonresponse in such
surveys. Using escalating rewards with the text messages (e.g., phone
cards) improved response rates, but only nominally, and the additional
information gathered was not unique.

O’Keeffe et al. (2015) were able to achieve a 65% response rate to a
survey by using multiple modes of contact. Their efforts to get Irish
women to respond to the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring
System (PRAMS) involved an invitation letter, which was followed by
three mailed surveys, a reminder letter, and text message reminders for
remaining nonrespondents over a 90-day period.

LaRose and Tsai (2014) found that lottery incentives (e.g., “win an gift card”) increased response rate beyond a solicitation
with no incentive at all, but the highest response rates were achieved
with the certainty of a prepaid cash card. Surveys using the latter
reward achieved response rates nearing 60%.

Perez et al. (2013) also found that financial incentives improved
response rates, but the increase in returns was driven by substantially
higher per-person costs. A return rate of more than 40% was achieved
with a $10 incentive. The survey completion rate increased twofold
when the incentive was increased to $20, and threefold when $30 was
offered. Clearly, this approach would be prohibitive for large samples,
but it may be an effective means to target difficult-to-recruit samples.


Teclaw et al. (2012) found that asking demographic questions before
nondemographic or sensitive questions improved the overall response
rate. Starting a survey with less threatening or sensitive questions
seems to encourage overall completion.

Boyd et al. (2015) determined that professionally designed information
materials—as compared to standard printed brochures— resulted in
higher response rates. When telephone reminders were added to these
efforts, response rates were even higher. Mailed reminders had no
effect on the ultimate response rate.

Jin (2011) used default settings effectively to improve response rates
for Internet surveys. On each screen, the desirable outcome was used
as the default setting (e.g., “take longer survey”) and the completion
rate was increased. In addition, more respondents were willing to
participate in future surveys and accepted email invitations to do so
when desirable defaults were set.

Finally, judicious use of questions can improve the response rate.
Choudhury et al. (2012) demonstrated that shorter surveys had higher
response rates, both in paper form and via telephone interview.
Personalization also seems to help; more respondents participated in a
randomized trial when invited with a handwritten envelope rather than a
preprinted envelope.

Regardless of the unit of analysis, the sample should be selected based on
preset criteria, using credible strategies. However, the sampling strategy is not
of much use, no matter how well it is constructed, if an inadequate number of
subjects agree to participate in the study.

Sample Size and Power: How Many Subjects Are in
the Sample?
Although subject selection determines whether the results can be generalized
to a larger population, the number of subjects in the sample affects whether
the results can be trusted. Sample size influences the ability to detect
significant findings and the level of confidence with which we can incorporate
results into practice and expect a similar outcome.

Sample Size in Qualitative Studies
In qualitative studies, sample size is rarely predetermined. Although a
researcher may have a general number of informants in mind—and although
some standards have been set for particular kinds of qualitative studies such
as phenomenology—criteria are generally not strict. The general standard for
sample size in a qualitative study is the achievement of redundancy and
saturation (Trotter, 2012). Saturation has been achieved when the researcher
concludes that responses are repetitive and that no new information is being


Determining when saturation has been achieved is based on the judgment of
the researcher—there is no formula or calculation to detect when this point
has been reached. Complicating the process is that there is little consistency
in how saturation is determined, and the literature lacks clear guidelines on
when to apply this standard, and how to identify and report it (Francis et al.,
2010). Walker (2012) recommends the following standards for determining
saturation based on the study design:

Qualitative description: Redundancy is achieved.
Phenomenology: Insight into the experience of the phenomenon becomes
Ethnography: No new information from the members of a cultural group is
Narrative analysis: Similarity in types of stories is discovered in the

Saturation may be discovered during data collection or upon data analysis.
The constant comparison analytic method—in which emerging themes are
compared to those already detected—is particularly strong in supporting the
detection of sampling adequacy.

Documenting saturation is one of the ways that qualitative researchers can
improve the trustworthiness of a study. Saturation may be achieved with as
few as six or eight subjects, or it may require much larger numbers. As the
complexity of a phenomenon under study increases, it becomes more likely
that a larger number of subjects will be required to achieve saturation.

Sample Size in Quantitative Studies
In quantitative studies, the standard for determining sample size is power.
Adequate power means there are enough subjects to detect a difference in the
outcome variable. The calculation of power is a mathematical process and
may be done either prospectively (to determine how many subjects are
needed) or retrospectively (to determine how much power a sample
possessed). The ultimate sample size in a study is a function of three factors:
the significance level needed, the power, and the magnitude of any differences
found (i.e., effect size) (McCrum-Gardner, 2010).

Power: An analysis that indicates how large a sample is needed to
adequately detect a difference in the outcome variable.

The calculation of power involves making several decisions about accuracy
and tolerable error, as well as consideration of some characteristics of the
population. In general:


Adequate power is more difficult to achieve when results must be very
accurate. When the significance level is set very low—for example, at 0.01
or 0.001—then larger samples are needed to meet the more stringent
The number of variables to be examined simultaneously and the number of
subgroups to be compared increase demands for power. When a large
number of characteristics will be compared among several subgroups, then
samples must be larger. Focusing a research question carefully can reduce
the size of the sample needed to answer the question.
A highly heterogeneous population—one that has a lot of diversity—is not
represented well by a small sample, so the study will have less power. The
chances are greater in a diverse population that some group will be under-
represented or overrepresented, and larger samples can help ensure this
does not happen.
Very strong effects are easier to detect with small samples, but more subtle
effects are more challenging to detect without large samples. In the
phenomenon called effect size, big effects are easier to see in the data,
just as a large object is easier to see than a small one. When small effects
are expected, then larger samples are needed to find them (Polit & Beck,
Likewise, problems that are rare or uncommon are more difficult to detect
with smaller samples. The power to detect a problem—sometimes called
prevalence detection—does not rely on differences between groups, but
rather existence in a population. Perneger et al. (2015) set out to
determine the power of samples used for pretests and pilot studies. They
found that a sample of 32 is sufficient to detect a problem that occurs 5%
of the time, but 45 subjects are needed if the condition occurs in only 1% of
the population. These samples are adequate to detect the problem once; if
a problem must be observed twice, then 60 to 75 subjects are needed.
Research designs that involve dependent data (e.g., repeated measures or
pretest/posttest design) are associated with greater statistical power than
those involving independent groups.

Effect size: The size of the differences between experimental and
control groups compared to variability; an indication of the clinical
importance of a finding.

Low power reduces the likelihood that the researcher will find significant
results; it also affects the reader’s level of confidence in the findings (Polit &
Beck, 2014). The best samples are based on a power analysis that estimates
the size of sample needed, taking into consideration the characteristics of the
study and the population.

Researchers can use other methods to estimate sample size needs by
applying some rules of thumb. It is generally considered sufficient to have 15


subjects per variable, although some researchers estimate this number to be
as high as 50 (Hulley, Cummings, Browner, Grady, & Newman, 2013). A
widely reported approach is to multiply the number of independent variables
by 50 and add 8 (Fawcett & Garity, 2009). In general, samples with fewer
than 30 subjects are not considered powerful enough to detect changes in an
outcome variable.

If power is insufficient, then Type II error is more common. A Type II error
occurs when there is a difference between groups but the researcher does not
detect it. In other words, the intervention works, but the researchers do not
conclude that it does. Power is primarily a function of sample size, so
inadequate samples are most suspicious when results are not significant. The
potential for a Type II error should be considered whenever a researcher is
working with a small sample of subjects and cannot find any significant
differences or relationships. This issue can be addressed by increasing the
sample size until sufficient power is ensured. Of course, if findings were
significant, then the sample obviously had enough power to detect them, and
calculation of power retrospectively is not required.

In general, larger samples are more desirable from many perspectives. Larger
samples are likely to have more power and less sampling error. They are also
more likely to be normally distributed (to fall in a bell curve), which is an
assumption of many statistical tests. More generally, larger samples tend to
represent the population better, especially if it is a highly diverse population.

Nevertheless, when samples are very large, standard error—the basis for
statistical significance—becomes very small. When standard error is very
small, even inconsequential differences between groups may be statistically
significant. Statistical significance ensures only that a difference is real—not
that it is clinically important. This is a particularly important consideration when
working with very large samples.

Reading the Sampling Section of a Research Study
The way a sample is selected allows for generalization of the results; the size
of a sample allows confidence in the results. Both are considerations when
reading and evaluating the sampling section of a research study. A
representative sample may not be trustworthy if it is too small, but even a large
sample may not be applicable if it does not represent the population well.

The most important considerations in evaluating a research sample are
whether the sample is biased and whether the results can be trusted. Bias is
minimized by the use of objective inclusion and exclusion criteria. Confidence
in the results is based on an adequate sample size. When reading the
sampling section of a research article, the nurse researcher should evaluate
both sample selection methods and sample size.


When critically reading a quantitative research study, ask the following
questions to guide the evaluation of the sampling strategy:

Were the subjects selected in an objective way?
Was the sampling strategy applied consistently?
Were the subjects assigned to treatment groups in an impartial manner?
Were enough subjects included for you to be comfortable with the

When critically reading a qualitative research study, ask the following
questions to guide the evaluation of the sampling strategy:

Were criteria established for the characteristics that were desirable in
Did the researchers apply enough effort to find respondents who could best
inform the question?
Was saturation achieved and documented as a standard for sample size?

Where to look for information about the sample:

A description of the sampling strategy should appear in the methods
section. It may be labeled “Sample,” “Subjects,” or “Participants.”
The researcher should describe the inclusion and exclusion criteria
in this discussion.
The descriptive characteristics of the actual sample will likely appear
in the results section. If the researcher has conducted statistical
tests of group equivalency, the results of those tests will appear with
the overall results. The reporting of such data is intended to
demonstrate that the experimental and control groups have roughly
the same characteristics. It is a good thing when these tests of
group equivalency show no differences between groups; that
outcome indicates the groups were alike in every way except group
assignment. In other words, tests for group equivalency should not
be statistically significant.
The sampling strategy may not be described at all. This is
particularly true if a convenience sample was used. If a description
is not clear, then it is safe to assume the sample was not selected
randomly and is a convenience sample. Random samples can be
complex and difficult to obtain, so the researcher will almost
certainly report it if a random sample was accomplished.
The terms “probability sample” and “random sample” mean the
same thing. Conversely, the term “nonprobability sample” indicates
the sample was one of convenience. This is the most common kind
of sample in a qualitative study and is not a weakness in that


context. Instead, the sample will appear to be one that best informs
the research question.
Specific calculation of power is becoming more common, but it may
not be reported. Its omission is not a problem if the results are
statistically significant; if the results are significant, then the sample
had adequate power (even if the sample was small). If results are
not statistically significant, however, then reporting of power
calculation is essential to avoid a Type II error. It cannot be
assumed that negative results are conclusive without calculated
power of at least 80% or 0.80. Because power can be calculated
retrospectively, there is no reason not to report it.
The sampling plan is critical for generalization to other patients and
settings. If the sampling plan is seriously flawed, then it is wise to be
cautious in generalizing results unless they have been replicated in
other, more representative samples.

The ideal sample for qualitative research is purposefully selected based on
selection criteria, and saturation is documented. The ideal sample for a
quantitative study has objective selection criteria, is randomly selected and/or
assigned to groups, and has at least 80% power. The authors should report
these elements of the sampling strategy in clear, straightforward terms in the
methods section of the research article.

Using Research as Evidence for Practice
The sampling strategy is a key determinant of whether the research findings
can be used in a specific patient care environment. The use of research as
evidence for practice is based on studies that are well designed and that
consider populations similar to the user’s population. The appropriate use of
research as evidence requires that the study possess external validity.
External validity is the link between finding knowledge through research and
using that knowledge in practice. In other words, whether a research project
can be used in a specific situation with a specific group of patients is a function
of external validity. External validity refers to the ability to generalize the
findings from a research study to other populations, places, and situations. It is
essential for the transformation of research into evidence.

External validity: The ability to generalize the findings from a research
study to other populations, places, and situations.

It is obvious that the results of research studies done in limited settings or with
small, convenience samples may not generalize well to other populations.
However, external validity may be limited even in large, multisite studies.


Table 7.4 reviews common threats to external validity that are dealt with via
the sampling strategy.

Two types of external validity are ecological and population. Ecological
validity refers to findings that can be generalized to other settings. For
example, a study has strong ecological validity if it is conducted in an acute
care setting in a tertiary care center, and the findings will be applied in a
similar setting. In contrast, that same study may have weak ecological validity
for a small, rural skilled nursing facility. Ecological validity is evident if a study
done in one geographic area can be generalized to other geographic areas.
For example, findings from studies conducted in the Rocky Mountains of
Colorado might reasonably be generalized to other western states at similar
altitudes but may not apply as well to patients at sea level.

Ecological validity: A type of external validity where the findings can
be generalized and applied to other settings.

Table 7.4 Threats to External Validity Addressed with Sampling Strategies

Threat What It Is How It Is Controlled


The way subjects are recruited and selected may limit
generalization to all populations (e.g., volunteers and
compensated subjects may have motives that are
different from the motives of the population in general).

Select samples randomly.
Choose samples from real-
world settings.
Report descriptive data for
subjects so external validity
can be evaluated


Subjects may refuse to participate or drop out of a
study in a way that introduces systematic bias; those
who refuse to participate may share some
characteristic that would inform the study. As the
proportion who do not participate increases, external
validity decreases.

Limit the investment
demands (time, effort, and
discomfort) on subjects to
improve participation.
Report descriptive data for
those who refuse to
participate and those who
do not complete the study
to judge the impact on the
Report overall refusal and
attrition rates.


Settings that encourage research subjects to agree to
participate may introduce bias via shared
characteristics; research-resistant organizations may
not be represented at all.

Consider the characteristics
of the setting when
discussing generalization of
the study to other
Use random selection when


Population validity means that a study done in one group of subjects can be
applied to other subjects. A study has strong population validity if it was
conducted on a population that has characteristics similar to the nurse’s
patients. Age, gender, ethnicity, and diagnoses are examples of
characteristics that might limit external generalization. Samples that are more
diverse generally have more external population validity; highly homogeneous
subjects, in contrast, limit generalization.

Population validity: The capacity to confidently generalize the results
of a study from one group of subjects to another population group.

Although many considerations affect external validity, the strongest element is
the sampling strategy. The sampling process determines whether subjects are
representative of the larger population and whether they can reasonably be
expected to represent all patients.

Unfortunately, many of the measures used to control internal validity (e.g.,
very tightly drawn inclusion and exclusion criteria, sample matching, and
stratified random sampling) make it difficult to maximize external validity.
When samples become so homogeneous that most extraneous variables are
controlled, they no longer represent the real world very well. Creating research
that is generalizable, then, requires a balance between control of internal
validity and real-world sampling.

To determine whether a research study can be used in a specific setting, the
nurse should consider these questions:

How is the population defined?
Could extraneous variables in the research situation affect the outcome?
Is the setting one that is reasonably similar?
Have the findings been replicated with a range of subjects in different

To determine whether the study results can be used, evaluate whether the
sample and environment of the study are similar enough to the current
setting’s characteristics that the results could reasonably be expected to apply
in the current setting. If the defined population and environment are
considerably different, then results that were achieved in the study may not be

How similar do the study specifics have to be for successful generalization?
Sources of guidelines based on research rarely find studies that have exactly
the same patient mix in an identical situation. As a consequence, critical
judgment must be used to evaluate whether the results of a study can be
applied in real-world practice. Although the authors might suggest extensions


of the study or potential sites for application, final responsibility lies with the
reader to decide whether a study can be translated from research into reality.

Creating an Adequate Sampling Strategy
Although the sampling strategy is critical to ensure that the study findings will
be applicable, it does not have to be complicated. The researcher can take
many steps to ensure that the sample is as unbiased as possible, achieves the
best possible representation of the population, and is adequate to find
statistical significance or achieve saturation. Most of the decisions affecting
these outcomes are made during design of the study; careful consideration of
the sampling strategy is well worth the effort.

Define the Population
A clear definition of the population of interest—often called the target
population—drives the sampling strategy. This definition may include clinical,
demographic, or behavioral characteristics. The target population is the whole
set of people to whom the results will be generalized, although it may be
defined broadly (e.g., all people with type 2 diabetes) or more narrowly (e.g.,
all people with type 2 diabetes who present to the emergency department with


❏ The target population is clearly and objectively identified.

❏ Inclusion criteria are specific and relevant.

❏ Exclusion criteria are specified to control extraneous variables.

❏ Procedures for selecting the sample are specified. (If not,
assume a convenience sample.)

❏ Sampling procedures are likely to produce a representative
sample for a quantitative study.

❏ Sampling procedures are likely to produce the best informants to
answer the qualitative research question.

❏ Potential for sampling bias has been identified and controlled by
the researcher.

❏ The sample is unaffected by common sources of bias such as
homogeneity, nonresponse, and systematic attrition.

❏ The sample is of adequate size, as documented by power for a
quantitative study or by saturation for a qualitative study.

❏ Power analysis is conducted and reported and is at least 80%
(unnecessary if results were statistically significant).


Create Inclusion Criteria
The inclusion criteria define the main characteristics of the desired population.
The development of inclusion criteria often requires clinical judgment about
which factors are most closely related to the research question. Inclusion
criteria involve a tradeoff between generalizability and efficiency. Very
specifically designed inclusion criteria will limit those aspects available for the
study; very broad ones will increase the chance that extraneous variables are

To develop inclusion criteria, consider the factors that are most relevant to the
research question:

Demographic characteristics: Ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and
educational level are all examples of demographic characteristics that
might define a desirable subject set.
Clinical characteristics: The specific clinical conditions under study should
be specified.
Temporal characteristics: The specific time frame for the study is identified.
Behavioral characteristics: Certain health behaviors (e.g., smoking or
alcoholism) may be essential considerations for a study. In qualitative
studies, a legitimate behavioral characteristic is the informant’s willingness
to talk with the researcher about the phenomenon under study.
Geographic characteristics: Practical considerations generally form
geographic criteria for a study.

Develop Exclusion Criteria
Exclusion criteria indicate subjects who are not suitable for the research
question; thus these criteria eliminate individuals from consideration in the
study rather than identify them for recruitment. Such criteria may improve the
efficiency, feasibility, and internal validity of a study at the expense of its
generalizability, so they should be used sparingly. Exclusion criteria are
generally clinical (e.g., certain comorbid conditions) or behavioral (e.g., a high
risk of loss to follow-up).

SKILL BUILDER Strengthen a Convenience
When selecting a random sample is not possible, the following methods
enhance the validity and representativeness of a convenience sample:

Develop inclusion and exclusion criteria and apply them
consistently. This will lower the risk of selection bias.
Conduct a power calculation to determine adequate sample size. If it
is not possible to prospectively identify the sample size, use a power
calculation to determine how much power the sample did have,
particularly if no significant findings were produced.


Use an element of randomness. Although the subjects may not be
selected randomly, they can be assigned to groups randomly. The
process used for this purpose does not have to be complicated;
flipping a coin and rolling dice are both acceptable methods of

Design a Recruitment Plan
Once the eligible population has been identified, a specific plan is needed to
recruit subjects for the study. The goals of recruitment are twofold:

Represent the population.
Recruit enough subjects to attain adequate power or saturation.

From a practical standpoint, recruitment of a sufficient sample depends on
finding those individuals who are eligible and making contact with them.
Nurses are commonly asked to help recruit patients for studies and provide
information for patient consent. Clinical nurses are in a unique position to
understand and influence the attitudes of patients toward participation in
research, and nurses bring a broad range of skills that can be applied to
recruitment for clinical research.

Recruiting a sample from a population that has sensitive characteristics (e.g.,
drug users) or from minority or immigrant populations may present a particular
challenge. These populations are sometimes called “hidden” because it is rare
that the sampling frame is available for random selection. Nevertheless, such
patients make up a substantial part of the healthcare population, and these
populations may be disproportionately affected by some important health
problems. Designing culturally sensitive approaches to recruitment can
enhance the potential for ensuring these populations are represented
appropriately in healthcare research (Calamaro, 2009). Other factors such as
cultural appropriateness, safety of the investigators, time, and expense also
may pose barriers to random sampling. Furthermore, some members of these
populations may be purposefully hidden for personal, legal, or social reasons.
In these cases, a purposeful sample may be the only possible approach to
gain access to an adequate sample.

Subjects also may be recruited through advertisements and flyers or by
mailing surveys directly to them. Recruitment may include compensation if the
study is burdensome or involves effort on the subject’s part. Recruiting through
compensation, however, adds bias because the most financially needy
persons will be over-represented in the sample.

Determine the Number of Subjects Needed
The number of subjects needed for a qualitative study will be an emergent
characteristic. Francis et al. (2010) recommend two general steps when


determining this number: First, specify a minimum sample size that will provide
information for initial analysis. Second, specify how many more interviews will
be conducted without new ideas emerging. This a prioriidentification of the
number of responses that are analyzed without detecting new themes
strengthens the credibility of the sampling strategy and reduces the effects of

As the study proceeds, an analytic method is generally used that involves
continuously comparing results to those that have already been recorded. This
method, called constant comparison, allows the researcher to evaluate when
saturation has been achieved—that is, when no new information is being
gathered. Generally, it is wise to continue collecting data for one or two
additional subjects to confirm that saturation has truly been achieved. The
number required to reach saturation may be quite small, or a study may
require a large number of informants to meet this goal. The researcher, using
his or her knowledge of the population characteristics and the phenomenon
under study, determines whether saturation has been achieved.

Determining the number of subjects needed for a quantitative study is part
mathematics, part judgment. If power analysis is not available, an estimate
can be achieved by applying the broad rule of thumb of using 15 subjects for
every variable that will be studied. Include at least 30 subjects, but recognize
that enrolling more than 400 subjects is rarely necessary. Although this rule of
thumb produces a very general estimate, it can be useful as an initial
projection of necessary sample size.

Calculating the sample size needed to carry out a strong study helps avoid
wasting resources on studies that are unlikely to detect significant outcomes
(particularly if the intervention is inconvenient or ineffective for the patient). An
actual calculation of statistical power is superior to general rules of thumb in
making this determination. Nevertheless, the researcher must make decisions
and some “educated” guesses about the sample to complete a power
analysis. Prior to calculating power, the researcher must know the planned
analytic method, the level of acceptable error, the amount of power desired,
and the effect size expected. A multitude of Internet sites provide free
calculations of statistical power. Estimates of the amount of variability in the
outcome variables must also be determined by finding similar or concurrent
studies of the same phenomena.

Power calculation is more accurately called an “estimation,” and it is
mathematically complex. Determining which kind of analysis is needed and
identifying the major elements of the calculation may prove difficult. As a
result, some researchers use a rule of thumb to guide the number of subjects
recruited and then calculate a retrospective power analysis based on the
actual findings. This step is necessary only if no statistically significant findings


were achieved; when significant differences are detected, the sample is
considered to have possessed adequate power.

Apply the Selection Methodology
Once a potential sample has been recruited, then the specific selection
methodology is used to identify the final participants. If a purposeful selection
method is used for a qualitative study, the researcher invites participants
directly from the eligible pool, based on a judgment as to the credibility of each

For quantitative studies, some element of randomness either in selection or
group assignment will strengthen the representativeness of the sample. As
noted earlier, a table of random numbers can be used, either from a textbook
or generated by computer. Simpler methods are also acceptable. For
example, a systematic random sample can be determined using a roll of dice.
Considered a random event, the roll of dice can be used each time a potential
subject is recruited; it is a simple and straightforward way to determine
whether that person should be part of the sample. Likewise, a flip of a coin is
acceptable for assigning subjects to treatment groups randomly. One
researcher, when studying the validity of a pain instrument in long-term care,
stood in the doorway of each eligible patient’s room and flipped a coin. If the
coin landed on heads, the researcher entered the room and informed the
patient about his or her eligibility for the study. If the coin landed on tails, the
researcher moved on.

The following methods reduce subject attrition in research samples:

Keep procedures for data collection simple and hassle free.
Design clear data collection methods.
Minimize any inconvenience to the subject.
Follow up with subjects using multiple methods.

Implement Strategies to Maximize Retention
When an adequate number of acceptable subjects have been identified,
recruited, and enrolled in a study, the researcher maintains an adequate
sample by implementing strategies that maximize retention. Subjects may
move away, withdraw for personal reasons, or die during the course of the
study. Attrition is particularly problematic in intervention studies and time
series studies.

Subjects who have a personal interest in the study are more likely to complete
it. In other cases, a combination of personal enthusiasm and nurturing by the
researcher is often necessary to keep subjects in a study. Keeping procedures
for data collection simple and hassle free, designing clear collection methods,


and minimizing any inconvenience to the subjects may all reduce subject
attrition. Efforts to follow up with subjects using multiple methods and
reminders may also prevent loss of subjects. No matter which techniques are
used, however, it is generally agreed that maintaining an adequate sample of
subjects throughout the life of an experiment is challenging and requires effort
and attention on the part of the researcher.

Summary of Key Concepts
Sampling strategy is critical for application of research findings to larger or
different populations.
The way a sample is selected is the major control for selection bias and is
the primary determinant of whether results from a sample can be
generalized to a larger population.
The goal of the sampling strategy for a qualitative study is credibility; it
requires that the researcher use judgment in the purposeful selection of
individuals who can best inform the research question.
Objective inclusion and exclusion criteria can reduce the potential for
selection bias in any type of study.
An element of randomness in sample selection for a quantitative study
strengthens the potential for generalizability of the study results.
If random selection is impossible, random assignment may evenly
distribute population characteristics across all treatment groups.
Random selection is possible through several methods, including simple
random, systematic random, stratified random, and cluster random
sampling methods.
Other methods, such as respondent- and service-driven sampling, may be
necessary to enroll hard-to-reach or marginalized populations.
In survey designs, response rate is an important consideration in drawing
solid conclusions about the population.
Sample size is an important consideration in determining the study’s
power, or the ability to detect differences using a sample. Samples with at
least 80% power are desirable.
Power is a concern only if no statistically significant results were reported;
if statistical significance was achieved, the sample had sufficient power.
Several characteristics of the design and the population affect how much
power a study has, including effect size, variability in primary outcome
measures, and the level of certainty required.
The criterion for sample size in a qualitative study is saturation—that is, the
point at which no new information is being generated.
The sampling strategy should be clearly described in a research study,
along with a rationale for each sampling decision. It is the basis for trusting
the results and applying them to specific patients.

For More Depth and Detail
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Consider the following appraisal questions in your critical review of this
element of the research article:

1. What is the population for this study?


2. What was the sampling method used? Why did the authors
select this technique?

3. Did this sampling method meet the criteria for a probability
sample? Did it meet the criteria for independence?

4. What are indications that the sample size is adequate for this

5. What are the weaknesses of the way this sample was drawn?
How did the authors attempt to compensate for these

6. In your opinion, can the sample be expected to represent the
population? Are these findings generalizable?

7. How strong is the evidence generated from this study?
8. How could a public health nurse use the evidence generated

from this study?

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© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 8: Measurement and

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Discuss the link between the research question and the
measurement strategy.
Describe the types of reliability and validity and explain how they
are assessed.
Evaluate sources of measurement error and plan strategies to
minimize their effects.
Compare the advantages and disadvantages of data collection
Discuss the importance of having clearly prescribed data
management procedures.
Determine how the measurement strategy supports application of
the data to evidence-based practice.


Closed questions


Conceptual definition

Guttman scale

Internal reliability

Inter-rater reliability

Likert scale


Measurement error

Open-ended questions

Operational definition



Primary data


Psychometric instruments

Random error



Secondary data



Systematic error

Test blueprint


Visual analog scale (VAS)

There is an old saying in performance management: You get what you
measure. This is never truer than with the measurement strategy employed in
nursing research. The credibility of a study as evidence for practice is almost
completely dependent on identifying and measuring the right things. A strong
measurement strategy is critical for good evidence. The process of
measurement allows the researcher to determine if and in what quantity a
characteristic is present, and to provide evidence of that characteristic, usually
represented by a number. If that measurement is not correct, or if it is
inconsistent, then the researcher may draw the wrong conclusions. The
conclusions from a research study will be only as good as the data that were
used to draw them. A research study can be beautifully designed, well
controlled, and impeccably executed, but if the data that are collected are not
consistent and accurate, then the results will be suspect.

Measurement is based on rules. Often, measurement is about assigning
numbers or some other classification to subjects in a way that represents the
quantity of the attribute numerically. When we think of measurement, that
concept often brings to mind equipment or tools applied to some concrete
physical manifestation. Indeed, measures used for the sciences involve very
strict rules about assigning numbers to characteristics in a completely
unbiased way. Not all measurement, though, is quite so straightforward.

Measurement: Determination of the quantity of a characteristic that is
present; it involves assigning of numbers or some other classification.


Many forms of measurement exist, not all of which involve quantifying a trait; a
considerable number of measures involve sorting subjects into categories
based on their characteristics. For example, using a thermometer measures
the amount of heat in the body, whereas asking about religious affiliation
seeks to classify the subject based on his or her belief system. Classification
measures are frequently used in nursing. Subjects may be classified by some
neutral observer, or they may classify themselves by completing an instrument
that asks for a self-rating of perception of attributes.

Rules are used to guide the determination of measures, whether they are
collected by instrumentation or classification. Such rules may specify the way
a measure is administered, the timing of the procedure, the exact protocol for
collecting the result, and even such details as how questions are worded and
how the interviewer should read a question.

Whether data are collected by calculation of a value or by classification into
groups, they will likely be represented by a number. Numbers are key
elements of measurement in nursing for several reasons. Numbers are
objective and often standardized, so that they are consistent. Numbers can
serve as a universal language and as a means of communication in an
increasingly global world. Statistical tests can be applied to numbers, resulting
in quantification of how much error a measure represents. Numbers are
precise and can accurately represent attributes.

Regardless of the type of measure, numbers are useful only to the extent that
they represent the underlying characteristic they are intended to represent. To
have value, they must be clearly linked to the research question, appropriate
to represent the variable of interest, and consistently accurate.

Numbers are a key element of measurement in nursing because they

Statistically testable
An accurate representation of attributes

I became interested in the topic of teamwork very early in my career.
Even when I was a novice nurse, I vividly remember that there were
times when the people I worked with seemed to “click,” and we were


able to get an enormous amount of work done without any unit strife. At
other times, when there were particular groups of nurses working
together, we could not even get an average amount of work done
without conflict of some sort. I began wondering about the effects of
teamwork on productivity and whether improving teamwork would result
in a more efficient unit. When I later became a department manager
myself, it was important to me to build and maintain good team
relations, and I believe that is why I had a unit that had a reputation for
getting a lot of work done.

I did one study in particular that focused on how teams function at night
versus during the day. I have worked both shifts and I know the
environment, the way people relate, and the work to be done—it is
radically different on the two shifts. It is literally like night and day. I
wanted to see if I could differentiate team behaviors that happen at
night from those that occur during the day.

I could not find exactly the instrument I wanted; I did not find any, in
fact, that broke teamwork down into the behaviors I was interested in.
There were some that came close, but none that I thought asked the
specific questions I had. I was a bit cocky, I guess, when I decided I
would just write my own. I had looked at quite a few instruments, and I
thought, “How hard can it be?” So I set out to develop my own
instrument for measuring team behaviors.

I did it quite logically. I consulted a friend who was a nursing faculty
member, and she helped me develop a test outline and gave me advice
on the wording of questions. Still, it took me almost a month to get a
first draft done. I knew I had to test it for reliability, and my faculty friend
helped me find a statistician. I was really excited up to this point. I
thought I might try to copyright my instrument, use it as a team-building
basis, that kind of thing. We gave the instrument to about a dozen
nurses and the statistician ran reliability statistics for me. What a
nightmare! The number came back at 46%, which is woefully
inadequate for any kind of research. I was really crestfallen; I thought I
had done a pretty good job.

The statistician was really nice about it. He showed me how some of
the questions were written in a confusing way. I had some double
negatives in the questions; they were confusing even to me when I
reread them. Some of the words could be interpreted several different
ways, and there were some typographical errors that I just flat-out
overlooked. It was a humbling experience. I persisted, but it took a
couple of revisions and about 6 months before I could get my little
instrument where I was comfortable using it.

After I had the results, there was a bit more of a disappointment,
because I did not have anything to which I could compare the numbers.
Because it was a totally unique instrument, the numbers I produced


were isolated; I had no way to put them into context. In retrospect, it
would have been much easier and led to stronger results if I had just
used an existing instrument, even if it was not exactly what I needed.
“Close enough” actually would have been better than what I wound up
with. In hindsight, I should have balanced the weaknesses of a unique
tool with the little bit I would have lost from using a standard one.

Since then, I have done quite a bit of work measuring teamwork. I found
a standard tool that enables me to measure teamwork reliably while
having a large, national database to which I can compare my scores. It
also means that studies I have done can be replicated and that some of
my studies have been used in meta-analyses and integrative reviews.

Overall, developing my own tool was a good experience. Painful but
good; I learned a lot. I would say my strongest lesson was this: If you
need to write your own instrument—and you may—then be sure it is for
a really good reason and that you have the time, energy, and know-how
to put into it. Measurement is not as easy as it looks.

Janet Houser, PhD, RN

The Measurement Strategy
The actual measure of an attribute is only one part of a measurement strategy.
The complete measurement strategy is critical to the design of a valid
research study, so both time and energy should be applied to its planning and
execution. The measurement strategy involves the following steps:

1. Thoughtful determination of the most relevant attributes that
demonstrate the answer to the research question

2. Definition of the attributes in terms of the operations used to
demonstrate them

3. Selection of an instrument that will reliably capture an accurate
representation of the attribute

4. Documentation that the instrument and the measurement procedure
are reliable and valid

5. Development of protocols to guide the process of gathering data
6. Quality checks to ensure the data collection process results in an

accurate and complete data set

Define the Research Variables
The first step of the measurement strategy is to give careful thought to the
concepts represented in the research question. The research question will
describe the phenomena or characteristics of interest in a study, which then
must be translated into observable attributes so that they can be measured
(Morrow, Mood, Disch & Kang, 2015). Eventually, these concepts may be
represented as a physical attribute (for example, blood sugar), a perception
(for example, pain), a behavior (for example, a gait), or a response (for


example, recall). These factors are called, logically enough, attribute variables.
To ensure that everyone is interpreting the attribute in the same way, the
researcher must write definitions that represent the characteristic in such a
way that it cannot be misinterpreted.

To represent the underlying characteristics, numbers used in research
measurements must be:

Clearly linked to the research question
Appropriate to represent the variable of interest
Consistently accurate

There are two kinds of definitions for attribute variables: conceptual and
operational. A conceptual definition describes the concept that is the
foundation of the variable by using other concepts. For example, a conceptual
definition of depression might include the presence of sadness, lack of
pleasure, and changes in eating or sleep habits. An operational definition
defines the operations that must be performed to accurately represent the
concepts. An operational definition of depression might include using a scale
to record weight loss or gain in kilograms or using a log to record hours of
sleep per night. It is useful to begin the process of defining the research
variables by describing conceptual definitions because they can help ensure
the researcher is measuring the right things. Operational definitions ensure
that the researcher is measuring attributes reliably.

Conceptual definition: Clearly stated meaning of an abstract idea or
concept used by a researcher in a study.

Operational definition: An explanation of the procedures that must be
performed to accurately represent the concepts.

Determine a Measurement
After writing an operational definition, the researcher defines the procedure for
collecting and recording the data. Measurements may be either primary or
secondary. Primary data are recorded by the researcher directly from a
subject. That is, the researcher uses specific rules to collect the data and
makes and maintains a record of the responses. Measures for primary data
can involve the following tools:

Calibrated instruments, such as a thermometer
Equipment, such as a digital camera


Paper-and-pencil or online tests, questionnaires, surveys, or rating scales,
such as a pain scale
Observation, rating, and reporting characteristics or behaviors, such as a
skin assessment
Counting the frequency of an attribute or exhibited action, such as the
number of falls on a unit

Primary data: Data collected directly from the subject for the purpose
of the research study. Examples include surveys, questionnaires,
observations, and physiologic studies.

Primary data are considered most reliable because the data are collected by
the researcher for a single, specific purpose, but they do have some
limitations. Primary data are time consuming to collect, and the quality of the
data depends on many factors. Some of these factors are related to the
subjects, but others are due to the data collectors who are administering the
measure. Sometimes a subject’s recall of a physical reaction or an event may
be quite different from reality. Some subjects may not be able to communicate
clearly, or language barriers may be present that distort reporting. A subject
may have a mental condition that prohibits accurate and clear reporting of
data. Subjects may misrepresent sensitive data, respond dishonestly, or
simply give the answer they think the researcher wants to hear. However,
although self-reports of behavior, beliefs, and attitudes are prone to biases,
there are no acceptable alternative means of measurement for many
constructs of interest to nurse researchers, such as satisfaction, pain,
depression, and quality of life (Walford, Tucker & Viswanathan, 2013).

The data collectors can also affect the accuracy of primary data. For example,
the data collector may use equipment or instruments incorrectly. When
collecting perceptual data, the individual making the recording may not use
consistent language or a consistent approach. Inflection or wording may
inadvertently lead a subject to give an inaccurate answer. For example, the
question “Do you abuse alcohol?” will elicit a far different response than “How
many alcoholic drinks do you have in a week?” The response to either
question can also be affected by the tone of voice of the questioner. Those
doing the data recording must be carefully trained in data collection
techniques. The consistency of data captured by multiple raters must be
checked by measures of inter-rater reliability; this is important with any
measure for which different individuals will be asked to score observations
(McHugh, 2012).

The measurement methods most commonly used for collecting primary data
are physiologic measurements, psychometric instrumentation, surveys, and
questionnaires. Because the credibility of the resulting data depends so


heavily on the quality of the instrument, these data collection methods warrant
the use of clear strategies to minimize measurement error.

Effective data collection must be designed to:

Be clear
Be unbiased
Be reliable
Be valid
Answer the research question

Physiologic Measurement
Evidence-based practice focuses attention on the use of physiologic
measurements from patients for clinical research efforts. Physiologic
measurement involves the assignment of a number or value to an individual’s
biological functioning. Such a measure can be self-reported, observed, directly
measured, indirectly measured, electronically monitored, or obtained through
diagnostic tests.

Nurses commonly rely on physiologic measurements to make patient care
decisions. For example, they take vital signs, read lab results, and measure
blood glucose. The measurement of a patient’s biological functioning involves
the use of specialized equipment and often requires specific training in the use
of that equipment. The specialized equipment used to measure a patient’s
biological functioning must be accurate, precise, and sensitive. In turn, it can
provide valid measures for variables related to physical functions. Physiologic
measurements, then, are readily available for the clinician researcher and
provide objective data. To use such data for research purposes, the data must
be collected from each participant in exactly the same way. Consistency in the
data collection process is very important; the researcher’s goal is to have
minimal variability in the data collection procedure by ensuring all data
collectors follow the same steps.

Physiologic measurement can also be self-reported for variables such as pain,
nausea, and dizziness. These variables are often a critical part of research but
are subjective in nature, so that their measurement depends on the participant
understanding what is being asked of him or her. Such data are usually
collected using instruments, but of a different nature than the ones used for
measuring biological functioning. Specifically, the instruments used to collect
this kind of subjective information directly from subjects are referred to as
psychometric instruments.


Psychometric instruments: Instruments used to collect subjective
information directly from subjects.

Psychometric Instrumentation
Psychometric instrumentation is applied to measure subjective or conceptual
information. Examples of psychometric instruments include tools that measure
coping, stress, self-concept, self-esteem, motivation, and similar psychosocial
elements (Fain, 2014). To provide valid data for a study, the instrument
chosen for measuring the variables must fit closely with the conceptual
definition of those variables; indeed, it will likely become the operational
definition for some of them.

Many instruments exist that have been determined to measure subjective
characteristics reliably. Finding an acceptable instrument is critical to a strong
measurement strategy. Before a researcher begins to develop his or her own
data collection tool, a literature review is justified to see whether an existing
instrument might be applied to answer the research question. If one does,
permission must be obtained from the original author before the instrument
can be used in a publishable research study. The psychometric properties of
the instrument are documented in the research write-up to assure the reader
that measurement error is not responsible for the findings; they are described
later in this chapter.

There are many advantages of using an existing instrument rather than
developing a new one. Doing so saves the researcher the time needed to
develop and validate a new instrument. Development of a new instrument for a
research study involves developing a test blueprint, creating questions,
soliciting feedback about the fidelity of the instrument to the blueprint, pilot
testing the instrument, and making revisions. This process can be
burdensome, can delay the research, and should be undertaken only when a
thorough review of the literature reveals that there are no acceptable existing

The use of existing measurement tools also allows for the replication of a
study and its inclusion in subsequent aggregate studies. The results of the
research can be compared to the work of others if the procedure uses the
same instrument.

Limitations of using a previously developed instrument include the cost of the
instrument, failure of the instrument to address all the research interests, the
feasibility of administering the instrument, and an inability to locate
psychometric information or the original author.

Psychometric instruments encompass a variety of methods and may vary
widely in complexity. Surveys, questionnaires, and scales are all examples of


instruments that may measure psychosocial characteristics.

Surveys and Questionnaires
The most commonly used data collection method is the survey. In the survey
method, a systematic tool is used to gather information directly from
respondents about their experiences, behaviors, attitudes, or perceptions
(DeVellis, 2011). Depending on the types of questions used, survey research
can rely on a quantitative design, a qualitative design, or a mixture of both.
Surveys may be personally distributed, distributed through the mail, or
delivered online. They can be administered during a face-to-face interview or
in a telephone survey, or the respondents may complete the surveys on their
own. Responses of participants are described in numeric terms and/or in
words. A systematic approach to developing survey questions appears in
Table 8.1. FIGURE 8.1 depicts a decision-tree approach to determining the
survey method and outlines the qualities of a good question.

Table 8.1 Guidelines for Creating a Survey


Identify the objectives of the survey.
Identify demographic characteristics.
Identify the dependent variable (if applicable).
Identify variables of interest or the independent variables (if applicable).


Envision how the data will be analyzed.
Create data definitions.
Design a data tabulation form.


Draft a set of questions.
Make sure all the variables are addressed.
Modify the wording of questions.


Group the questions to reflect each major topic of the survey.
Organize questions from general to specific.
Format the survey so it is easy to follow.
Write clear instructions for completion of the survey.


Distribute a preliminary draft of the survey to a group of colleagues.
Solicit their review of the document and identify problems with questions, including how the
questions and the directions are worded.
Provide the group of reviewers with a copy of the objectives so they can determine
whether the questions address each of the objectives.


Revise the survey.
Test the survey on a pilot group of subjects.
Measure the reliability of the survey and make any changes necessary based on the
statistical analysis and the feedback of the pilot group. Analyze the results from the pilot
group, looking for patterns of missing answers or inconsistency in responses, and make
final revisions.
Record the amount of time the subjects take to complete the survey.
Revise the data tabulation form.

Step Write instructions for the participants.


7 Write an introductory letter.
Write a consent form, if applicable.
Distribute the survey.
Give the participants clear instructions for returning the completed instrument.

Questions used in surveys can be either open-ended or closed questions.
Open-ended questions are used when the researcher does not know all of
the possible responses or when the researcher wants participants to respond
in their own words. Typically, open-ended questions are characteristic of
qualitative research, but they may be included as part of an otherwise
quantitative data collection tool. Responses are analyzed using content
analysis to find themes in the words of respondents. Disadvantages of open-
ended questions are that it takes the respondent longer to complete each
question, the respondent may misinterpret the question, and analysis of the
data takes longer. Examples of open-ended questions appear in Table 8.2.

Open-ended questions: Questions with no predetermined set of

FIGURE 8.1 Steps in Survey Design


Table 8.2 Examples of Open-Ended Questions

What were your emotional reactions to the initial ultrasound that indicated there was a problem with
your baby?

How did you deal with those emotional reactions?

How did the nurse practitioner help you deal with the birth of your baby?

Which strategies have you used to deal with the stress of caring for a baby with a significant health

Sets of closed questions are commonly referred to as questionnaires. Such
questions are used when there are a fixed number of alternative responses;
the respondent has to select from the responses provided by the researcher.
This may involve selecting from a limited number of answers or rating
something on a scale.

Closed questions: Questions that have a fixed number of alternative
responses. Respondents are forced to select answers or ratings on a
scale provided by the researcher.

Structured, fixed-response questions are best used when the researcher is
investigating a finite number of potential responses. Compared to open-ended
questions, closed questions are easier both for the respondent to answer and
for the researcher to analyze. Many kinds of closed questions are possible:

Forced-choice questions require respondents to select a single response
from a list of possible answers.
Dichotomous questions require respondents to select from only two
Scales ask respondents to rank-order their responses on a continuum.

Forced-Choice Questions
Forced-choice questions provide choices that are mutually exclusive and
encompass the total range of answers. These kinds of questions are used
when the researcher wants respondents to choose the best possible answer
among all options presented. Forced-choice questions sometimes have right
and wrong answers—for example, when measuring the amount of knowledge
a diabetic retained after a teaching session.

Dichotomous Questions
Dichotomous questions can be answered by selecting from only one of two
choices. These types of questions typically are used to determine if a
characteristic is present or if a respondent belongs to a particular group.
Dichotomous questions yield limited information about the respondent and are


difficult to analyze. Because only a limited range of tests are available for their
analysis, the use of dichotomous questions should be limited to those
situations in which no other type of question is appropriate.

Scales ask respondents to rank some trait or ability on a continuum of
possible responses. The individual entries on the scale correspond to
variations in the strength of the response. The most commonly used types of
scales include Likert scales, Guttman scales, and visual analog scales.

Scales: Type of closed-question format in which respondents put
responses in rank order on a continuum.

The Likert scale presents a set of attitude statements, with respondents then
being asked to express agreement or disagreement with each statement on a
five-point or seven-point scale (Likert & Hayes, 1957). Each degree of
agreement is given a numerical value, so a total numerical value can be
calculated from all the responses.

Likert scale: A scale that uses attitude statements ranked on a five- or
seven-point scale. The degree of agreement or disagreement is given a
numerical value, and a total can be calculated.

The Guttman scale presents a set of items on a continuum, but it may also
use statements ranging from one extreme to the other (Guttman, 1947).
When a person agrees with one statement, it can be assumed that he or she
agrees with all previous questions in the scale. In other words, the responses
are progressive. Each item on the scale is worth a point, and the total score is
cumulative. Thus, if a respondent’s score is 5, it means that the respondent
agreed with all of the item statements from 1 through 5. Examples of closed
questions and scales appear in Table 8.3.

Guttman scale: A scale with a set of items on a continuum or
statements ranging from one extreme to another. Responses are
progressive and cumulative.

Table 8.3 Examples of Closed Questions

Forced-Choice Question

What is your current marital status? (Select one.)



Dichotomous Questions

What is your gender?

Were you born in the United States?

Likert Scale

The physical layout of my patient care unit is efficient.

1. Strongly disagree 2. Disagree 3. Neither agree nor disagree 4. Agree 5. Strongly

Guttman Scale

Please mark whether you agree with the following statements. Yes No

1. Anyone needing health care should pay out of pocket for the services rendered.
(Least extreme)

2. There should be health insurance for anyone who can afford to pay for it.

3. Employers should be required to offer healthcare coverage for any employee.

4. Employers should be required to pay for the healthcare premium of any

5. Employers should be required to pay for the healthcare premium of any
employee and his or her family.

6. Individuals below the poverty level should have their health care subsidized by
the government.

7. There should be universal healthcare coverage for all, subsidized by the
government. (Most extreme)

The visual analog scale (VAS) is one of the scales most commonly used in
health care for measuring perceptual variables such as pain or nausea. The
VAS is designed to present the respondent with a rating scale that has few
constraints and is easy to use. Respondents mark the location on the
continuum corresponding to their perceptions of the phenomenon. The Wong-
Baker Faces Pain Rating Scale, depicted later in this chapter, is an example of
a VAS.


Visual analog scale (VAS): A rating-type scale in which respondents
mark a location on the scale corresponding to their perception of a
phenomenon on a continuum.

SKILL BUILDER Design Better Questionnaires
Questionnaires are not easy to construct; their development requires a
thoughtful, systematic approach. Despite the challenges, these
instruments can be invaluable as data collection tools for both
quantitative and qualitative research. Here are some simple
suggestions for designing strong questionnaires that are more likely to
be answered accurately and completely, making for stronger research

Have a plan for handling missing data consistently. Determine
ahead of time if you will allow analysis of incomplete responses.
Keep the questions simple, clear, and easy to answer. Consider the
value of each question before including it in the final survey. Write
the questions in an unbiased way that does not imply there is one
“correct” answer.
Group similar questions together. Start with nonthreatening
questions, such as demographic information, and work up to more
sensitive information at the end of the questionnaire. Avoid
emotionally laden words that may imply a judgment.
Avoid questions that ask about more than one characteristic or
dimension. Limit each question to a single concept.
Assess the reading level of the questionnaire. Unless the reading
capacity of the potential subjects is known (for example, all
respondents are college educated), write the items at a fifth-grade
reading level.
Keep the overall survey short, and ask the pilot-test subjects to
estimate the amount of time it took them to complete it. Include this
time estimate in the introductory letter so subjects will know when
they have time to respond.
Write scales so that they have no “neutral” or midpoint response.
Often, respondents use the “neutral” category for many meanings—
including “this doesn’t apply,” “I don’t know,” or “I don’t want to tell
you.” If you need a neutral category, include a separate category
that has no numerical value for “not applicable/no answer.”
Know how each question will be analyzed, and be sure the way the
data are collected can be subjected to the specific analytic test. For
example, a very limited range of statistical tests can be used for
analysis of yes/no questions; by comparison, questions that offer
respondents multiple options arrayed along a scale can be
subjected to a broader range of potential analytic procedures.


Provide a well-written cover letter with explicit instructions for both
completing and submitting the questionnaire. The instructions
should be clear and concise. Make it a convenient process to
respond and get the answers back to the researcher.

Writing Survey Questions
Whether the questions are closed or open-ended, some specific issues should
be considered when writing questionnaires. Primary among these issues is
clarity: Questions must be clear, succinct, and unambiguous. The goal is for all
respondents who answer the question to interpret its meaning the same way.

The second issue concerns the use of leading questions or emotionally laden
words. A leading question is phrased in such a way that it suggests to the
respondent that the researcher expects a certain answer. The adjectives,
verbs, and nouns used in a question can have positive or negative meanings
and may influence the responder unintentionally. An emotionally laden
question is one that contains words that can create a negative reaction in
some people regardless of the content of the statement. Some words also
have more than one meaning and should be avoided.

Regardless of which type of data is collected, which measurement instrument
is used, or whether the responses constitute primary or secondary data, the
information must be recorded in a way that minimizes the potential for
measurement error.

Strategies to Minimize Measurement Error
Measurement error is the amount of difference between the true score (i.e.,
the actual amount of the attribute) and the observed score (i.e., the amount of
the attribute that was represented by the measure). Measurement error is a
threat to the internal validity of a research study, so minimizing measurement
error means that the overall study results are more credible (Moses, 2012).

Measurement error: The difference between the actual attribute (true
score) and the amount of attribute that was represented by the measure
(observed score).

Measurement error is present in every instrument to some degree or another,
and may be either random or systematic. Random error is expected and is
affected by a host of influences that may be present in an experiment.
Random error may be due to human factors, confusion, bias, and normal
environmental variations. While these sources of error are not preventable, the
researcher should avoid them whenever possible.


Random error: A nonreproducible error that can arise from a variety of
factors in measurement.

Systematic error has a more serious effect on the results of a research study,
because measures with systematic error may appear to be accurate.
Systematic error is any error that is consistently biased. In other words, the
measure is consistent but not accurate. Such a measure may consistently
underestimate the effect, overestimate it, or miss data in a way that is not
random. For example, subjects with poor literacy skills may not participate in a
study that involves reading a questionnaire. In this case, the missing data are
not random; rather, they are systematically attributed to individuals who cannot
read well. In the case of systematic error, results under-represent a key group
that could provide information but does not. This type of error is of particular
concern in vulnerable populations or when investigating sensitive issues. For
example, Carle (2010) discovered systematic measurement bias across
multiple studies related to self-reported educational attainment, poverty status,
and minority status.

Systematic error: Any error that is consistently biased; the measure is
consistent but not accurate.

Systematic error may be a result of the following factors:

Measures that are consistent but inaccurate. An example is a tape
measure that has been used so often that it has stretched. Although it may
still record length consistently, the tape measure will routinely overestimate
the length.
Measures that have complicated or onerous procedures for the subject.
Individuals who are greatly inconvenienced by the measure or who have to
expend substantial energy to respond may drop out, leaving only the most
motivated subjects in the study. For example, asking a subject to maintain
a daily diary will likely result in incomplete or hastily collected data.
Measures that reflect sensitive or socially taboo topics. The subject may be
able but unwilling to respond, and missing data may affect the results. For
example, self-reports of tobacco and alcohol abuse often under-represent
the prevalence of these behaviors in the population.

Variability that is due to anything other than a change in the underlying
attribute represents error. It is important, then, to find instruments that
measure characteristics consistently and with minimal unexplained variability.
An instrument is not reliable when there is a discrepancy between the real
attribute and its representation by the results.


Measurement error is minimized when reliability is high. In turn, when
measures are highly reliable and precise, it becomes easier to detect the true
effects of an intervention. The most common means of minimizing
measurement error are calibrating instruments and ensuring instrument

Use Properly Calibrated Equipment and
Calibration of an instrument reduces the discrepancy between the true score
and the observed score. Calibration, or the use of objective procedures to
verify that an instrument is measuring a characteristic accurately, is a highly
structured process. Laboratory instruments may be calibrated using samples
with known quantities; for example, blood glucose monitors often come with
calibration samples for quality assurance. These procedures ensure that the
instrument is consistent (reliable) and accurate (valid).

Calibration: The use of procedures to minimize measurement error
associated with physical instruments by objectively verifying that the
instrument is measuring a characteristic accurately.

However, not all instruments are easily calibrated. For example, how do you
calibrate an instrument to measure depression? In the case of instruments that
measure characteristics or traits, the calibration concern is replaced with an
emphasis on reliability and validity. These are the most important issues to
consider when selecting an instrument to measure nonphysiologic

Ensure Reliability: A Focus on Consistency
Instruments are considered reliable if they consistently measure a given trait
with precision. When a measure is reproducible—that is, when it generates a
consistently accurate value every time it is used appropriately—it is
considered precise. When a measure is precise, then the reader of a research
report has a level of confidence that differences between groups are not
explained by differences in the way the trait was measured. Reliability
statistics document the degree to which an instrument is stable internally,
among individuals, between raters, and over time.

Precision: The degree of reproducibility or the generation of consistent
values every time an instrument is used.

Stability Within an Instrument
Stability within an instrument is called internal reliability, and it is measured
with the alpha coefficient statistic. This coefficient may be called Cronbach’s
alpha, coefficient alpha, or internal reliability, and it should have a value of 0.7


or greater. Cronbach’s alpha represents the extent to which the variability of
individual items represents the variability in the overall instrument (Cronbach,
1951). In other words, the way that responses vary on one item should
demonstrate the same pattern as the way that responses vary on the entire
instrument. A high level of internal reliability indicates that changes from item
to item represent real changes in the subject, rather than simply changes in
the way the questions are interpreted (Connelly, 2011).

Internal reliability: The extent to which an instrument is consistent
within itself as measured with the alpha coefficient statistic.

The coefficient alpha has an additional use: It allows the researcher to
calculate the amount of measurement error inherent in the instrument
(Buonaccorsi, 2012). Subtracting the coefficient alpha from the value 1
quantifies the error for this sample using this instrument. For example, if the
coefficient alpha were 0.92, then measurement error would be equal to 1
minus 0.92, or 8% (0.08). The smaller the amount of measurement error, the
stronger the internal validity of a research study. The reverse is also true:
When measurement error is high—in general, more than 20% to 25%—then
the conclusions of the study may be suspect.

If differences are found, a question arises: Are those differences due to the
intervention, or do they reflect inconsistencies in the measurement procedure?
From the researcher’s perspective, it is desirable to use an instrument that has
as large a coefficient alpha as possible so as to minimize the measurement-
related differences, thereby ensuring that any differences truly reflect the
subjects’ responses to the intervention.

Stability Among Individuals
Stability among individuals is measured by an item–total correlation, which
should have a positive sign and an absolute value close to 0.5. An item–total
correlation indicates whether performance on a single item is consistent with
the individual’s performance on all items.

Stability Between Raters
Stability between raters is documented as inter-rater reliability or scorer
agreement. This specific type of reliability assessment is indicated when
multiple raters observe and record a variable. Inter-rater reliability quantifies
the stability of a measure across raters. For example, the degree of agreement
between two or more nurses who are staging a pressure ulcer should be

Inter-rater reliability: The extent to which an instrument is consistent
across raters, as measured with a percentage agreement or a kappa



A simple percentage agreement can be used to document inter-rater reliability,
but a kappa statistic is even better. Specifically called Cohen’s kappa, this
statistic focuses on the degree of agreement between raters and generates a
p value, reflecting the statistical significance of the agreement (Cohen, 1968).
A kappa value can be interpreted like a percentage, and in either case
(percentage agreement or kappa) a value less than 0.40 is considered poor,
0.41 to 0.75 is considered acceptable, and a value greater than 0.75 is
considered excellent (Shultz, Whitney & Zickar, 2014). An associated small p
value indicates the agreement was not due to chance. A high kappa (greater
than 0.75) with a low p value (less than 0.05) reflects good reliability between
multiple raters in an experiment. This finding is particularly important when
reviewing evidence for practice, because the same nurse will rarely conduct all
assessments on a single patient. Ongoing training and monitoring of raters
can improve agreement and reliability between raters over time.

Stability over Time
Stability over time is quantified by a test–retest correlation coefficient.
Although the usual standard for any reliability coefficient is 0.7, some
measurement experts argue that a lower standard—as low as 0.5—can be
applied to test–retest correlations because of the attenuation that naturally
occurs over time (Shultz et al., 2014). Test–retest correlation is accomplished
by administering an instrument, waiting a reasonable period of time, and then
readministering the same instrument. A correlation coefficient may then be
calculated between the two sets of item scores.

At least one test of reliability should be performed and reported for the
instruments used in an experiment. Table 8.4 summarizes the primary
reliability tests and their interpretation. The gold standard is to assess
consistency within the instrument and among individuals over time. Efficiency,
resources, and time, however, often limit the capacity to run multiple tests of

Table 8.4 Reliability Statistics

Test What It Means Interpretation


Internal reliability: Are the individual items
consistent with the overall test results?

Coefficient alpha should
exceed 0.7 as a minimum

< 0.4 is unacceptable
0.4 to 0.7 is weak
0.7 to 0.9 is moderate
> 0.9 is strong reliability


Guttman split
half/split half

Internal reliability: Is the first half of the test as
reliable as the second half, or are odd-numbered
items as reliable as even-numbered items?

Split half will be lower than
coefficient alpha but
should exceed 0.6 as a


Is the instrument stable over time? If the
instrument is used repeatedly, are the results
due to actual changes in the subject, not due to
the instrument?

Yields a correlation
coefficient, which should
equal or exceed 0.5

Criterion related Does the instrument measure actual
performance or presence of the characteristic it
is intended to measure?

Yields a correlation
coefficient, which should
exceed 0.5


Do two or more raters agree on the ratings? Percentage agreement of
0.85 or greater; Cohen’s
kappa ≥ 0.80 with a p
value < 0.05

If the instrument has been developed by the researcher, it should be pilot
tested on a small group of subjects for assessment of reliability. These pilot
tests should be performed and reported as part of the methods section of the
study report. If a subject participates in the pilot, he or she should be excluded
from the primary study to avoid a potential pretesting effect.

An instrument will be only as strong as its reliability. If an instrument does not
measure a characteristic reliably, then it cannot be expected to represent the
true score for an individual subject (Furr & Bacharach, 2014). Measuring the
characteristic accurately requires validity, or assurance that the instrument
measures the concept it is supposed to measure.

Ensure Validity: A Focus on Accuracy and Truth
An instrument has to be consistent to be precise, but a measure can
consistently measure the wrong thing. For example, it is difficult to measure
the length of a neonate. A squirming baby is measured from the tip of the heel
to the crown of the head, which is not exactly a precise description. Measuring
over the head to the tip of the nose would be more reliable—it is easy to find
the end of the nose—but it would not be an accurate representation of the
baby’s length. Reliability tells us that an instrument will be consistent; validity
tells us that the instrument will consistently measure the right thing.

Validity: The ability of an instrument to consistently measure what it is
supposed to measure.

Reliability constrains, but does not ensure, validity. An instrument cannot be
more valid than it is reliable. For example, a scale may weigh kilograms and
accurately represent the concept of weight. If the scale consistently weighs


light or heavy, however, then the observed score is not matching the true
score, no matter how relevant the measure itself. Simply possessing reliability
does not ensure validity; separate tests of each attribute are required to draw
a comprehensive conclusion about the usefulness of an instrument. Even so, it
is not uncommon for reliability to be reported without any comment on validity.
In fact, both characteristics are required for a measure if we are to trust the
outcome of a study that uses the measure.

The search for a valid measure begins by determining all of the most important
aspects of the phenomenon under study. For example, a study of quality of life
in hospice patients might include instruments to measure physical symptoms,
social support, spirituality, and mental state. Such a study might require
multiple instruments to confidently measure all the concepts related to the
research question, and each instrument must be reliable and valid.

Validity is more challenging to test than reliability. Complicating this process is
the need to test validity on multiple populations to determine who it is valid for
and under which conditions. Consider the pain scale shown in FIGURE 8.2.
This scale shows six faces, with the lowest end being a smile and the upper
end being a face with a frown and tears. This instrument is intended to
represent the quantity and nature of pain reported by pediatric patients. Is the
instrument interpreted the same way by children and by adults? Might some
groups of patients interpret the crying face as sadness instead of pain? Does
the instrument represent pain for someone with dementia or in rehabilitation or
from another culture? The validity of the instrument must be tested and
retested to ensure it is effective across settings and situations.

FIGURE 8.2 Wong-Baker Faces Pain Rating Scale

A researcher can use several methods to document validity. One or all types
may be used in the same study.

Content Validity
Content validity involves a subjective judgment about whether a measurement
makes sense. Content validity can mean that face validity has been assessed
(“This instrument looks like it should measure pain”) or that a panel of experts
has verified that the correct concepts are included in the measure.


A helpful tool in determining content validity is the test blueprint. A test
blueprint can help the researcher determine if items in the instrument
represent all the basic content that must be represented. Often, the test
blueprint and the instrument are reviewed by an impartial reviewer, who
evaluates whether all the items in the blueprint are reflected in the content of
the instrument. Table 8.5 shows a test blueprint for the measurement of
fatigue in oncology patients.

Test blueprint: An outline for determining content validity that includes
the analysis of basic content and the assessment objectives.

Construct Validity
Construct validity indicates that a measurement captures the hypothetical
basis for the variable. This type of validity is, as it sounds, abstract and very
difficult to confirm, but extremely valuable. Construct validity may be the most
important type of validity test to ensure that results will represent reality.
Researchers can take years to validate the constructs represented by an

A common method of construct validation is factor analysis, which groups
items within the instrument according to their shared variability (Shultz et al.,
2014). The researcher can then review the factor groups and determine
whether they represent the conceptual basis of the instrument.

Criterion-Related Validity
Criterion-related validity is the correlation of the instrument to some external
manifestation of the characteristic. For example, a newer instrument may be
compared with an older, more established instrument. There are several ways
to measure criterion-related validity:

Concurrent validity is present when an instrument reflects actual
performance. For example, the reading from a temporal thermometer might
be correlated with the reading from a rectal thermometer.
Predictive validity indicates that a measure can predict future performance.
For example, an instrument measuring professional competency for a new
graduate would have predictive validity if its measurements correlated with
the actual competency of the nurse as measured by appraisal at the end of
Discriminant validity demonstrates the capacity to differentiate those who
have a characteristic from those who do not. An instrument has good
discriminant validity if it can successfully sort subjects into classifications.
For example, an instrument to measure the presence of a disease would
have discriminant validity if it could accurately diagnose a disease when
present and also definitively confirm when the same disease is absent.


Table 8.5 A Test Blueprint for Measurement of Fatigue

Critical Concepts


Feeling tired Drowsiness Naps in daytime Nauseated


Anxiety Depression Shortness of


Mental state Difficulty

Lack of interest Lack of


Vigor and energy Lack of appetite Sedentary

Boredom Lack of well-

Most validity tests use the correlation coefficient to represent the degree of
relationship between the instrument and the reference. Unlike reliability, for
which a value of 0.7 is considered the cutoff for acceptability, it is uncommon
for a validity coefficient to be greater than 0.5 (Shultz et al., 2014). This
outcome may occur for a number of reasons, including inadequate sample
size or attenuation due to reliability errors. The seminal work of Cohen (1988)
established the standard for interpretation of a validity coefficient: Greater than
0.5 is strong, 0.3 to 0.5 is moderate, 0.1 to 0.3 is small, and less than 0.1 is

Table 8.6 depicts the various types of validity tests, provides a description of
each, and explains the implications for its use.

The correlation coefficient has the added advantage of being the basis for the
coefficient of determination, or the amount of variance in the criterion that is
explained by this instrument. This value is calculated by squaring the
correlation coefficient, represented as r . For example, if the correlation
coefficient between a reading on a thermometer and a reading of core body
temperature were 0.9, then 0.9 or 81% of the variance in core body
temperature will be explained by this instrument.

Taken together, reliability and validity tests ensure that results are consistent
and accurate. Both are key to supporting the internal validity of a research

Sensitivity and Specificity
Sensitivity and specificity are measures of validity used in the biomedical
sciences because they measure characteristics of diagnostic tools used to
detect disease. Sensitivity and specificity are types of discriminant validity.
Sensitivity is the capacity of an instrument to detect a disease if it is present.
A diagnostic tool such as a mammogram, for example, must be sensitive




enough to detect breast cancer if it is present. Specificity is the capacity of an
instrument to determine when the disease is not present. A diagnostic tool is
specific if it can definitively conclude that the disease is not present when it is
not. In other words, sensitivity helps the researcher avoid false negatives, and
specificity helps the researcher avoid false positives. Both sensitivity and
specificity are needed to be confident that the study results accurately
represent the distribution of the disease in the sample (Rothman, 2012).

Sensitivity: A measure of discriminant validity in the biomedical
sciences that indicates an instrument has the capacity to detect disease
if it is present.

Specificity: A measure of discriminant validity in the biomedical
sciences that indicates an instrument has the capacity to determine
when the disease is not present.

Table 8.6 Tests of Measurement Validity

Test How It Is Done Implications


Subject-matter experts review the
instrument and conclude that it
appears valid.

Accurate conclusions are heavily reliant on
the competence of the subject-matter
Is considered an essential element of
validity testing.


Subject-matter experts review the
instrument and conclude that the
content of the instrument represents
the concepts of interest.
Often, raters are asked to rate each
item as “essential,” “useful,” or “not
necessary” and to give feedback
about the usefulness of the overall

Accurate conclusions are heavily reliant on
the competence of the subject-matter
Helps determine which items should be
included in the final instrument and which
may be deleted.
Results in feedback on both the content
and the form of the instrument.


Correlation or regression statistical
analysis is applied to determine if
the instrument is correlated to or can
predict an objective measure of

Is important for tests that will be used to
predict who will be successful (e.g., pre-
employment tests or college admission
tests) or who will exhibit a condition in the
future (e.g., cardiac risk assessment).


Collect test and criterion scores at
the same time.
Correlation analysis is applied to
determine if the instrument reflects
current performance.

Is important for tests of conditions that are
difficult, expensive, or painful to detect
(e.g., heart disease) or when tests are not
available in an appropriate form (e.g.,
patients for whom English is a second



Collect test and criterion scores.
Discriminant analysis is applied to
determine if the instrument can
accurately sort subjects into groups
that do and do not have the criterion

Is important for tests of sensitivity and
specificity of diagnostic tests.
Is useful when differences between groups
are subtle or difficult to detect (e.g.,
between a B+ and an A– score).


Difficult to evaluate but may be
based on studies of group
differences, studies of internal
structure, factor analysis for
subscale structure, or studies of the
stability of test scores.

Is best suited to the instances when test
scores assess an attribute or a quality that
is not easily or objectively measured. Is
often used for psychological or social

In general, the larger the values of the sensitivity and specificity statistics, the
better the test. However, there are tradeoffs: When sensitivity becomes very
high, then specificity often suffers, and vice versa. An ideal test will balance
sensitivity and specificity, with high scores on each.

A final assessment of validity for clinical measurements is responsiveness.
Responsiveness is the ability of a measure to detect change over time in the
construct of interest (Cleland, Whitman, Houser, Wainner, & Childs, 2012).
When an outcome measure is intended to capture the effect of an intervention,
the capability to detect changes in the subject over time is critical. There are
multiple ways to measure responsiveness, including the standardized
response mean, Cohen’s d, and responsiveness indices (Jewell, 2010).
Responsiveness is a highly desirable characteristic in a measure, particularly
when it will be used to determine the effect of interventions over time, and as
such is of great interest when developing evidence-based practices.

Responsiveness: A measure that indicates change in the subject’s
condition when an intervention is effective.

Collecting Data Using Instruments
Once the specific measures have been selected and their reliability and
validity documented, then the data must be collected using the measures. The
conclusions from a research study will be only as good as the data on which
they are based. The data collection plan, then, is an important step in
producing findings that serve as reliable evidence for nursing practice.

Multiple methods are available for data collection. Traditional methods include
paper-and-pencil surveys, whose results are subsequently manually entered
into analytic software packages. Although paper-and-pencil surveys are still
widely used, the contemporary researcher has a wide variety of options for
collecting data efficiently and conveniently from subjects, including online and
technology-based data collection, interviews, focus groups, and observation.


Online Data Collection
Today’s technology enables the researcher to access millions of potential
research subjects in geographically diverse sites. The online environment
creates opportunities to collect data globally, especially among difficult-to-
access populations. Web-based data entry is efficient and effective, and
delivered in a way that is convenient for subjects (Walker, 2013). Data
processing and analysis are expedited when web-based surveys are used
because data can be directly downloaded into analytic software. In addition,
the need for data tracking and transfer are eliminated with online data
submission processes.

Weigold, Weigold, and Russell (2013) found that online survey distribution
resulted in statistically equivalent responses to paper-and-pencil surveys, with
reliability, validity, and completeness similar to those of standardized methods.
Delivery of surveys as well as receipt of responses is faster with online data
collection (Balch, 2010). Callegaro, Manfreda, and Vehovar (2015) identified
some of the many advantages of web-based surveys.

They are low-cost means of delivering surveys.
The cost does not generally increase with larger sample sizes.
Web survey software increasingly enables convenient, user-friendly survey
design and data collection.
Data are more likely to be accurately retrieved and analyzed.
Multimedia use is possible and can make surveys dynamic.
Online administration provides flexibility in terms of both time and
Web surveys are convenient for respondents.
The anonymity of a web survey may encourage more truthful responses,
particularly when the subject is a sensitive one.

Online data collection is not without drawbacks, however. When data are
submitted remotely, the researcher is unavailable to answer questions, deal
with concerns, or troubleshoot problems. Participants may be confused by
online data submission systems, resulting in inaccurate or unusable
submissions. The researcher may be unable to prevent multiple submissions,
or surveys may be abandoned before they are complete. Online systems may
ultimately result in systematic sampling error because only those subjects with
some level of technological literacy are able to participate effectively in the
study (Hsiao & Moore, 2009). Critical problems in using online data
submission systems include difficulty in accessing the electronic mail
addresses needed to create a sampling frame and the challenges of
determining response rates when the actual number of recipients is unknown.

The design and collection of online survey data have been made easier
through user-friendly survey applications such as Survey Monkey. With such
applications, the survey tool itself is created by using web-based tools, and the


data are then downloaded directly into an Excel spreadsheet or a statistical
software package for analysis, minimizing data entry error.

Collecting Data Through Social Media
The use of social media and virtual networks to collect data is controversial.
The primary concern is the selection bias inherent in using a platform for data
collection that is constructed by the subject for social purposes, and to which
multiple groups will not have access. For example, potential subjects may not
have access to the technology required to use social media, may lack Internet
connectivity, or may be disinterested in social media applications.

In the best-case scenario, using social media can expand the geographical
scope of a study and has been shown to be superior in gaining access to
hard-to-reach populations. In particular, snowball sampling—that is,
connecting to potential subjects through existing subjects’ referrals—is
enhanced by access to social media. Social media–based data collection has
also demonstrated value in collecting data during disasters or when other
means of communicating with subjects are not available.

Even when measurement is not conducted via social media, this platform may
enable researchers to recruit subjects through paid advertisements on social
media sites. Fenner and colleagues (2012) found a high response rate and
relatively low costs for recruitment into a study using social media
advertisements, and noted that subjects were highly engaged once recruited
in this manner. Thus, there appears to be potential in using contemporary
technology and media to access potential subjects, recruit them to the study,
and—in some cases—conduct direct data collection via online sites. Until
privacy considerations, ethical issues, and self-selection error are reduced,
however, social media will remain controversial when used as the sole data
collection method for studies. Clearly, although this platform has potential for
enhancing access to potential subjects, its ability to facilitate valid data
collection requires further exploration.

Technology-Based Delivery
Other technology-based data collection systems are also available to the
nurse researcher. Many of these alternative device-based methods are ideal
for achieving wide geographic coverage of the target population, are less
resource intensive than other data collection methods, and may be superior
options for collecting data that deal with sensitive topics (Belisario et al.,

Laptop computers, for example, can allow subjects to respond to surveys or
questionnaires efficiently and accurately. The provision of laptop computers
may be particularly helpful when data are recorded in association with an
interview, or during group meetings, or when it is suspected the subjects will
not have access to the Internet. Haller and colleagues (2009) found that


laptop data entry was fast and accurate, resulted in fewer errors, and led to
less missing data than use of handheld devices or paper-and-pencil surveys
for data collection. In addition, technology-based methods have been shown to
elicit higher response rates than other methods in reporting risky or sensitive
items (Wu & Newfield, 2007) and in rugged or remote environments
(Caviglia-Harris et al., 2012). Wireless data collection using tablet devices
also holds promise; early data indicate that the convenience of tablet-based
data entry makes this method effective for both self-administered and
researcher-entered data collection (Singleton et al., 2011).

Handheld digital devices hold promise as means to reach wide audiences and
produce valid data. These devices are particularly useful in studies in which
frequent— even daily—data collection is required to detect outcomes. Some
researchers are using text message reminders to motivate subjects to record
activity throughout the day; this method has been successful in gathering
longitudinal and experiential data (Moreno, Grant, Kacvinsky, Moreno, &
Fleming, 2012). When Belisario et al. (2015) conducted a systematic review
comparing survey responses collected using mobile apps versus other
methods, they discovered a wide range of implications for mobile data
collection. In general, though, apps were shown to improve data completeness
more than other types of web-based data collection.

Nevertheless, these novel data collection methods also have some distinct
drawbacks. The devices can be expensive, subjects may have devices with
widely varying capabilities, and not all individuals will find the devices user-
friendly. Researchers have shown that data collection via handheld devices
lengthens the duration of data entry while increasing the number of typing
errors and the quantity of missing data. Most of the problems with handheld
devices are attributable to technical difficulties, typing errors, and loss or theft
of the device.

Handheld clicker technology may be an innovative approach to research data
collection. Solecki et al. (2010) studied the integration of an audience
response system (clickers) into a presentation asking for participant opinions.
Major advantages of this handheld data entry included ease of data collection,
real-time analysis, and active engagement of participants. Most clicker
technologies also provide summary data and graphics.

A relatively new method for collecting qualitative data about lived experiences
is photovoice. Photovoice is a method used with participatory action
research, in which subjects take pictures that exemplify their lived
experiences. Each photograph is accompanied by reflective writing that
describes the participant’s thoughts and feelings (Evans-Agnew and
Rosemberg, 2016). Photovoice is unique in that it purposefully connects the
researcher and the participant in analyzing what is going on in each
photograph, and actually engages the subject in determining overall themes


from their experiences. It has become an effective means of studying the lived
experiences of individuals in the context of their community and daily life (Han
& Oliffe, 2016).

Photovoice: A method used in participatory action research in which
subjects take pictures to exemplify their lived experiences, and record
accompanying reflections.

Other technologies available for data collection include audio computer-
assisted self-interview (ACASI). ACASI is used in place of a personal
interview. These systems achieve the advantages of an interview without the
time or investment required for real-time, face-to-face data collection. In
ACASI, the subject is fed a series of questions by an audio-enhanced
computer application, and responses are recorded verbatim. ACASI has been
found to be better than face-to-face interviews in eliciting accurate information
when the data recorded are sensitive or embarrassing. In one study,
individuals who used ACASI were compared to those who participated in face-
to-face interviews and those who self-administered a paper-and-pencil survey.
The individuals who used ACASI were less likely to have missing data,
particularly on measures of sexual risk and alcohol abuse (Anastario, Chun,
Soto & Montano, 2013). This data collection method has also been shown to
enhance the validity of self-report data in research and clinical settings by
reducing measurement bias and error—a problem that plagues self-reports of
all kinds (Brown, Swartzendruber & Diclemente, 2013).

Although data collection may be maximized by using technology-based data
collection, these methods are limited to predetermined surveys,
questionnaires, or scales. When exploratory or qualitative data are required to
answer the research question, the researcher must use more traditional
methods of data collection. Asking questions directly of informants, followed by
probing questions (i.e., delving more deeply into the meaning of experiences)
requires a face-to-face means of data collection.

When the Data Collector Is the Instrument
Some quantitative studies and almost all qualitative designs require that the
researcher collect primary data directly from subjects in the form of words. The
most common methods for collecting these kinds of data are interviews, focus
groups, and direct observation. In these studies, the researcher is the
instrument, and the quality of the data collected depends on the skill of the
interviewer, focus group leader, or observer. These techniques are not subject
to measures of reliability and validity, but they are still methods in search of
truth; thus they require rigor to learn and use effectively.

Interviews are a data collection technique in which the researcher interacts
directly with the participant one-on-one via the telephone or in person. The


format of the interview can be either highly structured or loosely structured,
depending on the information needed. Types of questions may be closed,
open-ended, or probing. Each question that is asked should relate back to the
research question. Types of questions that might be asked in an interview
include the following:

Information or knowledge questions (“How much do you know about
mandatory staffing ratios?”)
Opinion questions (“What do you think about states mandating nurse
staffing ratios?”)
Application questions (“How do you develop a schedule that allows for
equitable staffing to meet the mandatory levels?”)
Analysis questions (“What do you see as the relationship between staffing
levels and patient safety?”)
Synthesis questions (“Which changes would you make to provide an
equitable solution to the staffing problem?”)

Wording of questions is as important in an unstructured interview as it is in a
structured interview or in a questionnaire (Creswell, 2013). In a highly
structured interview, questions are developed in the same way as for a
questionnaire. For interviews that are less structured, the use of open-ended
questions allows the respondent to provide more detailed information. Wording
of the questions should be clear and words with double meanings should be
avoided. To provide an environment that allows the respondent to answer in a
truthful manner, the questions should be as neutral as possible.

The sequence of questions is also important and can set the tone for the
interview as a whole. After the introductions, it is important to put the
respondent at ease so that he or she is comfortable when responding to the
questions. This may be accomplished by asking informational or factual
questions that the participant can easily answer. Ask questions about the
present before asking questions about either the past or the future. It is often
easier to talk about what is current than to recall the past or predict the future.

As the interview progresses, the interviewer should remain as neutral as
possible. Once a question is asked, the interviewer should be sure that the
respondent has completely answered the question before moving on to ask a
new question. Any note taking should be as inconspicuous as possible.
Interviews are more personal than questionnaires. Unlike the questionnaire
that the respondent completes, interviews give the interviewer the opportunity
to ask follow-up questions.

SKILL BUILDER Conduct Better Interviews
Use open-ended words such as “how,” “why,” or “what.”
Ask questions about the present before asking questions about
either the past or the future.


Avoid questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.”
Remain as neutral as possible in both verbal and nonverbal
Avoid words with double meanings.
Ask only one question at a time.
Pose questions using neutral words.
Allow the respondent plenty of time, but keep the interview on track.
Start with questions that will put the respondent at ease.
Take notes inconspicuously or use a recorder.
Use initial questions that involve informational or factual questions.
Review notes and make additions or revisions immediately.
Intersperse opinion, analysis, application, or synthesis questions
with factual questions.

Interviews can be very time consuming, and they are certainly resource
intensive. The individual conducting the interview needs to be trained to ask
the questions properly, to ask the questions in the proper sequence, and to
handle any unanticipated possibilities that might arise during the interview
process. Interviews are often used in qualitative studies and provide rich
information about the respondents’ perceptions and beliefs.

Focus Groups
A focus group is an in-depth, qualitative interview with a small group of people
(generally between 6 and 12) who have been specifically selected to represent
a target audience. The aim of a focus group is to understand the social
dynamic and interaction between the participants through the collection of both
verbal and observational data. These interactions often result in richer
qualitative data because members of the focus groups can consider their own
views in the context of the views of others. Indeed, the interplay of participants
in a focus group may reveal ideas, experiences, and meaning that are not
apparent when individuals are interviewed in isolation (Liamputtong, 2011).
Other advantages of a focus group are as follows:

The discussion can be recorded with audio, video, or both for later review
and transcription.
The facilitator can observe and note nonverbal behavior, reactions, and
interactions of group members.
Misunderstandings can be clarified immediately.
Unanticipated but related topics can be explored, and the data from the
interview are available immediately.

Although the data gathered through focus group interviews are rich in
meaning, focus groups are time consuming and expensive to conduct.
Coenen et al. (2012) compared focus groups and individual interviews and
found that focus groups took more time than any other face-to-face data


collection method. They require a skillful facilitator and often require the
presence of two individuals—one to facilitate the discussion and one to record
observations and nonverbal behaviors. Focus groups may not elicit accurate
information if the facilitator is inexperienced or introduces his or her bias into
the discussion. Recording of the group session may feel intrusive to
participants and inhibit them from sharing their opinions, and respondents may
hesitate to share sensitive information in a group setting. As with qualitative
data in general, the results cannot be generalized to larger groups without
careful sample selection and reliable content analysis procedures.

Observational research is used for studying observable behaviors and is
generally a noninvasive method for gathering information (Gravetter &
Forzano, 2011). There are two types of observation: direct and indirect
(sometimes called unobtrusive). With direct observation, participants agree to
be part of the research and know that the researcher will be watching them.
Indirect observation involves recording data unobtrusively so that the subjects
either are unaware of or become accustomed to the observation.

Observations can be made continuously or in specific time periods. Both of
these methods involve extended contact with the subjects of the study.
Continuous monitoring entails observing a participant or participants and
recording in minute detail (manually, electronically, or both) as much of their
behavior as possible. One of the drawbacks of this method of data collection is
that individuals who know their behavior is being watched will not behave as
they normally would until there has been a great deal of exposure. This
comfort level—called habituation—takes a long period of time to elicit. As a
result, a large amount of data is generated and must be managed. Time
periods may be randomly selected for observation so that fewer resources are
needed for data collection. With this approach, unlike with continuous
monitoring, participants do not know the time or the place that the researcher
will be collecting the data, so they are more likely to behave normally. In either
case, ethical conduct dictates that the participants be informed that they will be
observed, even if they do not know the particulars of where or when.

Table 8.7 summarizes the various methods of collecting data for research

Secondary Data
Secondary data are often easier and quicker to collect than primary data.
Secondary data are retrieved from data sets that have already been
collected, usually for another reason. Examples of secondary data sources
include the following data sets:

Information documented in the electronic health record (for example,
laboratory values or operative reports)


Public or commercial databases of health data (for example, the renal
dialysis data set or the behavioral risk factor data set)
Registries or other outcomes measurement systems (for example, the
National Database of Nursing Quality Indicators or tumor registries)
Government sources of health data (for example, the Census Bureau or
the Healthy People 2020 database)

Secondary data: Data collected for other purposes and used in the
research study. Examples include electronic health records, employee
or patient satisfaction surveys, organizational business reports, and
governmental databases.

Many times, secondary data are recorded for specific research purposes and
then made available to the research community after the primary research is
complete. Secondary data can reveal important relationships and offer a good
way to retrieve data efficiently and effectively.

The key consideration when deciding whether secondary data can be used is
to verify that the data set includes measures of the specific variables needed
to answer the research question. Secondary data can also improve the quality
of subject recruitment and may reduce the time needed for data acquisition
(Kopcke et al., 2013).

Although secondary data are attractive owing to their convenience, their use is
also hampered by several limitations. Secondary data may be incomplete or
inaccurate, and the researcher cannot control the conditions and rules under
which they were collected. In addition, the data are necessarily retrospective
because they have been collected in the past (Wade & Branningan, 2010).

Table 8.7 Comparison of Data Collection Methods

Method Advantage Limitation(s)

Primary Data

Physiologic Objective data Calibration of equipment

Psychometric Quantifiable data Access to instrument acceptable for


Survey and

Cost effective Impersonal

Anonymous Biased wording

Easy to administer Low return rate


Works with large groups Literacy barriers

Familiar Time consuming

Allows generalization

Interview Flexible Costly

Personal Small numbers

Nonverbal behaviors Results cannot be generalized

Immediate follow-up

Focus group In-depth information Time consuming

Nonverbal behaviors Costly

Trained facilitators Training time

Rich data Results cannot be generalized

Not useful for sensitive subjects

Observation Detailed information Time consuming

Trained observers Labor intensive

Less biased Training time

Secondary Data Efficient Costly

Increases breadth of the

Unknown issues with primary data

Multiple uses of data Concern for accuracy and completeness

The validity of secondary data collection may be enhanced in several ways.
The individuals who are retrieving the data should be thoroughly trained in the
data collection process. Processes such as quality checks and periodic
reassessment of inter-rater reliability should be in place to sustain a high level
of reliability. Development of a glossary or data dictionary can help the data
collector identify equivalent forms of a single variable and is helpful in
maintaining data integrity. For example, the glossary might note that
“dyspnea,” “SOB,” and “shortness of breath” are all acceptable representations
of the concept difficulty breathing.

In general, the patient record is the best and most sensitive source of objective
data regarding patient conditions. Laboratory values, procedures, vital signs,
and other documentation of physiologic processes may be accurately retrieved
from the record and are highly useful as outcome measures. Electronic health
records (EHRs) present unprecedented opportunities for aggregate data


mining and reporting. The EHR is a critical component of evidence
development and implementation; such systems are capable of supporting
comparative effectiveness research. Patient-level data stored electronically
can support the processes of generating research questions, conducting
comparative assessments, and providing evidence for personalized care
(Miriovsky, Shulman & Abernathy, 2012). Even electronic records, however,
must be subjected to quality measures. If the reuse of EHR data for clinical
research is to be valid, the researcher must adopt a systematic method of
ensuring the record contains accurate and reliable data (Weiskopf & Went,

Processes that are more subjective may be unavailable or unrecorded in the
patient record and are more accurately retrieved via primary data collection.
For example, patient education, discharge planning, and counseling may not
be recorded consistently in the patient record, but such information can be
retrieved directly from patients.

Big Data
The Internet and cloud computing have enabled the collection, storage, and
transmission of an enormous quantity of data, which are collectively referred to
as “big data.” Applying data science methods to these massive amounts of
data may produce insights about the patient experience that have not been
available in the past (Brennan & Bakken, 2015). These data may originate
from a variety of sources: Insurance claims, EHRs, diagnostic images,
genomic information, social media, home-based physiologic monitors, and
personal fitness devices are just some examples. The exciting potential for
obtaining information and data about the health and behaviors of large
populations of individuals has stimulated the growth of a new and influential
field in evidence-based practice—the fast and flexible association of patient
characteristics with patient outcomes.

“Big data” is first and foremost a metric of size, reflecting the idea that today’s
electronic data sets far exceed those commonly found in research or practice.
These data sets reflect a diversity of data types, are collected in near real
time, have low error rates, and are of high value to researchers. It is commonly
believed that the future of evidence-based practice will experience quantum
leaps as analysis of these large-scale data sets accelerates and
communication of these results becomes more widespread (Brennan &
Brakken, 2015).

The process of using big data begins—as does most evidence-based research
—with asking a researchable question. The next step, though, differs from
other studies. Rather than defining variables carefully a priori, the data
schema is defined at the point of use, as data are retrieved and evaluated.
Data exploration is a characteristic of data science– driven studies, whereas it
is generally not a formal step in a randomized trial. Conclusions are iterative,


rather than summative, and are designed to identify convergence rather than
to confirm or reject a predetermined hypothesis. The purpose of interpretation
in these large data sets is to gain insight, rather than to make a prediction, so
these studies resemble descriptive or correlation studies more than

Baldwin et al. (2015) identify three ways that big data can support evidence-
based practice:

Personalized medicine can be based on the integration of genomics
information with EHR data.
Knowledge dissemination can be optimized when real-time patient data
analysis is available to the clinician.
Big data analytics may eventually allow delivery of information directly to
patients, encouraging them to take a more active role in directing their own

In the future, the role of big data will become increasingly more important in
guiding practice as the characteristics of patients and effects of treatments are
assessed on a large scale across whole populations of patients. While these
large data sets do not enable researchers to perform true randomized trials,
they do provide data about relationships, correlations, associations, and costs
that can be invaluable in guiding patient care choices.

Data Management Procedures
During the development of the data collection tool, the researcher makes
decisions about the way data will be recorded, including the forms that will be
used and the procedures that the data collector will follow. Adequate time
should be allocated for data collection. Data collection inevitably takes longer
and is more difficult than anticipated. Problems should be expected by the
researcher, and procedures put in place to handle common issues that will
arise. For example, the data collectors need a procedure to handle incomplete
or incorrectly completed forms and questionnaires.

Before initiating data collection, the researcher must develop a codebook for
data definitions. Coding is the process of transforming data into numerical
symbols that can be easily entered into the computer. For example, a
researcher might code “gender male” as 1 and “gender female” as 2. Included
in the codebook are definitions of variables, abbreviations for variables, and
the range of possible values for the variables. In addition to the codebook, a
file is established that contains copies of all scales, questionnaires, and forms
used in the study.

Codebook: A guide for the qualitative analysis that outlines individual
codes with definitions, criteria for inclusion, and examples.


The original data forms as well as a copy of the database should be stored for
5 years. Storage of data serves several purposes. Most importantly, the data
are available to document the validity of the analysis and the published results
of the study. The data also may be used as secondary data for subsequent
studies or aggregate analyses.

Reading About Measurement and Data Collection
In the report of a study, the measurement section is generally identified in a
straightforward way and labeled “measures.” Other words may appear in the
heading, such as “methods and measures” or “measures and materials.” The
measures may be called “instrumentation” or “tests.” In any event, the
measurement section should be an easily identifiable part of the write-up. If
the measurement is complex, the write-up may have a separate section for
measurement procedures, which may be labeled as such or called “protocols.”
This section may describe the specific steps for measuring variables and may
include photographs or figures to support an objective process.

The researcher should summarize the concepts that were the focus of the
measurement. The instruments and their content should be clearly linked to
the research question and to the conceptual and operational definitions of the
variables. It is helpful to make a list of all variables, identifying those that are
descriptive, independent, and dependent.

At a minimum, calibration and/or internal reliability should be reported for any
instruments used in the experiment. The study becomes stronger as more
documentation of the reliability and validity of the instrument are provided. The
tests and their actual results should be reported; jointly they are called the
psychometric properties of the instrument.

If a survey is used, a separate section should describe the development of the
instrument as well as its pilot testing. Unless the properties of the instrument
have been determined, the results obtained with its use are suspect. Author-
developed instruments should be subjected to the same scrutiny as publicly
available tests. If the instrument has been used before, then information about
its reliability and validity should be provided with the description of the
instrument. The actual statistics should be reported, along with the names of
the tests that were run.

It is not uncommon to see instruments that, from a statistical standpoint, are
considered borderline acceptable. This does not mean that the researcher has
designed the measurement strategy poorly, but rather that strengths and
weaknesses of the measures have, by necessity, been balanced against each
other. Many factors in instrument use should be considered in addition to the
reliability and validity properties. Feasibility of administration, costs of
instruments, and the type of measures considered professionally acceptable
also drive the selection of an instrument.


The author of the research report may describe the instrument rather than
provide a copy, but this practice is not considered a weakness. The instrument
may be copyrighted or proprietary, or limitations on the length of publication
may preclude its inclusion. The author should give enough information that the
reader could determine how to obtain a copy of the instrument. The source of
instrument or a citation for its publication should be included.

Finding the data collection section of a research report should be relatively
easy. It is usually labeled “methods,” “procedures,” or “protocols.” The
description of the data collection procedure should be clear and complete
enough that a relatively well-informed reader should be able to replicate it.

Each protocol—whether it deals with the measurement process or the
documentation of the results—should be outlined. It is here that the researcher
should identify the data as primary or secondary. The protocol should outline
what was collected, who collected it, which instrument or questionnaire was
used, and how the data were recorded. If the researcher was not the individual
doing the actual data collection, the methods for training the data collectors
should be described.

Using Measurements from a Research Study
Research procedures may be applied to practice just as research findings are.
For example, instruments for measuring patient responses to interventions
may be used by the clinician to monitor the effectiveness of nursing
interventions, diagnose patient problems, and measure outcomes.

Bolton et al. (2009) conducted a literature search and reviewed the use of
measurement instruments as evidence in nursing practice. The evidence
commonly supported the use of patient risk-assessment tools to detect
complications and prevent patient harm. For example, prediction rules for risk
of falls or for early signs of oversedation can be extremely helpful in clinical
nursing practice.

Instruments should be reevaluated if they are applied to radically different
problems, populations, or practice settings than those for which they were
originally developed. For example, an instrument intended for the
measurement of anxiety may not be useful in a study of panic disorder.
Conversely, this instrument may measure preoperative anxiety as well as
anxiety disorder. Repeated use and testing of the instrument strengthens the
ability to apply the instrument to different problems.

An instrument should also be reevaluated before it is used in a different setting
than the original one. For example, an instrument intended for use in acute
care may not be applicable in a skilled nursing care setting; measures used in
inpatient settings may not be relevant to outpatient settings. Testing the


instrument’s properties in a new setting prior to its use can verify its
applicability in diverse settings.

Finally, an instrument should be rechecked before it is used in a different
population. Instruments written in English may not be reliable when translated
into another language, for example, and tests used with one age group may
not be effective with younger or older groups. Because the reliability and
validity of an instrument are specific to the sample used, these attributes
should be checked with a pilot test before application of the instrument to

Of course, the instrument itself should be acceptably reliable and valid before
its use is considered in any setting—either research or practice. Finding
suitable measures is also critical to creating valid nursing research projects.


A thorough description of the measurement procedures should
appear in the methods section.
The measures may be called “instrumentation,” “tools,” or “tests.” If
the measurement procedure is complex, it may have its own section
called “protocols” or “procedures.”
The measurement strategy should be explained in sufficient depth
that the reader could re-create the measure with accuracy. If the
instrument is a survey, an explanation of content and scales should
enable the reader to grasp the concepts measured by the survey.
Physiologic measures that are not standard may have
accompanying photographs or figures to depict the measurement
If a survey is used, a separate section may describe the
development of the instrument, any pilot tests that were conducted,
and the procedures for its completion by subjects.
Data collection methods should be easily identifiable and included
as a major part of the research study write-up. The description may
be concise, but it should provide enough detail that an informed
reader could replicate the data collection procedure.
Information about reliability and validity should be provided with the
description of the instrument.
Description of the psychometric properties of the instrument should
appear regardless of whether the instrument was developed
specifically for the study or was an existing tool.
If the data collection was complex, there may be a separate section
for procedures, which may be labeled as such or may be called
“protocols.” This section should describe the specific steps followed
for collecting and recording the data. On occasion, photographs may
be used if procedures are not easily described with words.


It is not unusual for the author to describe the instrument rather than
providing a copy; this is not a weakness. The survey may be
copyrighted or proprietary, or limitations on the length of the article
may preclude its inclusion.

The following considerations drive selection of instruments used in
research studies:

Reliability properties
Validity properties
Feasibility of administration
Acceptability for the subjects
Instrument costs
Professional acceptance of types of measures


❏ The instruments are clearly linked to concepts in the research

❏ Instruments and measures are described objectively.

❏ The reliability of the instrumentation is described and supporting
statistics are provided.

❏ The validity of the instrumentation is described and supporting
statistics are provided.

❏ A detailed protocol for the use of each instrument in the
measurement is described.

Creating Measures and Collecting Data
A strong measurement strategy involves a systematic approach to linking the
concepts in the research question to a specific manifestation as a measure.
This process begins by breaking down the research question into underlying
concepts. For each concept, an operational definition is written. An operational
definition gives a clear, unambiguous description of the steps needed to
quantify the characteristics of a population. Table 8.8 depicts the process of
translating a research question into operational definitions.

Table 8.8 Translation of a Research Question into Operational Variables



Concepts Operational Variables

Do patients in
hospice care
who report
fatigue have
more physical
symptoms than
similar patients
who do not
report fatigue?


Hospice care: Patients who have been admitted to a home-based
hospice care service based on a physician’s assessment that their
condition is terminal and they are within 6 months of death
Fatigue: Reports of feeling tired and/or drowsy that disrupt the
subject’s life, as measured by the Fatigue Disruption Score of the
Fatigue Symptom Inventory Physical symptoms: The number of
symptoms reported, as manifested by physical, emotional, mental,
or vigor scales of the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale

Once the concepts in a question are defined, a search for an existing
instrument is carried out. Although instruments may be found in many
locations, it is always best to start with a literature review. The literature can
help identify potential instruments and their psychometric characteristics as
well as point to experts in the field. The ideal situation is the discovery of a
suitable instrument that has already been validated and determined to be
reliable. When actual test statistics are reported, the researcher can be
comfortable using the instrument for measurement of similar concepts in
similar settings and patients. Finding an existing instrument is a highly efficient
tactic that reduces the complexity of a study. Using an existing instrument
makes the study consistent with previous studies and, therefore, easier to
compare via the systematic review process. Using standard measures helps
the study make a strong contribution to evidence-based practice. In addition,
grants and publications are often based on having credible procedures,
represented by strong, established measures.

It is rare, however, to find an instrument that meets the exact purposes of the
researcher. As a consequence, the efficiencies of existing, imperfectly
matched instruments must be balanced with the fact that they may be
outdated or may not measure the concepts of interest exactly. The selection of
an instrument always entails a balance between efficiency and accuracy.

The choice of the data collection method depends on the specific information
needed to answer the research question and the resources available to the
researcher. Given the wide variety of data collection methods available, the
nurse researcher must use a systematic approach to navigate the choices that
must be made in developing a strong data collection system. Harwood and
Hutchinson (2009) recommended the following steps, which can help the
researcher develop a sound data collection approach:

Define the purpose of collecting the data.
Select a feasible data collection approach.
Select a delivery method that is appropriate for the study design and the
Write realistic, reliable, and thorough protocols for collecting the data.


Design forms and instruments for collecting valid and reliable data.
Train staff in data collection methods and/or write clear instructions for
subjects to guide data submission.
Develop a plan to manage data and transfer them to analytic software.

SKILL BUILDER Develop a Strong
Measurement Strategy
Every measurement system has some inherent error— particularly
when the measure is applied to unique human beings in applied
settings. The following list highlights ways to minimize measurement
error through instrument selection and research design:

Select measurement instruments that have been developed and
tested over time. Look for measures that have been administered to
large, diverse samples and in multiple studies. Continued testing
and refinement of an instrument tend to decrease measurement
error, increase reliability, and ensure validity. Standard
measurement instruments also allow aggregation of results into
evidence-based practice.
Develop a custom instrument only as a last resort. Attempt to find an
existing instrument, even if it does not match the study goals
exactly. An existing instrument may be modified, a subset of items
or scales may be used, or questions may be added to customize the
instrument to the study. Be sure to contact the author for permission
before altering an instrument. These actions require that the revised
instrument be pilot tested again for reliability and validity.
Automate data collection. Use data from existing sources for
efficiency and quality. Develop data definitions to ensure the data
retrieved from different databases are identical in content.
Standardize the measurement methods. Develop guidelines for
using the measurement instrument, including verbatim instructions
to be given to subjects who complete surveys individually. Use
photographs and drawings if necessary; in addition, media such as
video demonstrations may be used to train data collectors. The
smaller the variability within measures, the stronger the reliability of
the measure.
Repeat measures. Efficiency can be increased even more if the data
collector has the capacity to measure several times and take a
mean value. This advantage must be balanced with the
disadvantage of the pretesting effect, which affects repeated
administrations of a test.
Train and certify observers and data collectors. Minimize the risk of
error from multiple raters by ensuring they maintain a consistent and
complete approach to data collection. Measure inter-rater reliability
and do not allow data collectors to conduct measures independently
until they have achieved a preset competency level.


Blind the data collectors. The Hawthorne and testing effects can
contribute to rater bias just as they can affect subject responses.
Data collectors who are unaware of group assignment will yield
more objective results with less inter-rater error.

The feasibility of a data collection approach is a practical, yet critical aspect of
measurement to be considered. The complexity of the study, the resources
available to the nurse researcher, the characteristics of the target population,
and the skills of the research team are all important when determining whether
a particular data collection system will be a realistic option.

The delivery method for data collection should be consistent with the goals of
the study and the research question. Qualitative studies typically involve focus
groups, interviews, or participant observation. Quantitative studies may use
biological measurements, surveys, questionnaires, or observation. Responses
to surveys and questionnaires may be collected via laptop computer, handheld
data device, paper-and-pencil tools, online data submissions, or social media.

Once a feasible approach and delivery method have been selected, the
researcher must write thorough protocols for the data collectors to follow.
These protocols should be clear and unambiguous; all steps of the data
collection process should be spelled out in detail. Asking an individual who is
unfamiliar with the research plan to carry out the data collection procedure can
be a useful exercise that reveals where the instructions are confusing or
unclear. The plan should be tested until the researcher is sure it cannot be

If the data are to be self-reported or an instrument will be self-administered,
then clear directions should be developed for the subjects. Writing the
directions in simple, straightforward language will support the completeness
and accuracy of the responses.

Forms for collecting the data also need to be developed. These may range
from questionnaires to surveys to entry logs. The forms should be self-
explanatory and efficient to complete. Training data collectors in the
procedures and use of the forms is essential to ensure the accuracy and
completeness of the data collected via these forms. Periodic monitoring for
quality control is necessary even when data collectors have been trained;
measures to ensure ongoing accuracy and completeness are particularly
critical in lengthy studies (Harwood & Hutchinson, 2009).

The final step of the data collection plan is the transfer of raw data for analysis.
The content of web-based or computer-based data entry systems is often
directly transfer-rable to analytic software programs. In contrast, data from
paper-and-pencil surveys and questionnaires must be entered manually to be


prepared for analysis. Quality monitoring for data entry errors should be a part
of the data management plan.

Qualitative research is generally not concerned with a measurement
strategy. In qualitative research processes, the researcher is the
measurement instrument, so reliability is directly related to his or her
skill at eliciting and describing information. Qualitative data are the
outcome of a naturalistic inquiry that bases results on the analysis of
meaning, generally in words; thus, there is little reliance on numbers.
Nevertheless, qualitative researchers are interested in the pursuit of
truth, and to the extent that data collection represents truth, qualitative
research is also concerned with sound data collection.

Summary of Key Concepts
Measurement is the process of quantifying characteristics that can answer
the research question. The measurement strategy involves defining the
research question in conceptual and operational terms and finding
instruments to express these characteristics as variables.
Data collected as primary data are solicited directly from the subject for the
specific purpose of the research study. Secondary data collection involves
retrieving information from data sets that were originally collected for
purposes other than the research.
Measurement error can be random or systematic. It may be due to human
factors, problems with the instrument, variation in procedures, or data
processing error. Random error is expected in a research study, but
systematic error will bias the results.
Reliability is a reflection of the consistency with which the instrument
records the measure. It may take the form of calibration with technology or
tests of reliability with other kinds of instruments. Instruments may have
internal reliability, reliability across subjects, reliability among raters, or
reliability over time.
Instruments must be reliable if they are to be valid. Validity indicates the
extent to which a measure accurately measures what it is supposed to
measure. Types of validity testing include content validity, construct
validity, and criterion-related validity.
The reliability and validity of an instrument are the most important
characteristics, and they should be documented in the research report.
Using an existing instrument is desirable for its efficiency and the capacity
to provide a comparison with existing studies.
Data collection methods are employed to gather information in a
systematic way. Data used in quantitative studies will be of a numeric
nature and subject to statistical analysis. Data used in qualitative studies
will be of a text-based nature and subject to coding.


The most commonly used types of data collection are physiologic
measurement, psychometric instrumentation, surveys and questionnaires,
interviews, focus groups, and observation.
The most widely used data collection method is the survey. In this
approach, a systematic measurement instrument is used to gather
information directly from respondents about their experiences, behaviors,
attitudes, or perceptions.
Other data collection methods include paper-and-pencil tools, online
means, computer-based technologies, social media, handheld devices,
audio-delivery devices, and mining of “big data.” Each has specific
advantages and disadvantages that should be aligned with the goals of the
research study.
Interviews and focus groups can help the researcher gather rich data
directly from the respondent and allow the researcher to explore topics as
they arise. The drawbacks of these methods are their time-consuming
nature and the demands they place on the facilitator’s skill level.
Qualitative research is concerned with discovering truth, so it focuses on
the trustworthiness of the data.

Retrieve the following full-text article from the Cumulative Index to
Nursing and Allied Health Literature or similar search database:

Girgin, B., & Cimete, G. (2016). Validity and reliability of the neonatal
discharge assessment tool. Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing,
21, 74–83.

Review the article, focusing on the section that describes the testing of
the instrument. Consider the following appraisal questions in your
critical review of this research article:

1. How did the authors determine the sample size needed for an
adequate test? Did they achieve an adequate sample size?

2. Which descriptive data were collected to test the instrument?
How did the authors minimize error in this phase of data

3. Which elements of reliability were tested? Were these the
appropriate tests for the proposed use of this instrument? Why
or why not?

4. The authors tested reliability more thoroughly than they tested
validity. Was the validity testing plan adequate? Why or why


5. Was the reliability of the instrument acceptable for application
as evidence for practice? Was the validity of the instrument
acceptable for application as evidence for practice?

6. How might this information be used to affect nursing practice?

Anastario, M., Chun, H., Soto, E., & Montano, S. (2013). A trial

of questionnaire administration modalities for measures of
sexual risk behavior in the uniformed services of Peru.
International Journal of STD & AIDS, 24(7), 573–577.

Balch, C. (2010). Internet survey methodology. Boston, MA:
Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Baldwin, J., Bootman, J., Carter, R., Crabtree, B., Piascik, P.,
Edoma, J., & Maine, L. (2015). Pharmacy practice,
education, and research in the era of big data: 2014–15
Argus Commission Report. American Journal of
Pharmaceutical Education, 79(10), 1–11.

Belisario, M., Jamsek, J., Huckvale, K., O’Donoghue, J.,
Morrison, C., & Car, J. (2015). Comparison of self-
administered survey questionnaire responses collected
using mobile apps versus other methods. Cochrane
Database of Systematic Review, Issue 7. Art. No.:
MR000042. doi: 10.1002/14651858.MR000042.pub2

Bolton, L., Donaldson, N., Rutledge, D., Bennett, C., & Brown,
D. (2009). The impact of nursing interventions: Overview of
effective interventions, outcomes, measures, and priorities
for future research. Medical Care Research and Review,
64(2 suppl), 123S–124S.

Brennan, P., & Bakken, S. (2015). Nursing needs big data and
big data needs nursing. Journal of Nursing Scholarship,
47(5), 477–484.

Brown, J., Swartzendruber, A., & Diclemente, R. (2013).
Application of audio computer assisted self-interviews to


collect self-reported health data. Caries Research, 47(1),

Buonaccorsi, J. (2012). Measurement error: Models, methods,
and applications. Norway: Chapman & Hall.

Callegaro, M., Manfreda, K., & Vehovar, V. (2015.) Web survey
methodology. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Carle, A. (2010). Mitigating systematic measurement error in
comparative effectiveness research in heterogeneous
populations. Medical Care, 48(6 suppl), S68–S74.

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© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 9: Enhancing the Validity of

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Define internal and external validity as applied to research.
Explain why validity is an essential component of research that is to
be used as evidence.
Compare the concept of validity in quantitative research to the
concept of trustworthiness in qualitative research.
Identify threats to internal and external validity in quantitative
Determine threats to trustworthiness in qualitative studies.
Appraise strategies that will control threats to the validity or
trustworthiness of a research study.

Applicability and transferability


Audit trail


Consent effect

Effect size

Experimenter effect

External validity

Historical threats


Internal validity


Member checking

Multiple-treatment effect

Novelty effect

Population validity



Subject selection


Treatment effect


Type I error

Type II error

Whether developing a research study, reading a research report, or
contemplating the use of research findings, the challenge is to determine
whether the intervention or manipulation of the variables actually causes the
desired outcome or result. Internal validity refers specifically to whether the
researcher and the reader can be confident that an experimental treatment or
condition made a difference—and whether rival explanations for the difference
can be systematically ruled out. Internal validity is about the strength of the
design and the controls that were placed on the experimental situation. In
contrast, external validity refers to how generalizable the results are and to
whom. External validity is about applicability and usefulness of the findings.

Internal validity: The confidence that an experimental treatment or
condition made a difference and that rival explanations were
systematically ruled out through study design and control.

External validity: The ability to generalize the findings from a research
study to other populations, places, and situations.

For example, we might want to know if a particular exercise and diet program
results in a significant weight loss, and that no other reasons account for the
weight loss except the exercise and diet program. If the findings of this
research are credible and trustworthy, we will also want to know if the results
can be generalized to a different or larger population.

The seminal work on the minimal conditions necessary to provide adequate
evidence of a causal relationship between an intervention and an outcome
was first published in 1965. Called the Bradford Hill Criteria, or Hill’s criteria for
causation, this list of requirements can be daunting. While Hill’s criteria are still
widely accepted, their application is debated. Table 9.1 provides the full list of
Hill’s criteria.


To be used as evidence, research need not meet all of these criteria, as long
as some fundamental conditions are met. Before determining if a causal
relationship exists between the outcome and the intervention, these three
most important conditions must be met:

Changes in the presumed cause must be related to changes in the
presumed effect. If the treatment is changed in any way, the outcome will
change. In the example, if the exercise and dietary program are changed in
any way, the weight loss will change.
The presumed cause must occur before the presumed effect. In other
words, the treatment or intervention must occur before the outcome. The
weight loss must occur after the exercise and dietary program is
introduced. This may seem obvious, but many researchers hold up
correlational research as evidence of causal relationships. A correlation
means two events are related to each other—but tells us nothing about
sequence. This sequence must be verified before a causal relationship can
be established.
There are no plausible alternative explanations. No other factors could be
responsible for the outcomes. In the example, nothing can have occurred
that might have caused the weight loss except the prescribed exercise and
dietary intervention (Hartung & Touchette, 2009).

Table 9.1 The Classic Hill’s Criteria for Causality

Criteria Meaning

Strength (effect

While a small change does not mean there is no causality, a big change is
more likely to be causal.


Replication of findings by different researchers with different samples
strengthens the likelihood of an effect.

Specificity The more specific an association between an intervention and its effect, the
greater the probability it is a causal relationship.

Temporality The intervention has to precede the outcome.

Biologic gradient Greater levels of intervention lead to greater levels of an outcome.

Plausibility A theoretical link between the intervention and the outcome can be articulated.

Coherence Consistency between highly controlled laboratory results and those in applied
settings indicate causality.

Experiment Documented experimental evidence as demonstrated by statistical analysis
leads to a causal conclusion.

Analogy If similar factors have similar effects, causality is supported.

Data from Hill, A. (1965). The environment and disease: Association or causation? Proceedings of
the Royal Society of Medicine, 58(5), 295–300.


Minimizing Threats to Internal Validity
Good research designs reduce the possibility that alternative explanations for
the results might exist. These alternative explanations for the outcome are
often referred to as threats to internal validity. Several methods can be used to
minimize threats to internal validity:

Measurement or observation
Use of appropriate design
Control of bias
Statistical analysis

Measurement or Observation
Measurement or observation is one possible method to rule out threats to
internal validity. This method can demonstrate that the threat either does not
occur at all or occurs so infrequently that it is not a significant alternative
explanation. In a study designed to determine the effects of music on agitation
in a sample of hospitalized patients with dementia, for example, the music did
reduce agitation. An alternative explanation for this outcome may have been
the effect of visitors on these patients. However, observation and
measurement of the number and frequency of visitors could reveal that this
was a rare event for this sample.

Use of Appropriate Design
Most research questions can be examined using various designs. However,
some designs are not appropriate for dealing with the specific requirements of
a research problem. If the researcher wishes to determine whether music is
effective in reducing anxiety in patients undergoing radiation therapy over
time, a repeated-measures design might be effective, whereas a survey might
not reveal any significant effects of the music intervention. An observational
study might be appropriate if the researcher is concerned about the effects of
ibuprofen on activity levels in a population of senior citizens; however, the
same design will not be appropriate if the researcher is concerned with the
subjects’ perceptions of pain with activity. Choosing the correct design to
answer the research questions is fundamentally necessary to control threats to
internal and external validity.

Control of Bias
Good design is also dependent on the control of bias. Bias exists in all
research. It can occur at any time in the process and in any research designs,
and is difficult to eliminate— but it can be controlled (Smith & Noble, 2014).
Controlling for bias requires careful consideration of where bias might be
expected to exert effects in the research process. Bias is introduced into
research studies through five major areas:


As part of my graduate work, I participated in a research grant project
that examined the role of risk taking in work-based injury. The eventual
goal was to figure out a public health intervention to reduce risky
behaviors. We designed a descriptive study; the study was planned by
an interdisciplinary group of mental health therapists, public health
nurses, and occupational health physicians. Phase I of the study
involved recruiting men and women to assess their attraction to risk
behaviors so that we could establish a baseline of typical behaviors.
The baseline measures, then, would become the basis for determining
whether an intervention had an effect in Phase II of the study. The first
study was intended just to gather a descriptive baseline, so it seemed
pretty straightforward.

Subjects were recruited through a newspaper ad. We were offering a
small stipend in exchange for about an hour of time with noninvasive
data collection, so we expected we would get a pretty good response,
and we did. We were a bit concerned that a compensated subject might
not be representative, but we hoped to get a big sample size to
overcome that threat. We had good funding, so we were more
concerned about Type II error than we were about sampling error. We
scheduled more than 200 individuals for 20 different time slots over a 5-
day period. We planned to accomplish the data collection in “stations,”
where the subject would progress from one spot to the next to provide
all of the necessary data. With this process, we still needed five data
collectors present at any given time. The assessment was pretty
thorough and required the presence of a trained data collector, so it
was quite the feat to choreograph.

On the day of the first planned data collection, it began to snow. It
snowed so hard that the snowplows could not keep up, and businesses
and schools were closing left and right. We managed to keep our data
collectors around all day, but the subjects only started trickling in after
lunch. We got a lot of cancellation calls. We talked about canceling the
next day, but put off a decision until the morning. We figured if we could
get there, then clients could get there, too.

Only about half of our data collectors made it in, and we were actually
quite busy. It was clear, though, as the day progressed that we were
not getting a representative population. We were obviously not
collecting a baseline of risk-taking behavior in a public health
population. Instead, we were collecting data from young adult males
who owned four-wheel-drive vehicles and really needed 25 bucks. We
were studying risk-taking behaviors in a population most likely to take

The team had a quick consult and decided to stop the study, even
though resources had already been expended. We decided that the


flawed results were unlikely to warrant funding for Phase II and would
not serve to inform the following study. It was a terrible disappointment
to set it all up again—to back up and essentially start over. I thought,
“What bad luck.” It was a really well-designed study that was totally
derailed by the weather.

Glenna Andrews, DrPH, RN

1. Study design: When there is an incongruence between the aim of the
study and its design, the likelihood of bias is increased. This
disconnect may be due to the researcher’s personal beliefs or greater
familiarity with particular designs.

2. Selection and participation: The way the sample is selected and
assigned to treatment groups can introduce sampling error into a

3. Data collection and measurement: Measurement bias can occur when
assessment tools are not objective, valid, and reliable. Interviewing—a
common means of qualitative data collection—can be influenced by
bias in both question construction and the way the question is asked.

4. Analysis: It is a natural instinct to look for results that support a
preconceived notion of effectiveness. Selective reporting of data can
cause bias when data that are accurate but inconsistent with the
researcher’s beliefs are discarded.

5. Publication and dissemination: Studies are more likely to be published
if they have statistically significant findings. Qualitative studies can
suffer from publication bias when findings are not presented clearly
and in depth (Smith & Noble, 2014).

Blinding can minimize bias, but it is not always possible in all studies. Using
more than one observer or interventionist can help control for bias, but it can
also produce experimenter or inter-rater reliability effects. This is a common
problem that threatens the internal validity of research—protecting against one
type of bias has the associated effect of creating another type of bias.
Balancing the risk becomes a task for the researcher.

Self-selection bias can be a threat to a good design and can produce
misleading results. Differences exist between subjects who volunteer to
participate in a research study and those who are randomly selected, and
these differences may not be immediately apparent (Knottnerus & Tugwell,
2014). For example, the results of a study to determine the effects of prayer on
anxiety in presurgical patients might be skewed by individuals who pray
regularly. A carefully constructed demographic questionnaire might help to
reduce this threat.

A similar concern arises if subjects self-select into the control and intervention
groups. For example, subjects who believe that massage will benefit their joint


pain might choose to have the treatment, increasing the risk that a placebo
effect might occur. Conversely, subjects who are skeptical of the effects of
massage might elect to avoid the treatment, creating artificially negative
results. Randomization into groups can greatly reduce this risk.

A broad range of potential methods and designs exists, and each option
protects against some kind of bias (Savovic et al., 2012). Although
randomized controlled trials are commonly held up as the strongest in terms of
controlling bias, even they have potential sources of bias that must be
accounted for. When threats to validity cannot be eliminated or controlled, then
their effects must be quantified. Statistical analyses can help determine the
amount of error and variability that is introduced by uncontrolled threats to

Statistical Analysis
Statistical analyses can support the internal validity of a study by quantifying
the probability of Type I and Type II error. The reader can then determine if the
amount of error calculated for the study is acceptable, or whether the results
should be used only cautiously in practice. The researcher can also support
validity and clinical application of a study’s results by calculating and reporting
tests of effect size. Finally, valid conclusions are drawn when data meet the
fundamental assumptions of the statistical tests used to analyze them.

Determining the Probability of Type I and Type II Error
Before accepting results as evidence for practice, the probability that an error
was made should be evaluated. This assessment enables the researcher to
quantify the role of error in the outcome. There are two types of error: Type I
and Type II.

Type I error occurs when the researcher draws a conclusion that the
intervention had an effect when, in fact, it did not. Type I error usually reflects
weakness in the study design, because the cause of Type I error is usually an
uncontrolled extraneous variable. Type I error is considered a serious flaw and
threatens the overall internal validity of a study. An example of a Type I error is
the following:

Type I error: Often called alpha (α) and referred to as the level of
significance; the researcher erroneously draws a conclusion that the
intervention had an effect.

Two groups of students were taught statistics using two different
methods. The data indicate that Group A achieved significantly
higher scores than Group B. However, Group A included
subjects with higher math ability, and the teaching methods did
not make a difference. Drawing a conclusion that the teaching


method caused the result in this case is a Type I error. The
differences in the scores were not based on the teaching
methods, but rather were caused by extraneous variables
(previous math ability).

A Type I error is called alpha (α). The term level of significance is simply the
phrase used to indicate the probability of committing a Type I error. The
maximum acceptable level for alpha in scientific research is generally 0.05;
however, 0.01 may be chosen if the decision has important consequences for
treatment. Alpha is set by the researcher a priori, meaning before the
experiment begins. Its level is based on a thoughtful consideration of the
stakes of being wrong. For example, an intervention that is intended to
improve self-esteem might have an acceptable error rate of 5%; a test of a
tumor-killing drug might more appropriately have a 1% error rate. Alpha is
used as a standard of comparison for the p value, or the probability of a Type I
error, that is yielded by most inferential statistical tests. When the calculated
probability of a Type I error (the p value) is less than the acceptable level of a
Type I error (alpha), then the test is considered to be statistically significant.
Type I error is quantified, then, by the p value.

Type II error is the acceptance of a false null hypothesis or the statement that
there are no differences in the outcome when, in fact, there are differences. An
example of a Type II error is as follows:

Type II error: Often called beta (β) and related to the power of a
statistical test; the researcher erroneously draws a conclusion that the
intervention had no effect.

A study was conducted to determine whether breastfeeding or
bottle feeding contributed to greater maternal fatigue in the first
30 days after birth. The researchers were able to recruit 30
breastfeeding mothers into the study, but only 6 bottle-feeding
mothers consented to participate. No differences were found
between the groups. The research reflects a Type II error in that
a difference may have been present, but the small size of the
sample did not enable the researchers to discover it.

A Type II error is called beta (β). The probability of obtaining a significant
result is called the power of a statistical test; a more powerful test is one that is
more likely to detect an outcome of interest. Type II error can occur when an
experiment has insufficient power. It means that a treatment was effective, but
the experiment did not reveal this condition. The best way to control Type II
error is to ensure that the sample is large enough to provide sufficient power to
the experiment to illuminate the findings. Type II error is calculated as 1-beta,


or 1-power. For example, if the sample enables the researcher to document
90% power, then the probability of Type II error affecting the outcome is 10%.

The nurse may consider the question, “Which type of error is worse?” In health
care, Type I error is generally considered more serious; such an error will lead
the researcher to believe an intervention is effective when it is not. Focusing
solely on tight controls of Type I error, however, means that significant findings
may be overlooked. The relationship between Type I and Type II error is
paradoxical: As one is controlled, the risk of the other increases. Both types of
error should be avoided. Missing the opportunity to apply an effective
treatment because its effects cannot be detected is unfortunate for patients
and researchers alike. The best approach is to carefully consider and control
sources of bias, set the alpha level appropriately, use an effective sampling
strategy, and select a solid design for the question. Getting all these elements
aligned requires a balancing of risks and benefits that is the task of the primary
researcher. Table 9.2 contrasts Type I and II errors and gives examples of

Calculating and Reporting Tests of Effect Size
Effect size must also be considered when evaluating the validity of a study.
Effect size refers to how much impact the intervention or variable is expected
to have on the outcome. Even though an experiment might yield statistically
significant results, these may not translate into clinically important findings. An
example of the impact of effect size is the following:

Effect size: The size of the differences between experimental and
control groups compared to variability; an indication of the clinical
importance of a finding.

Researchers want to determine the effects of aerobic exercise
on heart rate in a sample of subjects with chronic
supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). The researchers are
specifically measuring the relationship between aerobic exercise
and heart rate. If the relationship is strong, an effect will be
detected even with a small sample size. Conversely, if it is
determined that exercise has little effect on heart rate in patients
with chronic SVT, a much larger sample would be needed to find
any significant changes in heart rate in this study.

Large effect sizes enhance the confidence in findings. When a treatment
exerts a dramatic effect, then the validity of the findings is not called into
question. In contrast, when effect sizes are very small, the potential for effects
from extraneous variables is more likely, and the results may have less validity
(Diamond & Kaul, 2013).


Ensuring Fundamental Assumptions Are Met
Data analysis is based on many assumptions about the nature of the data, the
statistical procedures that are used to conduct the analysis, and the match
between the data and the procedures. Erroneous conclusions can be drawn
about relationships if the assumptions of the statistical tests are violated. For
instance, many statistical analyses assume that the data obtained are
distributed normally—that is, that the population is distributed according to a
normal or bell-shaped curve. If this assumption is violated, the result can be an
inaccurate estimate of the real relationship. Inaccurate conclusions lead to
error, which in turn affects the validity of a study.

Table 9.2 Type I Versus Type II Errors

Example Type I Error Type II Error

A study is designed to test the
effects of hydrotherapy on anxiety
during the first stage of labor. All
women who present to a single
birthing center are invited to
participate. Women are allowed to
choose whether they use

Anxiety is reduced in the
treatment group.BUT: All the
women who choose
hydrotherapy have a birth
coach present. Is the reduction
due to the hydrotherapy or to
another cause (e.g., having a
birth coach)?

Anxiety is not reduced in
the treatment group.BUT:
All the women who choose
hydrotherapy have a
higher level of anxiety prior
to labor.
Is the lack of response
because the hydrotherapy
does not work, or because
the mothers had more
anxiety to begin with?

A researcher tests the effects of a
virtual preoperative tour of the
surgical suite on postoperative
length of stay in the
postanesthesia care unit (PACU).
During preadmission testing,
patients are given an Internet
access code that enables them to
enter a virtual tour site. On
admission, the subjects are
assigned to a treatment group or
a comparison group based on
their self-report of completing the

Length of stay in the PACU is
shorter in the group whose
members used the virtual
preoperative tour.BUT: All the
parents who took the virtual
tour have personal computers
and a higher level of
socioeconomic resources than
the control group. Is the shorter
length of stay due to the virtual
tour or to factors related to
increased health because of
socioeconomic advantage?

Length of stay in the
PACU is no shorter in the
group whose members
used the virtual
preoperative tour.BUT: All
the patients who did not
take the tour experienced
previous surgery and so
were already familiar with
the surgical suite.
Is the length of stay no
shorter because the tour
did not have an effect or
because the control group
did not really need it?

A nurse evaluates the effects of
an evening backrub on the use of
sleeping aids. Patients are
randomly assigned to an
experimental group or a control
group. Patients in the
experimental group are given a
nightly backrub; patients in the
control group are not.

Patients who receive the
backrubs need fewer sleep
medications.BUT: During the
10 minutes that the backrub is
given, the nurses interact
quietly with the patients about
their concerns and treatment
issues. Is the difference due to
the backrub or the extra

Patients who receive the
backrubs do not need
fewer sleep
medications.BUT: Only 10
patients assigned to the
control group stayed more
than one night, so the
overall sample size was
fewer than 25 subjects.


attention and counseling of the

Was the lack of a
difference because the
backrub had no effect or
due to inadequate power
to detect a difference?

Factors That Jeopardize Internal Validity
A good research design controls for factors that might potentially jeopardize
the validity of the study results. A host of events and actions can threaten the
researcher’s ability to draw accurate conclusions about the effects of
interventions. If these characteristics are measurable, they may be called
extraneous variables. Many times, however, the effects of factors that affect
the trustworthiness of results are not detected until after the experiment is
complete, and they cannot be controlled or quantified.

The presence of factors that jeopardize internal validity does not necessarily
mean the study is a weak one; almost all studies have some rival explanations
for results. However, the rigorous researcher attempts to predict those factors
that might logically be expected to affect the outcome of the study and takes
action to prevent as many of their effects as possible.

Threats to internal validity may include the following:

Multiple treatments
Subject selection

Historical Effects
Historical threats refer to events or circumstances that occur around the time
of the introduction of the intervention or that occur at any time during data
collection. Although the event itself may be entirely unpredictable, it can be
expected to exert an effect on the subjects and, as a result, the study

Historical threats: A threat to internal validity because of events or
circumstances that occur during data collection.


Maturation Effects
Maturation in a research study is related to changes that occur in subjects
over time but are not a result of the intervention or attribute being studied.
Subjects can change for a variety of reasons, such as normal aging, physical
growth, acquisition of knowledge and skills outside the study variables, or
physical changes related to a disease process. For example, when studying
the effects of relaxation techniques on the management of pain in patients with
bone metastasis, the effects of the techniques will be minimized as the
disease worsens.

Maturation: A threat to internal validity because the changes that occur
in subjects do not happen as a result of the intervention, but rather
because time has passed.

Maturation is a particular concern in populations that are expected to change
over time and in longitudinal studies. For example, populations that include
children, individuals with chronic diseases, or the elderly are prone to the
effects of maturation, particularly if measures are taken over an extended
period of time.

Testing Effects
The threat of testing is related to the effects of taking a test and then retesting
the subject. Subjects can become more proficient at test taking based on
repeated experiences. For example, the effects of different types of
educational methods on the retention of skills necessary to manage central
lines in the intensive care unit could be measured with a knowledge test. If the
test were administered immediately following the instruction and then repeated
within 2 weeks, results may indicate there is a large difference in the retention
of knowledge and skills based on the educational method, so the conclusion is
drawn that the methods made a difference. However, the results may be due
to the subjects having seen the test before, rather than the effects of the
teaching method. Methods to reduce the risk of this threat include scheduling
the retesting at longer intervals and retesting subjects using a different test.

Testing: A threat to internal validity due to the familiarity of the subjects
with the testing, particularly when retesting is used in a study.

Instrumentation Effects
Instrumentation effects may occur because the instrument or data collection
device has changed in some way. This can also be a threat when the data are
collected by multiple individuals. In a study designed to determine if 3-year-old
males exhibit aggressive behavior more frequently than 3-year-old females in
a playgroup, for example, the observers may need to use specific criteria to
score or count aggressive behaviors. If Observer 1 scores any physical


contact as aggressive, but Observer 2 considers only hitting and kicking to
qualify as aggressive, the resulting data will not be valid. Instrumentation-
related threats can be reduced by training the observers carefully, using very
specific protocols, and testing inter-rater reliability.

Instrumentation: A threat to internal validity that occurs because the
instrument or data collection procedure has changed in some way.

Consent Effects
Sometimes those subjects who consent to participate in a study may be
different from those who do not consent in systematic ways, a factor known as
the consent effect. The differences between participants and nonparticipants
have been measured in multiple clinical trials and reported in at least two
systematic reviews. El Emam, Jonker, Moher, and Arbuckle (2013) found as
many as nine different demographic values that were different between those
subjects who consented to participate in a study and those who did not; these
variables clearly could introduce bias into a study. On average, in the
systematic reviews, slightly more than half of the potential subjects consented
to join the study (55.5%). This average dropped to 39% when subjects were
asked if their responses could be audio-recorded—an important consideration
in the design of qualitative studies, in which verbatim recording is often
employed (Henry et al., 2015).

Consent effect: A threat to internal validity that occurs because the
subjects who consent to the study may differ from those who do not in
some way that affects the outcome of the study.

Treatment Effects
Subjects may react to the treatment itself, even if it does not exert a
therapeutic effect. In this kind of treatment effect, the treatment itself may
elicit a response that cannot be differentiated from a physiologic response.
This threat to internal validity is the primary reason for the use of randomly
assigned control groups and comparison groups.

Treatment effect: A threat to internal validity because subjects may
perform differently when they are aware they are in a study or as a
reaction to being treated.

Sometimes subjects in a study may perform differently because they know
they are in a study. In such a case, changes occur in the subjects not because
of the intervention, but rather because the subjects behave differently than
they would normally—a phenomenon also referred to as the Hawthorne effect.


The Hawthorne effect has been documented extensively, yet little is known
about the conditions under which it occurs, the mechanisms and types of
effects, or the magnitude of these effects (McCambridge, Witton & Elbourne,
2014). It is so widely documented that it can be expected to exert some
influence in nearly every interventional study that is accompanied by some
level of informed consent.

As an example, consider an intervention designed to increase self-efficacy in
patients who receive chemotherapy. All subjects were recruited into the study
and randomized into either the intervention group or the control group. A
pretest measure of self-efficacy was administered to all the subjects. All the
subjects met with the researcher. However, the control group received written
literature about chemotherapy, whereas the experimental group received a
focused, structured intervention designed to increase self-efficacy. The
posttest revealed that subjects in both the control and experimental groups
demonstrated a statistically significant increase in self-efficacy, which could
have simply been related to the subjects’ awareness of being in a study.

The Hawthorne effect is of great concern if the researcher is in a position of
perceived authority—as in leadership studies or when physicians lead
research teams—so that subjects act in ways they perceive are desirable.
Because of ethical concerns, however, it is difficult to control for this threat.
Subjects need to be informed that they are in a study. Nevertheless, it is
possible, with institutional review board (IRB) approval, to inform subjects that
they are in a study but to be less explicit about what is being studied. The
consent rate has been documented to be lower when explicitly worded
consents are used (El Emam et al., 2013). In a study to determine the
correlation among suffering, self-transcendence, and social support in women
with breast cancer, for example, the instrument used to measure suffering was
called the Life Experience Index rather than a measure of suffering. The
concern was that calling it “suffering” might influence the responses.

Multiple-Treatment Effects
When multiple treatments are applied at the same time, it is difficult to
determine how well each of the treatments works individually. Perhaps it is the
combination of the treatments that is effective. Another concern is the effect of
the order in which the treatments or interventions are administered. This
concern about the sequence of events is particularly worrisome in
interventional studies, where confirmation that the independent variable
precedes the dependent one is important.

For example, a researcher might decide to study the effects of a skin cream
applied manually to prevent skin breakdown. The cream is applied using
circular massage. Patients receiving the cream treatment have a lower
pressure-ulcer rate than patients who do not. However, this difference may be
due to the act of massaging the area and not simply attributable to the


application of the cream. Multiple-treatment effects threaten validity because
they make it impossible to determine the unique contribution of each treatment
to the outcome.

Multiple-treatment effect: An inability to isolate the effects of a
treatment because multiple treatments are being used at the same

Selection Effects
Subject selection refers to the biases that may result in selection or
assignment of subjects to groups in a way that is not objective and equitable.
Selection effects can be exerted by the researcher through the sampling
strategy or by subjects during the recruitment period. The more specialized the
population under study, the more difficult it may be to recruit a representative
pool of subjects. In a study to compare two smoking cessation treatment
programs, for example, if Group A has 40 females and 10 males and Group B
has 56 males and 4 females, there may be gender differences in response to
the treatment programs. Randomization or random assignment to study
groups counters this threat.

Subject selection: A threat to internal validity due to the introduction of
bias through selection or composition of comparison groups.

Attrition refers to the loss of subjects during a study. For example, a
longitudinal study to examine the effects of different types of exercise on
weight loss began with 100 subjects but ended with only 44. Those who
stayed in the study may have been more motivated to exercise, or they may
have been more physically active before participating in the project. Other
subjects could have moved, become ill or injured, or been unable to continue
the study for a host of other reasons.

Attrition: A threat to internal validity resulting from loss of subjects
during a study.

Some attrition is expected in any study. This type of risk becomes a concern
when validity of the results is affected, such as when attrition is excessive or
when the loss of subjects is systematic. Attrition risk can be avoided by taking
the following steps:

Advising subjects of the time commitment in advance


Screening participants who might be likely to drop out of the study (e.g.,
those who have no computer)
Making it convenient to continue participating
Using technology-supported visit reminders
Providing upfront scheduling (Page & Persch, 2013)

If and when subjects do leave the study, the researcher should determine the
reason for their exit. An analysis and discussion of the reasons for attrition can
help the researcher determine if the loss from the subject pool will result in
systematic sampling error. For example, if all the individuals who leave the
study do so because their illness worsens, then the study will be left with only
those subjects who are less ill, so its internal validity will be compromised.

Factors That Jeopardize External Validity
External validity refers to the generalizability of the findings of the research to
other settings or populations. The researcher should ask, “Can these findings
be applied to other people or places?” For example, a study exploring the
relationship of smoking to physical activity might not obtain the same results
with a group of rural adolescents as it does with a group of adolescents from
an urban setting.

Population validity refers to generalizing the findings from the sample to a
larger group or population. For example, population validity is present if a
study conducted on a group of 100 adults can be generalized to all adults with
similar characteristics. If the sample is drawn from an accessible population,
rather than the target population, however, generalizing the research results
from the accessible population to the target population is risky. If the study is
an experiment, then potentially different results might be found with subjects of
different ages, ethnicities, or genders. A study of the effects of a support group
on suffering in a population of women with lung cancer, for example, might
reveal that subjects who attend support groups report lower levels of suffering
—yet those findings might not be applicable to a population of males or even
other females who are suffering due to causes other than lung cancer.

Population validity: The capacity to confidently generalize the results
of a study from one group of subjects to another population group.

The extent to which the results of an experiment can be generalized from the
set of environmental conditions created by the researcher to other
environmental conditions is sometimes called ecological validity. This issue is
a concern with experiments or interventional studies. Is the setting in which the
study was conducted similar to or different from other settings? The setting
may differ in terms of its geographic location, population characteristics, or
level of care. For example, results from a study completed in an intensive care
unit may not be generalizable to a rehabilitation unit.


Both population and ecological validity are important considerations when
appraising research as evidence for nursing practice. The nurse must
determine if the results are appropriate for application to a specific setting and
group; this requires consideration of the effect of threats to external validity
and the extent to which they were controlled.

Threats to external validity may include the following:

Selection effects
Time and historical effects
Novelty effect
Experimenter effect

Selection Effects
As could be surmised, the selection of subjects is the process that will most
strongly influence external validity. External validity is enhanced when subjects
represent the population closely, so using a strong sampling strategy will
enhance external validity. Sometimes, however, it may be impossible to gain
access to a broad representation of the entire population. For example,
suppose a researcher studying the effects of early ambulation on nausea can
recruit subjects from only a limited geographic area. The effects of the
location, setting, and types of patients who are accessible will subsequently
affect the breadth of generalizability of the results from that study. The way the
sample is selected, then, is a primary consideration in the evaluation of
evidence for application to a specific practice.

The electronic health record has introduced a new source of potential threats
to validity, particularly in regard to selection of subjects. Most studies have
data sufficiency requirements; in other words, a subject’s electronic record
must be complete to be included. Rusanov et al. (2014) discovered significant
bias toward sicker patients when sampling patients using a data sufficiency
requirement. Although this requirement limits missing data, it affects both the
type and the quantity of data that are subsequently collected.

Time and Historical Effects
Researchers should be cautious about transferring results obtained during one
time period to a different time period. The conditions for the two time periods
could be quite different. For example, the results of an intervention to teach
new mothers how to feed a newborn in 1995 will not apply in 2014. The length
of the hospital stay has been greatly reduced since the mid-1990s, and the
amount of teaching time available may make the teaching method used in the
older study ineffective.


Another threat to external validity is the amount of time it takes for an
intervention or treatment to take effect. It is possible that the effects of the
treatment or intervention might not become evident until weeks after the
intervention is administered. In such a case, a posttest conducted immediately
after an intervention might show no significant changes in the subjects. By
comparison, if testing is done in 3 months, significant changes may be
detected. For example, suppose an exercise intervention was introduced to a
sample of older adults. Quality of life testing was conducted after 2 weeks of
the exercise program but did not reveal any significant improvement in
reported quality of life. However, when the same subjects were tested 60 days
after continued participation in the exercise program, their self-reported quality
of life might be significantly higher.

Novelty Effect
It is possible for subjects to react to something simply because it is unique or
new. The treatment or intervention does not cause a change in such a case,
but the subjects respond to the novelty effect. In a study to determine if
online synchronous chat rooms were productive means to hold clinical
postconferences, the initial response of the students was very positive; in only
a few weeks, however, the attendance and response dropped dramatically.
Conversely, it is possible that subjects will not change because the
intervention is too new, but they will adjust to it over time. In the same project,
using asynchronous discussion groups was unsuccessful at the start of the
project, but as time passed, students adjusted to this method of conferencing
and participation increased significantly in terms of both quantity and quality.

Novelty effect: A threat to external validity that occurs when subjects
react to something because it is novel or new, rather than to the actual
treatment or intervention itself.

Experimenter Effect
It is also possible for subjects to react to the experimenter or researcher, such
that the results could be very different if another individual conducts the study
or applies the intervention. In a study of the sexual behavior of middle
adolescents, for example, the response rate was approximately 25%. The
researcher was a middle-aged Caucasian female, and the subjects were 15-
to 17-year-old African American males in a high school in a major urban area.
The surveys were incomplete, and the responses appeared to be random.
When the same survey was administered by a 22-year-old African American
male, the response rate was 88%, the surveys were completed, and the
responses were appropriate. Experimenter effects pose a threat to external
validity because the intervention may be effective only when applied by a
particular kind of individual.


Experimenter effect: A threat to external validity due to the interaction
with the researcher conducting the study or applying the intervention.

Balancing Internal and External Validity
It is the researcher’s obligation to design and carry out studies in a way that
maximizes both internal and external validity. However, just as the risks of
Type I and II errors must be balanced, so the researcher is also challenged to
find ways to control internal and external validity without compromising either
one. The paradoxical relationship between the two types of validity makes this
a formidable task.

Internal validity is supported by systematic, objective procedures carried out
on randomly selected, large samples in tightly controlled settings. A review of
the characteristics described in the previous sentence makes it clear that the
more internal validity is controlled, the more artificial the study becomes. This
artificiality limits external validity or generalizability. Nurse researchers function
in applied settings with subjects who do not often behave in prescribed ways,
and care is rarely delivered in laboratory settings. Finding a balance of control
and usefulness is a constant challenge for creating research as evidence for
nursing practice.

Trustworthiness in Qualitative Research
Many nursing research questions are best answered using a qualitative
approach. The intent of qualitative research is to interpret, rather than to test,
interventions. Qualitative research is sample specific and is not intended for
generalization. The concern for internal and external validity, then, is not as
paramount in the design of qualitative research.

Qualitative researchers are still concerned with representing reality accurately
and in searching for truth, so creating confidence in the researcher’s
conclusions is still important. That is where the simple comparisons end,
however. Qualitative researchers use different terminology, and there is
disagreement among researchers about the concept of validity in qualitative
research. Some believe validity is not compatible with the philosophy of
qualitative research, whereas others argue that efforts to produce validity
increase the credibility of the findings.

One set of authors found more than 100 sets of published criteria for the
assessment of qualitative trustworthiness (Schou, Hostrup, Lyngson,
Larsen, & Poulsen, 2012). They simplified the standards for evaluating a
qualitative study so that only four categories of quality criteria were applied to
assess the key elements of trustworthiness: credibility, transferability,
dependability, and confirmability. Even so, 30 individual rating items were
needed to draw conclusions about the usefulness of a study for application to
practice, and nurses had difficulty applying some items reliably.


The controversy over the credibility of qualitative research focuses on the
inherent bias in qualitative research and has led to a search for other means to
ensure the results of such studies can be trusted. Pareira (2012) suggests
that new standards for evaluating validity are needed in qualitative research.
She suggests a combination of standards that address both the strength of the
methods and the quality of the research experience. The terms “plausible,”
“believable,” and “trustworthy” are generally used when discussing the validity
of findings in qualitative studies; these terms reflect the premise that the
findings can be defended when challenged.

Some threats to the validity of quantitative studies jeopardize the validity of
qualitative studies as well. For example, the Hawthorne effect, selection
effects, and historical events may affect subjects in both types of studies.
Nevertheless, some unique factors must be considered when judging the
appropriateness of qualitative findings.

Although generalization is not a goal of qualitative research, the applicability
and transferability of the findings is of great interest as evidence for practice.
The researcher should provide an explicit description of the sample and
setting so the reader can decide if this research can be applied to other
samples. There is no test of significance in qualitative research. Instead, the
in-depth description of the characteristics of the subject/sample being studied
may allow one to conclude the extent to which it is comparable to other
subjects/samples. If the subjects and sample are comparable, then one would
be more comfortable transferring the results to other people or places. If it can
be argued that what is being observed does not depend on the context or
setting, then it might be transferred to other contexts. This conclusion enables
the nurse to use the results as evidence in a dissimilar setting with more

Applicability and transferability: The feasibility of applying qualitative
research findings to other samples and other settings.

Replicability enhances the trustworthiness of the results. The credibility of
qualitative studies is supported if findings are confirmed by others, much like
any other kind of research. However, this is not a simple process. Replicating
a qualitative study is very difficult to accomplish because the original study is
conducted in the natural setting, which will invariably change if the study is
carried out with other populations or in other places. Any attempts at
replication should be accompanied by a thorough discussion of the similarities
and discrepancies between the two study settings and populations.

Replicability: The likelihood that qualitative research outcomes or
events will happen again given the same circumstances.


The qualitative researcher can take specific action to enhance the
trustworthiness of the results and conclusions of such a study. A thoughtful
consideration of potential threats to credibility can help the researcher plan
reasonable methods to minimize their effects.

Strategies to Promote the Validity of Qualitative
Just as threats to validity must be considered and managed in quantitative
design, so factors that may jeopardize the credibility of qualitative studies
should be recognized and addressed. Qualitative research design is usually
an emergent process, however, so many decisions are made as the study
unfolds that will strengthen the reader’s confidence in the findings. Certain
characteristics are shared by all strong qualitative studies regardless of the
specific type of qualitative design.

The following methods promote the validity of qualitative research:

Prolonged or varied field experience
Use of verbatim accounts and triangulation
Participant feedback
Audit trail

Prolonged or Varied Field Experience
Whenever possible, qualitative researchers should collect data over an
extended period of time to allow the researcher to get an accurate picture of
the phenomenon being studied. For example, a study examining the work
environment in a critical care unit should account for the fact that the
atmosphere may vary from day to day and over the course of a 24-hour
period, as well as from nurse to nurse. Interviews to understand the
experience of working in critical care should be done at many different times,
on different days, and with different nurses to capture these variations.

Verbatim Accounts
Qualitative researchers should be careful to keep accurate field notes and to
report results as direct quotes to avoid making inferences. Descriptions should
be as close as possible to the participants’ accounts. This fidelity in reporting
ensures that the meaning that is captured is the respondents’, not the
researcher’s interpretation of it.

Triangulation is the researcher’s use of multiple sources to confirm a finding.
In other words, isolated incidents and perceptions should not be the basis for
drawing conclusions, but rather patterns of responses that appear frequently.
To meet this criterion, the themes will be identified in the words of several


respondents or identified in multiple ways (e.g., words, documents, and
observations). Cross-checking information and conclusions using multiple data
sources to increase understanding, use of multiple research methods to study
a phenomenon, and the use of multiple researchers can increase the
credibility of the results (Bekhet & Zauszniewski, 2012).

Triangulation: A means of enhancing credibility by cross-checking
information and conclusions, using multiple data sources, using multiple
research methods or researchers to study the phenomenon, or using
multiple theories and perspectives to help interpret the data.

Participant Feedback or Member Checking
The procedure for obtaining participant feedback, which is also called member
checking, involves discussing interpretations and conclusions with the
participants. Checking the accuracy of the observations directly with subjects
ensures that the researcher’s interpretations and observations reflect what the
participants actually meant. This step is essential to determine that the
researcher has captured the real meaning of the data and has not interjected
bias into the conclusions.

Member checking: A method of ensuring validity by having
participants review and comment on the accuracy of transcripts,
interpretations, or conclusions.

Bracketing the Researcher’s Bias
Qualitative researchers are less concerned with bias than quantitative
researchers are. Research conducted in an interpretive manner in a natural
setting has inherent bias that is expected and accepted in qualitative research
as long as it is not careless or excessive. Even so, the researcher should still
critically examine personal biases and inclinations that might affect
interpretation of the data.

Bracketing is a strategy used to control bias. A researcher who is aware of
his or her own biases and makes them explicit is less likely to succumb to
them—in other words, the effects of the bias are “put in brackets” so they can
be set aside. The researcher must also bracket any presumed knowledge
about a subject or topic during data collection and data analysis (Noble &
Smith, 2015). The researcher needs to be open to ways in which gender, age,
ethnicity, religion, politics, and other factors might affect the interview,
observations, or participation in the project. A qualitative study by nature is
unlikely to be 100% objective; however, efforts should be made to convince
readers that a high level of objectivity has been maintained.


Bracketing: A method of limiting the effects of researcher bias and
setting them aside by demonstrating awareness of potential
suppositions of the researcher.

Documentation of an Audit Trail
Documentation in qualitative research includes field notes and reports,
interpretations, and thorough descriptions and reports of feedback. Careful
records must be kept of each of these sources of information. In addition, the
emergent nature of the design requires constant decision making, with a
record of the rationale for each choice. This record of data and decisions
constitutes an audit trail that allows the researcher to describe procedures
and defend the results. A conscientious audit trail can also aid in replication of
the research in other settings or populations. Records should be accurate,
thorough, and complete. Strategies to ensure that these standards are met
include writing early and often, including primary data in the final report, using
rich descriptions, and getting frequent feedback on the documentation.

Audit trail: Detailed documentation of sources of information, data, and
design decisions related to a qualitative research study.

If the effects of an intervention are tested:

❏ Changes in the outcome are associated with changes in the

❏ The researchers clearly demonstrate that the intervention
preceded the outcome.

❏ The researchers identified potential rival explanations and
eliminated, controlled, or accounted for them.

To assess the role of bias:

❏ The researcher was blinded to group assignments.

❏ The primary researcher did not collect data.

❏ Subjects were selected using objective criteria and assigned to
groups randomly.

❏ If the research took the form of a qualitative study, the author
explicitly described a bracketing process.

Threats to internal validity/trustworthiness:


❏ Extraneous variables were identified and controlled.

❏ Historical events did not occur during the study that would affect
the outcome.

❏ Maturation was not an alternative explanation for the results.

❏ If testing and retesting were involved, the time interval between
tests was adequate to avoid a testing effect.

❏ Attrition from the study was not excessive or systematic.

❏ If a qualitative study, the author demonstrated:

Prolonged contact

Use of verbatim accounts


An audit trail

Threats to external validity/transferability:

❏ The sample was selected to maximize representativeness.
❏ The setting in which the study was done is adequately described
to determine applicability.

Reading a Research Study to Determine Validity
Unfortunately, there is no section of a research report labeled “Validity.”
Instead, the reader must evaluate the validity of the design and determine
whether the results obtained are believable. Nevertheless, it is possible to
analyze a report in a systematic manner to determine which potential threats
to validity exist, what the researcher did to control the threats, and whether
these efforts were successful.

Two places where the reader can find information about the primary controls
for validity are in the methods and procedures sections, where sampling,
measurement, and analysis are described. The way samples are selected,
responses are measured, and data are managed can all inhibit or enhance

Most authors will describe the factors that jeopardized validity from their point
of view. This description is usually found in the “Discussion” or “Conclusions”
section, but it may appear in a separate section labeled “Strengths and
Limitations.” The list of factors may not be all-inclusive and is often subjective.
Ultimately, it is the readers’ obligation to determine whether the results apply
to their patients and setting. Some studies will have very few threats that affect
them; others will have multiple threats. There is no magic number of


“acceptable threats.” Some threats are also more important or have more
damaging effects than others.

Replication of studies compensates for threats to internal validity. Studies that
have been replicated many times, yielding similar results, have the highest
level of validity and, therefore, constitute very strong evidence for practice.
Studies that aggregate and review multiple studies, such as meta-analyses,
systematic reviews, and integrative reviews, compensate for many threats to
internal validity and provide the strongest evidence for practice.

Determining whether the researcher has controlled threats to validity can be a
matter of judgment. Validity is an inexact concept that involves balancing
controls with the risks of making errors. Achieving this balance is demanding,
so weaknesses are inevitably discovered when a study is scrutinized. Because
validity is one of the key characteristics of a study that determines whether it is
strong evidence for practice, however, a critical eye is required. Internal
validity instills confidence that an intervention will produce an effect; external
validity means it can be used for the greater good; trustworthiness means
findings can be applied to broader groups. All are critical as evidence for
effective nursing practices.

Using Valid Studies as Evidence for Nursing
Determining whether the results reported in a research study can, or should,
be applied to nursing practice involves careful consideration of the validity of
the study. If a study is not valid, then the results that were reported cannot
reasonably be expected to occur in every setting. Many questions can be
asked to determine if the independent variable actually caused or affected the
desired outcome. Even when that answer is “yes,” the nurse must still decide
whether the results are applicable to a specific population.

The first order of critical analysis should be a systematic review of internal
validity in a quantitative study or of credibility in a qualitative study. If a study
has poor internal validity, then external validity cannot be achieved. Using a
systematic approach, the study is reviewed for threats to internal validity and
their effective controls. If a study is determined to have acceptable internal
reliability, then a careful consideration of external validity should precede
recommendations. The type of population and the setting should be carefully
reviewed and applicability to a specific practice setting evaluated.

For example, suppose an intervention designed to reduce the incidence of
falls is implemented in a long-term care facility. Fall data are carefully
documented before and after the intervention. The data reveal a statistically
significant decline in the number of falls on the study unit. However, the patient
age and level of infirmity were reduced at the time and the number of
unlicensed assistive personnel (UAP) was increased. The threat to the validity


of the study is obvious: A multiple-treatment effect makes it impossible to
determine which intervention had the result. Were patients less likely to fall
because they were not as sick? Were more UAPs available to provide
assistance? Or was the intervention alone responsible for the change? The
threats to validity in this study mean its application to practice is limited until
the study is replicated under more controlled circumstances.

If the study findings are, indeed, replicated several times, the nurse must still
determine if the population and setting are similar enough to apply the findings
to practice. The results of a fall study that was conducted in a long-term care
facility may not apply to a medical–surgical unit. Results that were generated
from a population of infirm elderly patients in a long-term care facility may not
apply to outpatient surgical patients. Even studies that are internally valid and
replicated may not be useful as evidence if the population and setting are so
specific that the results have limited applicability.

Considering the internal and external validity of studies is a key step in
appraising research for use as evidence in practice. Evaluation of threats to
internal and external validity makes up a major component of the assessment
process for determining the quality of a research study.

Creating a Valid Research Study
Designing a study that has strong validity or credibility is a challenge, even for
experienced researchers. The nature of applied nursing research means
human beings are involved, and humans’ involvement introduces a level of
unpredictability that makes it impossible to predict all threats to validity.
Nevertheless, some threats to validity have the potential to affect almost any
study. The conscientious research designer reflects on the most common
threats to validity and creates design elements to ensure that an appropriate
level of control is achieved. Table 9.3 describes common threats to validity
and methods to ensure their control.

Blinding the researcher to specific elements of the study can help reduce the
effects of bias. When the researcher is unaware of the group assignment of
subjects and cannot link subjects to data, then the potential for influencing the
outcome becomes much more remote. It may be necessary for the researcher
to completely remove himself or herself from the setting during data collection
to ensure that bias is controlled.

Selection effects are controlled almost exclusively through the way subjects
are recruited, selected, and assigned to groups. Paying careful attention to the
development of inclusion and exclusion criteria ensures that objective
rationales are available for leaving some individuals out of a study. Random
sampling and random assignment to treatment groups also have the effect of
minimizing selection effects.


Table 9.3 Common Threats to Internal Validity and Associated Control

Threat What It Is How It Is Controlled

History Events occur during the
study that have an
influence on the outcome of
the study

Random sampling to distribute effects across all

Maturation Effects of the passage of

Match subjects for age
Use analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) to
measure effects of time


Subject reactions that are
due to the effect of being

Unobtrusive measures Subject blinding Use of
sham procedures or placebos

Instrumentation Influence on the outcome
from the measurement
itself, not the intervention

Calibration of instruments Documentation of
reliability Analysis of inter-rater reliability

Attrition Subject attrition due to
dropouts, loss of contact, or

Project expected attrition and oversample
Carefully screen subjects prior to recruitment
Create thorough consent procedures so subjects
are aware of what will be expected of them

Bias Study is influenced by
preconceived notions of the
researcher or reactions of
the subject

Blinding of researcher, data collectors, and
subjects as to who is getting the experimental


Subjects are assigned to
groups in a way that does
not distribute characteristics
evenly across both groups

Random selection Random assignment
Matching of subjects Stratified samples

Treatment effects are more difficult to control, particularly for ethical
researchers interested in full disclosure. The Hawthorne or treatment effect
may be present even in descriptive and correlation studies. The use of control
groups or comparison groups can help ensure that any effects from
participation in the study are spread evenly among subjects. Using sham
procedures or comparing two interventions simultaneously can also control for
changes brought about by treatment effects.

Other threats to validity will almost certainly occur during an experiment, no
matter how well designed. The researcher has three basic ways to deal with
these threats:

Eliminate the threat. If a threat emerges that can be neutralized, removal of
the threat can enhance the validity of the study results. For example, a


researcher may ask research assistants to collect data if measures are
subjective and bias is a concern. By removing himself or herself from data
collection, the researcher has eliminated the effect he or she might have
had on measuring a subjective trait.
Control the threat. If a threat emerges that cannot be eliminated, the
researcher can employ methods to control its effects or distribute its effects
across all subjects or groups equally. For example, research to examine
the effects of childhood developmental delays on school success may be
affected by socioeconomic status. By matching all the groups on this
variable through stratified sampling, the effects of limited resources will be
distributed across all the groups equally, neutralizing its effect on the
Account for the threat. If a threat occurs that cannot be eliminated or
controlled, then the researcher must account for it in the write-up. All
studies have weaknesses and threats to validity; it is up to the reader to
determine if the weaknesses of a study outweigh its strengths. For
example, a researcher was studying the attitudes of school nurses toward
student violence when the Columbine High School shootings occurred.
This historical event dramatically changed the responses of the school
nurses. Although nothing could be done about the tragedy or its effects on
the research study, the author reported the data as “before the incident”
and “after the incident” and noted that it likely had an effect on the

When creating a study, the researcher must balance control of threats to
internal validity with the need to maximize external validity. Generalizability is
a key issue for research that is to be used as evidence. When a research
study becomes too highly controlled, its artificial nature limits the applicability
of its results to real-world populations. The researcher must balance each
element that strengthens internal validity with a concern to maintain as much
external validity as possible.

Summary of Key Concepts
An internally valid research study is one in which there is sufficient
evidence to support the claim that the intervention had an effect and that
nothing else was responsible for the outcome.
Specific conditions must be met to draw valid conclusions about causality:
The intervention is related to the outcome; the intervention preceded the
outcome; and rival explanations have been ruled out.
Threats to internal validity can be minimized by collecting data, using an
appropriate study design, and controlling bias.
Statistical analyses can be used to rule out rival explanations for an
outcome through the use of hypothesis testing, minimizing Type I and II
error, considering effect size, and ensuring assumptions are met.
When a researcher makes a Type I error, he or she has concluded that the
independent variable exerted an effect when, in fact, it did not. Type I error


is controlled by careful design and control.
A Type II error has occurred when the intervention had an effect but that
relationship went undetected. Type II error is primarily controlled with a
strong sampling strategy and achieving an adequate sample size.
Many factors can threaten internal validity, including history, maturation,
testing, instrumentation, consent effects, treatment effects, selection
effects, and attrition.
External validity refers to the generalizability of the findings of the study to
other populations or settings.
Threats to external validity include selection effects, time and history,
novelty, and experimenter effects.
The researcher must make decisions that balance internal and external
validity. As internal validity is more tightly controlled, it also becomes more
artificial and has less applicability to broad populations.
Qualitative research is judged by the trustworthiness and credibility of its
results. The application of understanding from qualitative studies comes
about through transferability and replication.
Strategies to promote the credibility of qualitative research include
prolonged contact, verbatim accounts and triangulation, member checking,
bracketing, and audit trails.

For More Depth and Detail
For a more in-depth look at the concepts in this chapter, try these references:

Bleijenberge, I., & Verschuren, P. (2011). Methodological criteria for
the internal validity and utility of practice oriented research. Quality and
Quantity: International Journal of Methodology, 45(1), 145–156.

Craig, P., Dieppe, P., Macintyre, S., Michie, S., Nazareth, I., &
Petticrew, M. (2013). Developing and evaluating complex
interventions: The new Medical Research Council guidance.
International Journal of Nursing Studies, 50(5), 587–592.

Crowder, S., & Broome, M. (2012). A framework to evaluate the
cultural appropriateness of intervention research. Western Journal of
Nursing Research, 34(8), 1002–1022.

Halbesleben, J., & Whitman, M. (2014). Evaluating survey quality in
health services research: A decision framework for assessing
nonresponse bias. Health Services Research, 48(3), 913–930.

Kumar, S. (2012). Conflicting research evidence in evidence-based
practice: Whose bias do you seek? Internet Journal of Allied Health
Sciences and Practice, 10(3), 10–13.

Malone, H., Nicholl, H., & Tracey, C. (2014). Awareness and
minimization of systematic bias in research. British Journal of Nursing,
23(5), 279–282.


Moon, M., Wolf, L., Baker, K., Carman, M., Clark, P., . . . Zavogtsky, K.
(2013). Evaluating qualitative research studies for use in the clinical
setting. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 39(5), 508–510.

Rothstein, M., & Shoben, A. (2013). Does consent bias research?
American Journal of Bioethics, 13(4), 27–37.

Retrieve the following full-text article from the Cumulative Index to
Nursing and Allied Health Literature or similar search database:

Aurore, T., Deltombe, T., Wannez, S., Gosseries, O., Ziegler, E., Dieni,
C., . . . Laureys, S. (2015). Impact of soft splints on upper limb
spasticity in chronic patients with disorders of consciousness: A
randomized, single-blind, controlled trial. Brain Injury, 29, 7–8, 830–
836. doi: 10.3109/02699052.2015.1005132

Read the study carefully, searching for evidence of threats to internal or
external validity. Pay particular attention to how the authors controlled
these threats. Consider the following appraisal questions in your critical
review of validity of this research article:

1. This study was a “single-blind” randomized trial. How does this
differ from a double-blind study? Which kind of bias might it
introduce into the study?

2. The sample was recruited from two different physical sites and
levels of care. Which kind of bias might this introduce into the

3. There were considerable inclusion and exclusion criteria for
sample selection. Which element of potential bias did each
criterion address?

4. How did the protocol protect against researcher bias?
5. How did the researchers isolate the effects of each treatment?

Which controls were in place to ensure any differences were
attributable to a specific treatment?

6. Which other explanations can you think of for the differences
between groups exclusive of the treatment?

7. Describe your level of comfort using these results as evidence
for practice. How might these results be applied to nursing
practice? What is the external validity— ecological and
population—of this study?


Bekhet, A., & Zauszniewski, J. (2012). Methodological

triangulation: An approach to understanding data. Nurse
Researcher, 20(2), 40–43.

Diamond, G., & Kaul, S. (2013). On reporting of effect size in
randomized clinical trials. American Journal of Cardiology,
111, 613–617.

El Emam, K., Jonker, E., Moher, E., & Arbuckle, L. (2013). A
review of evidence on consent bias in research. American
Journal of Bioethics, 13(4), 42–45.

Hartung, D., & Touchette, D. (2009). Overview of clinical
research design. American Journal of Health System
Pharmacy, 66(15), 398–408.

Henry, S., Jerant, A., Iosif, A., Feldman, M., Cipri, C., & Kravitz,
R. (2015). Analysis of threats to research validity introduced
by audio recording clinic visits: Selection bias, Hawthorne
effect, both, or neither? Patient Education and Counseling,
98(7), 849–856.

Knottnerus, J., & Tugwell, P. (2014). Selection-related bias, an
ongoing concern in doing and publishing research. Journal
of Clinical Epidemiology, 67(10), 1057–1058.

McCambridge, J., Witton, J., & Elbourne, D. (2014). Systematic
review of the Hawthorne effect: New concepts are needed
to study research participation effects. Journal of Clinical
Epidemiology, 67, 267–277.

Noble, H., & Smith, J. (2015). Issues of validity and reliability in
qualitative research. Evidence Based Nursing, 18(2), 34–

Page, S., & Persch, A. (2013). Recruitment, retention, and
blinding in clinical trials. American Journal of Occupational
Therapy, 67(2), 154–161.


Pareira, H. (2012). Rigour in phenomenological research:
Reflections of a novice nurse researcher. Nurse
Researcher, 19(3), 16–19.

Rusanov, A., Weiskopf, N., Wang, S., & Weng, C. (2014).
Hidden in plain sight: Bias towards sick patients when
sampling patients with sufficient electronic health record
data for research. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision
Making, 14(1), 51. doi: 10.1186/1472-6947-14-51

Savovic, J., Jones, H., Altman, D., Harris, R., Juni, P., Pildal, J.,
. . . Gluud, L. (2012). Influence of reported study design
characteristics on intervention effect estimates from
randomized controlled trials. Annals of Internal Medicine,
157(6), 429–438.

Schou, L., Hostrup, H., Lyngson, E., Larsen, S., & Poulsen, I.
(2012). Validation of a new assessment tool for qualitative
research articles. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 68(9),

Smith, J., & Noble, H. (2014). Bias in research. Evidence-
Based Nursing, 17(4), 100–101.


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Part IV: Research That Describes
10 Descriptive Research Questions and Procedures
11 Summarizing and Reporting Descriptive Data


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 10: Descriptive Research
Questions and Procedures

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Identify descriptive research designs and methods.
Examine the importance of design decisions in descriptive studies.
Compare the characteristics and applications of specific descriptive
Relate descriptive designs to evidence-based nursing practice.
Appraise a descriptive study for strengths and weaknesses.
Learn how to create a descriptive research design.
Determine how to use descriptive research designs as evidence for
nursing practice.

Case study

Correlation study

Cross-sectional design


Longitudinal study

Prediction study

Reversal designs

Single-subject design

Spurious relationship

Suppressor variable

Tests of model fit

There is an old saying that goes, “You cannot know where you are going if you
do not know where you have been.” The descriptive researcher might more
accurately say, “You cannot know where you are going if you do not know
where you are.” Experiments are the study of what may be; they are used to
investigate interventions that may be effective or nursing actions that may
prevent health problems. Descriptive research, in contrast, provides an


understanding of what is. Understanding the potential that an intervention has
for improving health must be based on an understanding of the conditions and
the people that will be affected by it. Often, in-depth knowledge of the current
state of affairs is necessary to hypothesize whether a change in practice is
warranted or even desirable.

The purpose of descriptive research is the exploration and description of
phenomena in real-life situations. In nursing practice, a descriptive design can
be used to develop theory, identify problems, make decisions, or determine
what others in similar situations are doing. Descriptive studies include a
purpose and a question; these designs do not, however, have a treatment that
is artificially introduced. Instead, descriptive research is the study of
phenomena as they naturally occur. Such research helps nurses describe
what exists, determine frequencies of occurrence, and categorize information
so effective nursing interventions can be put into place (Grove, Gray &
Burns, 2014).

Descriptive studies are designed to provide in-depth information about the
characteristics of subjects or a setting within a particular field of study. The
researcher may collect data in the form of numbers or words, and data
collection may be done via observation, measurement, surveys, or
questionnaires. A wide variety of descriptive designs are available to the nurse
researcher, but they all share one characteristic in common: No variables are
manipulated in the study. When data are collected as numbers, the descriptive
study is considered quantitative. Quantitative studies test theory by describing
variables and examining relationships. In contrast, qualitative studies typically
collect data in the form of words. This chapter focuses on quantitative
descriptive designs; the use of qualitative methods to answer descriptive
research questions is covered elsewhere in this text.

As the most basic research design, descriptive studies answer basic questions
about what is happening in a defined population or situation. They may help
the nurse identify existing health conditions, perceptions about an illness or
treatment, emotional or psychological responses, or the current distribution of
disease in a population. Descriptive studies can also help identify relationships
between variables, such as the association between a risk factor and a
disease. These studies are useful in determining the status of a population at
risk of developing a condition (Polit & Beck, 2012).

Descriptive research plays an important role in nursing. Descriptive studies
can be invaluable in documenting the prevalence, nature, and intensity of
health-related conditions and behaviors. The results of these studies are
critical in the development of effective interventions. In nursing, the only way to
understand the beliefs and values of different individuals and groups is to
describe them. This descriptive knowledge helps nurses develop interventions


that will benefit individuals, families, or groups and enable them to obtain
desirable and predictable outcomes.

The benefits of breastfeeding have been clearly established for both
infant and mother in terms of reducing infections, obesity, allergies,
diabetes, and some maternal cancers. Yet, in one international sample,
only three-fourths of mothers initiated breastfeeding at birth, and more
than half quit breastfeeding by 6 weeks postpartum. Of interest is the
subgroup of mothers who intend to breastfeed but discontinue this
practice in the first few days after birth. Understanding the reasons that
mothers either avoid initiating this feeding method or intend to
breastfeed but discontinue doing so is important in devising evidence-
based nursing strategies aimed at improving mothers’ success in
starting and maintaining this ideal feeding method.

Brown and Jordan (2013) conducted a survey of more than 600 new
mothers to examine breastfeeding cessation due to the birth experience
and/or obstetric interventions. Their specific aim was to explore the
differences in breastfeeding between mothers who had uncomplicated
vaginal delivery and those who experienced labor and delivery
complications. The authors used an exploratory cross-sectional survey
design to answer the research question.

Mothers were asked to complete an Internet survey in relation to the
birth and postpartum period of their youngest child. Babies who were
low birth weight or premature were excluded, so the infants in this study
were all of normal weight. The participants reported how long they
breastfed their infants—even if only partially. Mothers also reported
whether their birth experience was vaginal or surgical, and they
responded to an open-ended item inquiring as to whether they
experienced complications. Of the 602 women who responded to the
survey, 101 did not breastfeed at all. Of the remaining mothers, 284
initiated but stopped breastfeeding. These mothers were asked to
complete a 44-item questionnaire indicating their reasons for
discontinuing. These Likert-style questions were developed based on a
previous qualitative study and were piloted on a subsample of mothers
for reliability and validity. Approximately half of these participants
experienced a complication of labor—most frequently fetal distress,
assisted birth, failure to progress, augmentation of labor, severe
perineal tears, or postpartum hemorrhage.

The mothers were split into two groups—those who experienced a birth
complication and those who did not— and differences between them
were explored statistically. Mothers who experienced birth
complications breastfed for a significantly shorter duration than those
without complications. Specifically, surgical birth, fetal distress, failure


to progress, and postpartum hemorrhage were all factors associated
with shorter breastfeeding duration. The shortest time to discontinuation
of breastfeeding was associated with maternal pain and the use of

This study was a good example of a descriptive design in that it focused
on a relatively small number of variables and explored relationships
without attempting to determine cause and effect. Its results suggest
that subsequent studies could focus on the causal nature of birth
complications and ways that this effect could be mediated by nursing
care. The Internet survey design enabled the researchers to access a
broad sample of subjects, resulting in a large sample size. These
exploratory descriptive data can be useful in designing interventions for
new mothers, particularly those experiencing birth complications
(Brown & Jordan, 2013).

In nursing practice, a descriptive design can be used for the following

Develop theory
Identify problems
Make decisions
Determine what others in similar situations are doing

Descriptive Research Studies
As with any research study, the first step in descriptive research is to select a
topic of interest, review relevant literature, and formulate a research question
based on the identified problem. Descriptive research studies address two
basic types of questions:

Descriptive questions are designed to describe what is going on or what
exists. An example of a descriptive question is “What percentage of school-
age children are fully immunized in a school district?”
Relational questions are designed to investigate the relationships between
two or more variables or between subjects. An example of a relational
question is “What is the relationship between the immunization rate and
socioeconomic status in a school district?”

Table 10.1 Examples of Descriptive Research Questions and Designs

Type of

Typical Research Question

Descriptive What is nurses’ knowledge about best practices related to oral care?


Survey How are nurses involved in decision making about patient care, the work
environment, and organizational practices?


What are the differences in job satisfaction among nurses at different stages of their

Longitudinal What is the effect of urinary incontinence on the quality of life of long-term-care
residents over time?

Case study What are the appropriate assessments and interventions for a patient experiencing
paraplegia after heart surgery?


What were the responses of an individual with type 2 diabetes to culturally
appropriate counseling from a nurse?

Correlation What is the relationship between patient satisfaction and the timeliness and
effectiveness of pain relief in a fast-track emergency unit?

Predictive Can feeding performance in neonates be predicted by indicators of feeding

The descriptive research question includes some common elements. The
population of interest is specified, as is the phenomenon of interest. If the
question is relational, then two variables are identified. Because there is no
intervention, there is no comparison group or expected outcome. In turn,
descriptive research questions are relatively simple. It may be tempting to
include several concepts in a single question, but the well-written descriptive
research question focuses on a single concept. Multiple research questions
may be called for when several concepts are of interest in a single study.
Table 10.1 provides some examples of descriptive research questions.

A well-structured research question is the foundation for the determination of a
specific design. As with any research study, it is worth the time and effort to
consider the elements of the research question carefully because the details of
the study design will be guided by this question.

Characteristics of a Descriptive Design
Drawing good conclusions in a descriptive study is completely dependent on
the researcher’s ability to collect data that are both credible and complete. The
elements of a good descriptive design are intended to improve the probability
of obtaining accurate data and/or responses to questions. A strong descriptive
design should meet the following criteria:

Include procedures that enhance the probability of generating trustworthy
Demonstrate appropriateness for the purpose of the study
Be feasible given the resources available to the researcher and the existing


Incorporate steps that are effective in reducing threats to validity

The elements of a good design will help reassure the researcher that the
results are valid and trustworthy. Even though descriptive designs are among
the most basic studies, it is still important for the researcher to allow adequate
time for planning prior to conducting the research. A typical descriptive study is
used to acquire knowledge in an area where little research has been
conducted or when little is known about the condition under study. The basic
descriptive design examines a characteristic or group of characteristics in a
sample, although many variations on this theme are possible. Such a design
may be used for a pilot study or as the basis for designing more complex
studies. It is useful in establishing the need for and the development of future,
more intricate studies.

Fundamentally, descriptive designs can be classified as those that describe a
phenomenon or population and those that describe relationships. There are,
however, two additional ways to classify descriptive designs:

The number of subjects: Descriptive designs may involve the study of an
entire population, a sample, or multiple samples. They may also focus on
single subjects or individual cases. A case is not necessarily a single
individual, but rather a single subject. A subject may be defined any
number of ways. For example, the study of an individual person, hospital,
or city may all involve collection of data from a single entity.
The time dimension: Some studies explore data collected from a sample at
a single point in time, whereas others follow subjects or individual cases
over time.

Within each of these classifications are explicit designs that enable the
researcher to answer specific questions. The researcher will gain direction for
making design decisions by considering the nature of the research question,
the number of subjects that are appropriate and accessible, and the time span
of interest.

Describing Groups Using Surveys
Of all the various types of descriptive studies possible, the survey design is the
most commonly used. Surveys answer what, why, and where questions (Yin,
2013). Although the term survey design is commonly used to describe a study,
it is more accurately considered a data collection method used in general
descriptive designs. Surveys are used to collect data directly from respondents
about their characteristics, opinions, perceptions, or attitudes. As part of this
design, questionnaires or personal interviews are used to gather information
about a population. A survey can be an important method for gathering data
for both descriptive and relational studies. It can be used to answer questions
about the prevalence, distribution, and interrelationship of variables within a
population. Survey designs can be applied at a single point in time, or


responses can be gathered over an extended time span. When this method is
used, the researcher should obtain a survey sample large enough to represent
the target population so the findings can be generalized. The generalizability
of the study findings is a critical factor in ensuring their applicability in
evidence-based practice (Schmidt & Brown, 2012).

The purpose of asking questions is to find out what is going on in the minds of
the subjects: their perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, feelings, motives, and past
events. Surveys are used to discover characteristics of people and learn what
they believe and how they think, by collecting primary self-reported data.

Two types of questions may be included in surveys. The first type focuses on
facts, allowing the researcher to obtain information about events or people.
The second type focuses on words (rather than numbers) that express
feelings and perceptions to give meaning to a phenomenon or event (Schmidt
& Brown, 2012).

The following are the four major steps in designing a general
descriptive survey:

1. Select an appropriate sample.
2. Plan and develop instrumentation.
3. Administer the instrument and collect data.
4. Analyze the findings.

Survey Study Methods and Procedures
Designing a general descriptive survey proceeds through four major stages:

1. Selecting an appropriate sample
2. Planning and developing instrumentation
3. Administering the instrument and data collection
4. Analyzing the findings

The planning phase includes choosing a survey mode, which may be a
questionnaire or an interview. During this phase, the instrument is selected or
developed; in the latter case, it is also pilot tested for reliability and validity.
The procedure for administering the instrument is described in a detailed
protocol, thereby ensuring the subjects receive instructions that are consistent
and unambiguous. Data are collected in an identical way from each subject so
that differences in responses can be attributed to differences in the subjects,
not variations in the administration method. Analysis of findings is
accomplished through the application of descriptive statistics.


A survey is a widely used method of descriptive data collection. Its popularity
reflects the fact that it is a relatively simple design that can be used to
investigate a wide range of topics. Surveys offer a systematic method for
standardizing questions and collecting data and can be an efficient means of
gathering data from a large number of subjects. Survey research can take the
form of an opinion poll, which can be completed on the Internet, by phone, or
in person. Internet access is expected to increase the use of Internet-based
research exponentially in the future (Tappen, 2011).

Strengths of Survey Studies
The use of a survey design offers many advantages for the researcher:

Survey content is flexible and the scope is broad.
Surveys are cost-effective methods for reaching large populations.
Subjects have a greater sense of anonymity and so may respond with
more honesty.
Questions are predetermined and standardized for all subjects, minimizing
researcher bias.
Large sample sizes are possible.
A large volume of data can be collected.

CASE IN POINT Survey Design
Lu et al. (2011), a group of bioengineers, wanted to build robots that
could assist therapists in providing upper-body rehabilitation therapy
after stroke. They wanted to find out the needs and preferences related
to this intervention directly from therapists, so they developed an online
survey. Their belief was that understanding the therapeutic
requirements for the devices could help them design robotics that could
be integrated more easily into clinical practice.

The researchers developed an 85-item questionnaire based on direct
observation of therapists’ practices. The survey queried respondents
about movement patterns, level of assistance required, types of
therapeutic activities, and accessibility. The survey was administered
online internationally through professional organizations and email list
services to physical therapists and physiotherapists. A total of 233
usable surveys were returned and analyzed.

The attributes that were deemed most desirable by the respondents
included facilitating a wide range and variety of arm movements, being
usable while seated, and giving real-time biofeedback to clients. In
addition, support for patients’ activities of daily living, which was thought
to enhance the devices’ usefulness in a home-based setting, was highly
desirable. Low cost was also highly rated.

This survey was typical in that data were collected directly from
respondents in an effort to understand their opinions about some


subject. In this case, engineers were trying to understand the needs of
therapists and patients so that they could build a useful robotic
assistant. The sample was well selected for the purpose, and a
sufficiently large group responded that these findings could confidently
be applied as evidence for this project.

Limitations of Survey Studies
Although surveys offer many advantages, there are also some disadvantages
associated with their use:

The information obtained may be superficial and limited to standard
A survey cannot probe deeply into complexities of human behavior or
explore contradictions.
Content is often limited by subject recall, self-knowledge, and willingness to
respond honestly.
Questions may be misinterpreted by subjects, resulting in unreliable
Respondents may respond with socially acceptable responses to sensitive
questions instead of honest answers.

The application of good design decisions can help maximize the advantages
and minimize the disadvantages of survey designs. The use of reliable, valid
instruments applied to large, randomly selected samples will result in the most
credible results from a survey design.

Describing Groups Relative to Time
Descriptive studies may focus on the characteristics of a population at a single
point in time or on changes within a population over time. Prevalence and
incidence studies are two types of descriptive studies from the field of
epidemiology (Polit & Beck, 2012). Prevalence studies describe the
occurrence of a disease in a population during a given time period. Incidence
studies describe new cases of a disease or condition during an identified time
period. Time-dimension designs are most closely associated with the
discipline of epidemiology, which investigates the distribution and
determinants of disease within populations. These populations are often
referred to as cohorts in epidemiology. Cohort studies examine sequences,
patterns of change, growth, or trends over time. By describing the
characteristics of groups of people at specific time periods, the researcher
attempts to identify risk factors for particular diseases, health conditions, or

Epidemiology: The investigation of the distribution and determinants of
disease within populations or cohorts.


When the cohort is studied at a single point in time, it is called a cross-
sectional study. If data are collected from the cohort at specific time periods
over a span of months or years, it is called a longitudinal study.

Cross-Sectional Designs
The cross-sectional design is used to examine simultaneously groups of
subjects who are in various stages of development; the intent is to describe
differences among them. Studies of prevalence, for example, are commonly
cross-sectional. A cross-sectional study is based on the assumption that the
stages identified in different subjects at the single point in time are
representative of a process that progresses over time. For example, a
researcher may select subjects who have risk factors but have not yet
developed a disease, subjects who have early-stage disease, and subjects
who have the disease in chronic form. Other common ways to group subjects
are by age or some demographic characteristic.

Cross-sectional design: Study conducted by examining a single
phenomenon across multiple populations at a single point in time with
no intent for follow-up in the design.

Cross-sectional designs are appropriate for describing the characteristics or
status of a disease and the risk factors or exposures associated with the
disease (Howlett, Rogo & Shelton, 2014). They can also be used to infer the
association between the characteristics of individuals and their health status.
In addition, such studies are used to answer questions about the way a
condition progresses over time when the researcher has access to a
population consisting of individuals at various stages of disease or when
longitudinal studies are not realistic. By definition, studies based on cross-
sectional designs involve more than single subjects; that is, they are used for

Cross-Sectional Study Methods and Procedures
In a cross-sectional design, the population of interest is carefully described.
The phenomenon under study is captured during one period of data collection.
Protocols guide the specific way in which data are collected to minimize bias
and enhance the reliability of the data. Variables must be carefully defined and
valid measures identified for each variable. Stratified random samples may be
used to ensure that individuals who have specific characteristics or who are in
various stages of disease are represented in proportion to their prevalence in
the general population.

Strengths of Cross-Sectional Studies
The use of a cross-sectional design provides the researcher with many
advantages, including the following:


Cross-sectional designs are practical and economical.
There is no waiting for the outcome of interest to occur.
These studies enable the exploration of health conditions that are affected
by human development.
The procedures are reasonably simple to design and carry out.
Data are collected at one point in time, so results can be timely and
Large samples are relatively inexpensive to obtain.
There is no loss of subjects due to study attrition.

Limitations of Cross-Sectional Studies
Although cross-sectional studies have many advantages, this design also has
some drawbacks:

The transitory nature of data collection makes causal association difficult.
Cross-sectional studies do not capture changes that occur as a result of
environmental factors or other events that occur over time.
It may be difficult to locate individuals at varying stages of a disease or
Cross-sectional designs are impractical for the study of rare diseases or
uncommon conditions.

Many of these limitations are overcome when a population is studied over
time, rather than at a single point in time. Cross-sectional studies are often
used as a starting point for a subsequent study carried out over time or as pilot
studies for more complex longitudinal designs.

CASE IN POINT Cross-Sectional Design
It has been said that “sitting is the new smoking,” in that the
cardiovascular and other risks associated with sedentary behavior are
becoming more apparent in the literature. Low levels of daily physical
activity are of particular concern in patients who have experienced
cardiovascular disease, as diminished activity has been shown to be
predictive of mortality in this population.

Buijs et al. (2015) set out to assess the quantity and quality of daily
physical activity among older patients who suffered from cardiac
disease or who had experienced a cardiac event. They used a cross-
sectional design to measure how physical activity changed over time
and through the different stages of recovery.

A population of patients were recruited and sorted into three groups: an
acute stage group, a rehabilitation group, and a maintenance group.
The subjects used a physical activity monitoring device to record their
data, which was measured continuously for 4 days. The researchers
found that most of the patients—no matter their stage of illness—were
not getting enough physical activity. The group in active rehabilitation


engaged in the most exercise, but even they were sedentary 70% of the
time. The acute and maintenance groups were statistically the same in
terms of their level of physical activity. Their findings point to the need
to continue support for physical activity in some way after cardiac
rehabilitation is complete.

This research was a typical cross-sectional study, in that a population
was selected that was experiencing various stages of a condition, and
variables of interest were measured at a single point in time. This
design enabled the researchers to describe a phenomenon at varying
stages of illness without dealing with the limitations and attrition of
measuring a group over time.

Longitudinal Designs
A longitudinal study follows one or more cohorts over an extended period of
time. These designs are powerful ways to assess the effects of risk factors or
the consequences of health behaviors. Longitudinal designs may answer
questions about the way that characteristics of populations change over time,
or they may quantify relationships between risk factors and disease.
Longitudinal designs are often exploratory, seeking to answer questions about
the nature of health conditions at various stages of human development. Such
studies help determine trends and the benefits of treatments over both the
short term and the long term. A cohort study tracks a group of people over
time to determine if their outcomes or risks differ (Polit & Beck, 2012). This
design is often called simply a cohort design, but it may also be known as a
panel design. Longitudinal designs by definition involve repeated measures
over time taken from the same group of subjects.

Longitudinal study: Study conducted by following subjects over a
period of time, with data collection occurring at prescribed intervals.

Cohort studies examine the following variables:

Patterns of change
Growth or trends over time

Longitudinal Study Methods and Procedures
The first step in conducting a longitudinal study is to specify an appropriate
population and the sampling procedures. A population is described in detail,
and a sample that has adequate power is selected from the larger population.
Power must be determined based not on the number of subjects who enter the


study, but rather on the number required to complete it, because substantial
attrition is expected over the extended time periods involved in longitudinal
studies. The best longitudinal studies rely on random selection of participants
to represent the population, although this is rarely a practical reality. Large
samples represent the population best, provide the highest level of confidence
in the findings, and compensate for the substantial attrition that is expected in
longitudinal studies.

As part of the longitudinal design, variables must be clearly identified and valid
measures identified for each. Reliable measures are extremely important in
longitudinal studies because the data will be collected repeatedly. Both
internal consistency and test– retest reliability are key considerations in the
choice of instrumentation for longitudinal studies to ensure consistency over

Researchers can use two strategies to collect longitudinal data: retrospective
or prospective. Retrospective studies are conducted to examine a potential
causal relationship that may have already occurred. In a retrospective study,
secondary data are used to obtain baseline measurements and information
about periodic follow-ups and outcomes of interest. The stages of a
retrospective longitudinal study are shown in FIGURE 10.1. The researcher
performs the following steps:

1. Identify a suitable cohort that has been evaluated in the past.
2. Collect data on the expected causal variables from past records.
3. Obtain data about the hypothesized outcome from past or current


The data are then analyzed to determine if there is a predictive relationship
between the past event and the outcome of interest.

If a research question is written in the past tense, it is generally a retrospective
study. Exploratory research questions about causal events can be answered
using a retrospective study method. An effective retrospective study is
dependent on access to accurate and complete data about a suitable cohort.
These data can be collected from several past time points (Tappen, 2011).

In contrast, prospective studies answer research questions written in the future
tense. Participants are enrolled at the beginning of the study and are studied
over time (Polit & Beck, 2012). Interventions, data collection, and outcomes
occur after the subjects are enrolled. The researcher recruits an appropriate
cohort and measures characteristics or behaviors that might predict
subsequent outcomes. As in retrospective studies, reliability of measures is
critical, as are procedures to reduce attrition of subjects. Due to the time
commitment required to complete longitudinal research, the researcher needs
to encourage participants to complete the study (Schmidt & Brown, 2012).


Loss of participants and inaccurate reporting of the losses may cause the
study results to be misleading if these factors are not accounted for properly
(Melnyk & Fineout-Overholt, 2011). The time periods at which data are
collected are predetermined and based on a solid rationale.

FIGURE 10.1 Stages of a Retrospective Longitudinal Design

FIGURE 10.2 Stages of a Prospective Longitudinal Design

FIGURE 10.2 depicts the stages of a prospective cohort design. The
researcher performs the following steps:

1. Recruit a sample from an identified population.
2. Measure the hypothesized predictor variables.
3. Measure outcomes at predetermined follow-up times.

The researcher can expect that a large volume of data will be collected over
the life of the study, so procedures for data management should be
considered in study planning.


CASE IN POINT Longitudinal Design
Mental health disorders are common during pregnancy and in the first
postpartum year, affecting between 14% and 23% of women overall
(Gordon, Henderson, Holmes, Wolters, & Bennett, 2016). The most
common diagnoses during these periods are depression and anxiety,
and these conditions increase the risk of complications for both mother
and baby. Low-income women and minorities are at higher risk for
these conditions—some sources estimate that the perinatal incidence
of depression and anxiety is nearly 50% in these populations—yet they
are also among the least likely to get appropriate treatment.

A group for researchers believed that the use of patient-centered
eHealth tools could help these women avoid mental health issues
during pregnancy. They recruited a group of low-income pregnant
women through a clinic at a major medical center, all of whom had a
history of depression in pregnancy. The women’s providers were
included in the study as well. The researchers used a longitudinal
design in which meetings occurred monthly, and the participants
provided feedback in the design and use of eHealth tools. The outcome
was an app that provided suicide prevention feedback, a patient
decision aid for supporting treatment decisions, a screening tool for
worsening symptoms, and support for high-risk women after discharge.

This study involved an unusual application of a longitudinal design, in
that women’s mental health was measured over time while they
participated in the development of support tools. The highly engaging
approach to data collection resulted in low attrition, which is usually the
major weakness of this type of study.

Strengths of Longitudinal Studies
The use of a longitudinal design provides the researcher with many
advantages, including the following:

Longitudinal studies can capture historical trends and explore causal
Retrospective longitudinal studies are cost-effective and cost-efficient.
Prospective longitudinal studies can document that a causal factor
precedes an outcome, strengthening hypotheses about causality.
Prospective studies provide the opportunity to measure characteristics and
events accurately and do not rely on recall.

Limitations of Longitudinal Studies
Longitudinal studies also have some significant limitations:

The principal disadvantages are attrition rates and the potential loss of
subjects over time.


Retrospective longitudinal studies are dependent on accurate, complete
secondary data or the subject’s ability to recall past events.
Once a longitudinal study is begun, it cannot be changed without affecting
the overall validity of the conclusions.
Prospective longitudinal studies are expensive to conduct and require time
and commitment from both subjects and researchers.
Conclusions may be based on a limited number of observations.
Large sample sizes are expensive to access.
Systematic attrition of subjects is possible due to the long-term
commitment required.

Substantial effort must go into the planning and execution of a longitudinal
study— whether retrospective or prospective—if the researcher is to draw
valid conclusions about the relationships between variables. Longitudinal
studies are quite useful in assessing potential causal relationships, but their
application is limited due to the difficulty of implementing them effectively.

Describing the Responses of Single Subjects
General descriptive designs involve evaluating the characteristics of groups of
individuals or the way that whole populations respond to events. These
designs allow researchers to draw conclusions about typical or average
responses. Of course, typical responses do not tell the nurse how a single,
unique individual may respond to a condition or a treatment. The study of a
single subject, in contrast, can be an effective means for discovering the ways
that individual people react to nursing practices and health conditions.

The purpose of studying single subjects is to assess individuals, with the
expectation of generalizing the findings about that person to other individuals
in similar situations or conditions. Single-subject designs may answer
exploratory questions or serve as pilot tests for later experimental designs.
Questions that focus on individual responses to treatments or health
conditions over time are well served with single-subject designs. These
designs attempt to explore real changes in the individual, which may be
obscured in traditional analyses of group comparisons. Single-subject designs
reflect what happens in clinical practice because nurses, as part of their plan
of care, focus on an individual and not a group. In addition, a single-subject
design may be the only approach possible for answering questions about
patients with rare diseases. These designs usually involve data collected over
time. Although they may actually include a small number of subjects, they are
by definition not representative of entire populations.

Two methods are used to study individual subjects: case study and single-
subject designs. A case study involves the meticulous exploration of a single
unit of study such as a person, family, group, community, or other entity. It is
purely descriptive, relying on a depth of detail and individual health data to
reveal the characteristics and responses of the single case. By comparison,


the single-subject design is essentially an experimental investigation using a
single case or single subject. Baseline data are collected, an intervention is
applied, and the responses of the individual are tracked over time. In essence,
the individual subject serves as his or her own control.

Case study: The meticulous descriptive exploration of a single unit of
study such as a person, family group, community, or other entity.

Single-subject design: An investigation using a single case or subject
in which baseline data are collected, an intervention is applied, and the
responses are tracked over time.

Case Study Designs
A case study is the thorough assessment of an individual case over time in its
real-life environment. This assessment may involve observation, interaction, or
measurement of variables. When the data collection methods are limited to
observation, interviews, documents, archived records, and artifacts, the
resulting data are expressed in words and the design is qualitative. Often,
however, the data that are collected are direct or indirect measures gathered
via instrumentation or questionnaires; these numbers are then analyzed using
quantitative methods. It is not unusual for a case study to involve a mixture of
data collection methods that are both qualitative and quantitative. In fact, a
characteristic of case study designs is that the number of subjects is small but
the number of variables measured is large. It is important to examine all
variables that may potentially have an effect on the situation (Burns & Grove,

Case study designs are effective for answering questions about how
individuals respond to treatment or react to health conditions. Questions
related to the effects of specific therapeutic measures can be addressed with a
case study, and this design is often used to demonstrate the value of a
therapy. The results of case study investigations are often applied as a
teaching vehicle; for example, the “grand rounds” method is often used to
introduce a practice via a demonstrated case. A case study approach can
illustrate life-changing events by giving them meaning and creating
understanding about the subject’s experience. These strategies can result in a
great depth of understanding about the phenomenon under study.

A case study is not intended to represent a population, but rather represents a
means to test a theory or demonstrate the effectiveness of a practice from a
unique and individual perspective. Often, the findings of a case study generate
hypotheses that can subsequently be tested in subsequent studies that yield
more widely generalizable results.


Case Study Methods and Procedures
The first step in a case study is obviously to identify an appropriate case. A
“case” may be defined in a number of ways. The most common case is an
individual, but a case also may be defined as a family, an organization, a
county, a department, or any number of other delineations. Case study
designs are often the result of opportunity—that is, a unique or unusual case
presents itself to the nurse, who takes advantage of the opportunity to conduct
an in-depth study over time. Case study designs may also come about through
careful consideration of the criteria that should be present in a subject to test a
theory, evaluate an intervention, or appraise responses to a condition over
time. Case study designs require commitment on the part of both researcher
and subject because these designs are longitudinal, and the subject is
followed for a lengthy time period.

The key variables that are of interest are identified, defined, and captured
through appropriate measures. It is important that these measures be stable
and reliable over time, because they will be applied repeatedly over the life of
the study. On initiating the study, the nurse researcher obtains a thorough
history so that observations can be compared to previous behaviors and
experiences. It is important to study as many variables in the situation as
possible to determine which might have an effect on the subject’s responses
and actions. Because large amounts of data are generated, a conscientious
data management plan is critical in the design of case study procedures.
Analysis is time consuming; it requires meticulous effort and can be difficult.
Measured changes must be quantified. In the most thorough case studies, the
themes and responses of the individual are reported in a holistic context. This
last element is one of the reasons why these studies often use a mix of

CASE IN POINT Case Study Design
Individuals with visual impairments are among the people most likely to
use a service dog, yet lack of experience or negative experiences with
dogs may create fear barriers for these persons so that they do not get
the full benefit of canine assistance. The authors of one research report
used a case study design to examine a process of using a humane
education course to improve the knowledge and skills of high school
students who were blind but who had resisted use of a service dog
(Bruce, Feinstein, Kennedy & Liu, 2015). The researchers used a
mixed method of measuring variables related to the participants over
time as well as measuring variables for the entire group at a single point
in time to determine effective ways of teaching young people with visual
impairments about working with dogs.

The researchers used pre- and post-intervention interviews to obtain
information about the students’ personal experiences and perceptions
about the dogs. They also used pretests and posttests to measure


knowledge; these tests were administered in the students’ strongest
reading formats. Video recordings were made that served as field
notes; they were subsequently analyzed using qualitative thematic

At the completion of the training, students were able to greet, feed, and
play with the dogs. They learned about equipment and the roles of
working dogs. The most effective instructional strategies were tactile,
and involved practicing routines and repetition. Correcting
misconceptions about dogs was also helpful, and all of the students
gained knowledge about their service animal.

This case study was typical in that a very small number of subjects was
studied in depth using mixed methods. Both quantitative and qualitative
data were analyzed. The results, while not generalizable, could be used
to generate hypotheses for future study, or to inform the care of
individuals with similar conditions.

Strengths of Case Studies
Some of the advantages of using a case study design include the following:

Case studies can provide in-depth information about the unique nature of
Responses and changes that emerge over time can be captured and
New insights can be obtained that can potentially generate additional

Limitations of Case Studies
Disadvantages associated with using a case study approach include the

There is no baseline measurement that can be compared with the
intervention outcome.
It is difficult to determine whether there is an improvement in outcome
because causation cannot be inferred.
Researcher objectivity is required when drawing conclusions, because
interpretation may potentially be biased.
Results cannot be generalized to larger populations.
A lengthy time commitment is required.

Single-Subject Designs
Single-subject designs are the experimental version of a case study. These
designs are used—as are case studies—to evaluate the unique responses of
individuals to treatments or conditions. Single-subject designs differ from case
studies, however, in that they are always quantitative in nature and involve


distinct phases of data collection. Graphic analysis techniques are used to
assess the data and draw conclusions. The organization of a single-subject
design is also more structured than a case study in the sense that there is a
specific sequence for measuring the baseline, introducing an intervention, and
evaluating its effects.

While large randomized trials do have many notable advantages when used
as evidence, many would argue that certain characteristics of single-subject
designs make them an important addition and alternative to large-group
designs. Single-subject studies may be more feasible, and more applicable to
real-life conditions, particularly when the acceptability of treatments or the
timing of responses is a primary question (Byiers, Reichie & Sumons, 2012).
This evidence is particularly helpful when compliance with a treatment
program is important. Single-subject designs are effective means of answering
questions about how a particular therapy will affect a single individual. The
patient’s response to a therapy or nursing practice can be evaluated without
implementing large-scale experimental designs or recruiting big samples.

Single-Subject Study Methods and Procedures
A single-subject design has three basic requirements:

Continuous assessment of the variable of interest
Assessment during a baseline period before the intervention
Continuing assessment of the responses of the individual after the

The length of the baseline phase is unique to each subject; baseline
measurements continue until the condition under study is stable. Because
changes in the subject must be attributable to the intervention instead of
random variability, stability in the measured variable is required during the
baseline phase before the intervention is initiated (Polit & Beck, 2012). Once
the intervention is initiated, measurement continues over an extended period
of time to capture trends or patterns that are assumed to represent a response
to the intervention.

A number of different single-subject case designs are possible, most of which
use a baseline phase and an intervention phase known as A and B,
respectively. Measurements are captured repeatedly before and after the
intervention. The most common single-subject design is referred to as the “AB”
design. In the AB design, a baseline period of measures is captured (A) until
the variable of interest stabilizes. An intervention (B) is then introduced, and
measures are continued for a prescribed period of time. Changes in the
subject during the B phase are considered attributable to the intervention; in
other words, the subject serves as his or her own control.


Because single-subject designs suffer from many threats to internal validity,
other designs can help mediate these threats. Reversal designs continue to
measure the individual’s responses as the intervention is withdrawn, or is
withdrawn and then reinitiated. The design includes a reversal phase following
the intervention. In the reversal phase, the intervention is withdrawn and
conditions revert to what they were prior to the intervention. If a trend is
identified in which a baseline is established, a change is noted after the
intervention, and the change reverts to the baseline after the intervention is
withdrawn, then the researcher’s conclusions about the effects of the
intervention are strengthened. These reversal designs may be identified as
“ABA” or “ABAB.”

Reversal designs: Single-subject designs that continue to measure the
response of the individual as the intervention is withdrawn or withdrawn
and reinitiated.

The analysis of single-subject data occurs primarily through visualization and
interpretation of the trends and patterns recognized in the subject’s data over
time. FIGURE 10.3 depicts a single-subject graph that demonstrates an
individual’s response to treatment.

FIGURE 10.3 A Single-Subject Graph

Single-subject designs include the following requirements:

Continuous assessment of the variable of interest
Assessment during a baseline period before the intervention


Continuing assessment of the responses of the individual after the

CASE IN POINT Single-Subject Design
Therapeutic horseback riding has been shown to have physical, social,
learning, sensory, and psychological impacts in patients with a variety
of disorders. Much of the research into this type of therapy has been
conducted with programs that deliver the treatment to individuals with
physical, social, or behavioral conditions. Holm et al. (2014) set out to
determine whether therapeutic horseback riding could help achieve
parent-identified improvement goals for children with autism spectrum
disorder. These researchers used a single-subject design to determine
if the therapy was effective, and to identify what “dosage,” or frequency,
was required to achieve a therapeutic effect.

Three boys with the identified disorder were recruited; their target
behaviors were identified, and counts of these behaviors were collected
in each phase of the study. The researchers measured the behaviors
first for a baseline period, and then over several weeks with horseback
riding “doses” of 1, 3, and 5 times a week. The treatment was then
withdrawn, and measurements were continued. Compared to the
baseline, 70% of the target behaviors were better during the
intervention, and most of this improvement was retained after the
treatment was withdrawn. Increasing frequency of therapeutic riding
was associated with the percent improvement.

This study relied on a typical single-subject design, in that target
behaviors were measured until a stable baseline was achieved, and
then those behaviors were measured repeatedly as increasing “doses”
of an intervention were applied. Continuing to measure after withdrawal
of the treatment demonstrated the sustainability of the treatment effect.
While not proof of cause and effect, the results of this study could be
applied to similar subjects with this very specific condition in this age
range. The study could also serve as a pilot for a larger randomized

Strengths of Single-Subject Studies
Single-subject designs have some advantages over population-based studies
when evaluating the effects of interventions:

Single-subject designs are especially useful in exploring behavioral
responses to treatment that might affect a patient’s preferences and


The unique responses of individuals can help the nurse determine whether
a particular therapy will be effective for a specific kind of patient.
Single-subject designs are flexible and involve multiple variations that may
answer an assortment of questions.
These designs explore real changes in the individual and can
simultaneously serve as feedback about progress for the patient.
Single-subject designs are easier to implement than longitudinal designs
that require large samples.
Single-subject designs provide intimate knowledge of a person’s cognition,
thoughts, actions, intentions, and environment (Polit & Beck, 2012).

Limitations of Single-Subject Studies
Although single-subject designs have many advantages, they also have some
significant limitations:

Single-subject designs are not generalizable to larger populations.
Single-subject designs are not considered sufficient evidence for a practice
Both researcher and subject must be committed to measures over time.

Even with these limitations, single-subject designs remain important in nursing
research. Although nursing practice often affects the health of entire
populations, it is also a profession that deals with people at their most
vulnerable—people who need to be treated as the individuals they are.
Understanding their distinctive responses, needs, and conditions can help the
nurse identify evidence for practice that is relevant from both a scientific and a
humanistic perspective.

Designs That Describe Relationships
By definition, descriptive research studies describe conditions as they exist.
Many of these studies focus on a single characteristic, phenomenon, or group
of variables. This emphasis does not, however, preclude describing the
relationships between variables. Descriptive designs may be used to examine
the relationships between variables in a single population or the relationship of
a single variable among several populations. When these relationships are
described in a quantitative way, the design is referred to as a correlation

Correlation study: A design that involves the analysis of two variables
to describe the strength and direction of the relationship between them.

Correlation studies may simply examine relationships among variables, or they
may focus on the use of one variable to predict another. The latter type of
study is called a prediction study. Likewise, tests of relationship or
association may be used to determine whether a theoretical model fits reality.


In other words, does a set of relationships exist in the real world in the way
they are hypothesized in a researcher’s model of reality? These studies
involve the most complex descriptive designs, and often blur the line between
descriptive and causal studies. In fact, these tests of model fit are often
described as “causal models.” Correlation and prediction studies are quite
common in nursing research, and they are valuable approaches for generating
evidence for practice. Tests of model fit are more rarely encountered due to
their complex nature and the need for large samples.

Prediction study: Research designed to search for variables
measured at one point in time that may forecast an outcome that is
measured at a different point in time.

Tests of model fit: Tests of association used to determine whether a
set of relationships exists in the real world in the way the relationships
are hypothesized in the researcher’s model of reality.

Descriptive Correlation Designs
Correlation studies are used to answer questions about relationships or
associations. They attempt to describe the strength and nature of the
relationship between two variables without explaining the underlying causes of
that relationship. These designs cannot lead to a conclusion of causality
because they do not meet the requirement for temporality. In other words, the
researcher cannot be sure which variable occurred first. Nevertheless,
correlation studies can still be quite helpful in nursing practice. Specifically,
such research can explain the strength and nature of relationships among
variables or groups (Schmidt & Brown, 2012).

Most commonly, a correlation study is used to quantify the relationship
between two variables in a single data set. For example, a correlation study
might be used to determine whether there is a relationship between waiting
room time and patient satisfaction. Correlation can also be used to determine
if there is an association between a single variable in two populations; for
example, a correlation study would be appropriate to determine whether
satisfaction scores of patients and of their families are related. In either case,
the design involves selection of an appropriate sample, measuring variables in
a reliable and valid way, and analyzing the results using the correlation

Correlation designs are useful and realistic for clinical research studies
for the following reasons:


These methods can be used to study phenomena or clinical
practices that cannot be manipulated, controlled, or randomized.
Data can provide a solid base for further experimental testing.
Results can serve as the foundation for designs about prediction.

Correlation Study Methods and Procedures
A correlation study is relatively simple to conduct. Criteria are developed that
guide selection of the sample, and then the variables of interest are measured.
In a correlation design, it is particularly important to have a representative
sample, so random samples are superior to convenience samples. To obtain a
true reflection of the variables being measured, large samples are needed.
Relying on small samples may limit the size of the correlation coefficient,
thereby underestimating the strength of the relationship.

Data collection in this type of study may be either prospective or retrospective.
Prospective data collection gives the researcher greater control over the
reliability and validity of measures, but it can be difficult and costly to
implement. Conversely, retrospective data collection from secondary sources
is efficient, but the data may not be reliable or may merely approximate the
variables of interest. Determining whether to collect data prospectively or to
gather data from secondary sources requires the researcher to consider the
balance between validity and efficiency.

CASE IN POINT Correlation Design
The rate of cesarean delivery has increased dramatically in some
industrialized countries. As many as half of high-income countries now
have cesarean delivery rates exceeding 25% of all births. These types
of births, when performed for unjustifiable reasons, may adversely
affect the health and well-being of both mother and baby. Because a
cesarean birth may result in a shorter gestation, babies may be born
preterm. In addition, because the baby bypasses the normal birth canal
and labor process, respiratory conditions may be more prevalent in the
neonate. Cesarean births have also been associated with lower rates of
breastfeeding and poorer quality of breastmilk.

Xie et al. (2015) took the high-level approach of studying birth data for
31 high-income industrialized countries to determine whether overall
infant mortality was correlated with the cesarean birth rate. They found
that both cesarean delivery and infant mortality rates varied widely
among the countries. In some countries, as many as half of all births
were surgical. Cesarean delivery rates were positively correlated with
infant mortality rates at a moderate level (r = 0.41), even after the data
were adjusted for age and infant gender. There was a spurious
relationship between cesarean delivery rates and preterm birth rates.


Thus, it would appear that the mortality problem is related to
prematurity as well as the mode of delivery.

This investigation was a typical correlation study in that the values of
one variable were studied for the strength (moderate) and direction
(positive) of the relationship with another variable. In this case, a clear
spurious variable (prematurity) emerged that could explain some of the
correlation. These results cannot be used as evidence that the mode of
birth caused the infant mortality, but it could serve as the basis for a
more rigorously designed study that could draw inferences about the
results attributed to cesarean births.

Strengths of Correlation Studies
Correlation studies are common in nursing research because they have
significant advantages:

Correlation studies are relatively uncomplicated to plan and implement.
The researcher has flexibility in exploring relationships among two or more
The outcomes of correlation studies often have practical application in
nursing practice.
Correlation studies provide a framework for examining relationships
between variables that cannot be manipulated for practical or ethical

Limitations of Correlation Studies
Correlation studies have some distinct limitations that have implications for
their use as evidence for practice:

The researcher cannot manipulate variables of interest, so causality cannot
be established.
Correlation designs lack control and randomization between the variables,
so rival explanations may be posed for relationships.
The correlation that is measured may be the result of a suppressor
variable—one that is not measured but is related to each variable in the

Suppressor variable: A variable that is not measured but is related to
each variable in the relationship and may affect the correlation of the

This last limitation is one of the most significant: Demonstration of a correlation
is not evidence of anything other than a linear association between two
variables. Researchers often make the mistake of attempting to establish


causality through a correlation study, reasoning that if two variables are
related, one must have an effect on the other. In reality, correlation studies
simply reveal whether a relationship exists between two variables; they cannot
identify which variable occurred first and cannot isolate the effects of one
variable on another—both conditions are required for causality. For example,
there is a correlation between the malnutrition level of children and the time
they spend in the Head Start program. Does this mean spending time in Head
Start causes malnutrition? Of course not; this relationship is a reflection of a
spurious relationship. In other words, some third variable—in this case,
poverty—is the likely source of causality of both variables, giving the
appearance of causality where none exists.

Spurious relationship: A condition in which two variables have an
appearance of causality where none exists. This link is found to be
invalid when objectively examined.

Despite their limitations, correlation designs are both common and quite useful
for clinical research studies. They offer a realistic set of options for
researchers because many of the phenomena encountered in clinical practice
cannot be manipulated, controlled, or randomized. When applied and
interpreted appropriately, correlation designs can provide a solid basis for
further experimental testing. Although correlation cannot be used to determine
causality, it can serve as the foundation for designs about prediction. In other
words, if one variable is associated with an outcome in a consistent way, is it
possible to predict the outcome for a given value of the variable? Answering
this question is quite useful as evidence for practice and is the basis for a
specific type of descriptive design—the predictive study.

Predictive Designs
Predictive designs attempt to explore which factors may influence an outcome.
These studies may be used when a researcher is interested in determining
whether knowing a previously documented characteristic (or set of
characteristics) can lead to the prediction of a later characteristic (or set of
characteristics). Predictive studies are sometimes called regression studies,
based on the statistical test that is used for analysis.

Predictive studies are good choices for addressing questions that concern the
ability to predict a given outcome with single or multiple predictor variables.
They are tremendously useful as evidence in nursing practice because their
results can be used to identify early indicators of complications, disease, or
other negative outcomes so that preventive actions can be taken. Specific
statistics that are generated from these studies can be used to predict an
outcome for a single individual, given some specific data collected about that
person. The tests used in predictive studies yield a statistic that enables the
researcher to determine how well the predictive model works in explaining the


outcome. Predictive studies can also be used to establish the predictive
validity of measurement scales. In summary, predictive study methods are
suitable for use with a variety of clinical questions.

Predictive Study Methods and Procedures
Predictive studies are very similar in design to correlation studies. The
population is clearly identified, variables are defined, measures are captured
with reliable and valid tools, and the data are analyzed and interpreted
appropriately. The primary distinction between correlation and predictive
designs is the type of analytic tool applied to the data and the interpretation of
the outcome. Predictive designs are analyzed using regression analysis, which
tests the predictive model for statistical significance and for explanatory
capacity. Predictive studies are also distinct from correlation studies in that
multiple predictors may be tested against a single numerical outcome, and
these predictors may be a mix of ordinal- and interval-level measures. Even
nominal data may be used if they are specially treated and coded in the
analysis procedure. This makes the predictive study one of the most useful
designs for clinical practice.

CASE IN POINT Predictive Design
Long-term glycemic control is a goal for young patients with type 1
diabetes mellitus. Jackson, Wernham, Elder, and Wright (2013)
wanted to determine the predictors that best identified those young
adults who would achieve and maintain long-term glycemic control. A
cohort of 155 patients who had type 1 diabetes and were between the
ages of 18 and 22 was recruited. This retrospective study used data
recorded over a 14-year period to analyze the predictor variables
associated with keeping HbA levels within normal limits.

Healthcare practitioners seek interventions that can prevent the long-
term effects of uncontrolled diabetes. The best indicator of long-term
glycemic control in the study participants was early achievement of
glycemic control, especially by the first year after diagnosis. The data
from this study suggest that the efforts taken in the first year post
diagnosis to control blood sugar pay off in the long run. As evidence,
this study helps identify the effective timing of an intervention.

This study was a typical predictive model, in that a range of variables
was measured for each subject and statistical techniques were used to
determine the best predictors. The authors note that further study of
these elements could lead to early detection and the development of
effective interventions to achieve and maintain long-term control of type
1 diabetes (Jackson et al., 2013).

Strengths of Predictive Studies



Predictive studies are quite useful as evidence for nursing practice because
they have significant advantages:

A great deal of information is yielded from a single set of data.
The results of the study can provide information about whole samples or
can be applied to individual cases.
A variety of levels of measurement may be used in the predictive model.
The studies are relatively simple to design and implement, and they are
The data that are used may be either prospective or retrospective.

Limitations of Predictive Studies
Despite their significant strengths, predictive studies have several drawbacks
that researchers must consider when applying them as evidence for nursing

Although prediction can be quantified, there is no assurance of causality;
suppressor variables may exist.
The researcher may “go fishing,” or explore large numbers of variables
without a focused research question, resulting in an increased error rate.
Regression analysis requires relatively large sample sizes, the need for
which becomes amplified as the number of variables increases.

Predictive studies have the advantage of helping nurses identify patients at
risk for subsequent health problems so that preventive strategies can be
implemented. Because they can quantify the relationships between variables
and outcomes, such studies are very useful as evidence for nursing practice.
When multiple predictors and outcomes are suspected, the nurse researcher
may hypothesize an overall model or a picture of relationships and
interrelationships between variables. These models can then be evaluated
using descriptive methods and procedures, which produces some of the most
sophisticated descriptive studies used as evidence for practice.

FIGURE 10.4 A Test of Model Fit

Model-Testing Designs

An extension of predictive designs is the model-testing design. Although
predictive designs quantify the relationship between a predictor and an
outcome, model-testing designs quantify the accuracy of a hypothesized
model of relationships and interrelationships. Model testing is the process of
hypothesizing how various elements in the patient care environment interact,
how these elements can be measured, and which paths of direct and indirect
effects flow from variables to outcomes. The model-testing design requires
that all variables relevant to the model be identified and measured. It also
requires a large sample size and very precise measurement of variables.
Notably, it requires that all variables of the model be measured (Burns &
Grove, 2011). The analysis examines whether the data are consistent with the
model. Model-testing designs represent the complexity of patient care
realistically and thoroughly. FIGURE 10.4 depicts such a model representing
the environmental demands on the nurse.

Model-testing designs are quite complicated to plan and implement, and their
analysis requires specialized software. The interpretation of model-testing
designs requires substantial statistical expertise, with very large samples
needed to achieve adequate power. For these reasons, they are not
commonly used research methods for nursing evidence. Such complex
designs are implemented to test hypotheses about complex relationships in
the patient care environment, and are often used to develop nursing theory.

Reading Descriptive Research
The first step in the critique of the methods and procedures of a descriptive
study is to determine the specific type of design used in the study. The design
is usually specified generically as “descriptive” in the abstract and introduction
of the study, and the specific type of descriptive design may appear there as
well. If sufficient detail is not given in the early parts of the research report to
determine the specifics of the descriptive design, the particulars should be
included in the methods and procedures section. Enough detail should be
provided that the reader can judge the researcher’s decisions related to the
specific design that was chosen. The type of design should answer the
research question and meet the intent of the researchers. Information on the
researcher’s rationale for selecting the specific type of study for this question
is helpful; a clear link between the purpose of the study and the type of design
used to achieve it should be apparent.

If detail about the type of study is lacking, then the reader may need to closely
examine the article for evidence of the type of design that was employed.
Clues to the specific design may be found in the research question or
objectives. Words such as describe, explore, observe, and document may
indicate that a straightforward descriptive design was used. When individuals
are referred to in the question, the study is likely a case study or single-subject
design; such studies are always descriptive and are not considered
experimental designs (regardless of how the author describes the design). If


the research question uses words such as relationship, association, or
prediction, then the study likely used a correlation design. No matter which
design was used, it should have a clear link to the research question, and the
specifics of the methods and procedures should match both the question and
the stated design.

Other clues can be deduced from the description of the sources of data and
the measurement procedures. If the only statistics that are reported are
descriptive (e.g., mean, median, standard deviation), correlative (e.g.,
correlation coefficient, Pearson, rho), or for regression (e.g., r-squared, beta),
then the study is descriptive, regardless of the author’s designation. If the
protocol for measurement involves record retrieval, abstraction of data from
patient charts, or access to databases, then the design is almost certainly
retrospective. If the protocol calls for recruiting subjects, then the study is

Scrutinize measures for documentation of the timing of data collection.
Collecting data at a single point in time clearly means the study is a general
descriptive, correlation, or cross-sectional study. In contrast, references to
periodic data collection indicate that the study is a case study, a single-subject
design, or a longitudinal study. Predictive studies may be of either type; it is
not uncommon for researchers to collect predictor variables at a single point in
time and outcome variables at some future point in time. The design of these
studies, however, is revealed by their almost exclusive reliance on regression
analytic techniques, so they should be identifiable from the type of statistics

Although space restrictions in journals may limit the amount of information the
author can provide about the study methods and procedures, a reasonably
informed researcher should be able to replicate the study from the information
provided. A descriptive study— although considered a basic design—should
still demonstrate a systematic and rigorous approach to implementation. The
population of interest should be defined, with inclusion and exclusion criteria
specified for sample eligibility. Methods for recruiting and/or selecting subjects
should be clear and unbiased; the reader needs to be watchful for signs of
researcher bias or selection effects. Confidence in the conclusions drawn by
the researcher and the capacity for generalizability are both dependent on a
strong sampling strategy.

Scrutinize the measurement procedure to ensure that reliable and valid
instruments were used to collect the data. The type of reliability that is
documented should be specific to the descriptive design. For example, cross-
sectional measures should have strong internal reliability because consistency
across subjects is most important. Conversely, test–retest reliability is a bigger
concern in longitudinal studies because stability over time is critical for drawing
valid conclusions in these investigations. If data were collected retrospectively,


look for operational definitions that ensure consistency in data retrieval.
Mention should be made of training for data collectors and checks for inter-
rater reliability if the study relied on multiple data collectors.

Finally, examine the conclusions section to ensure that the authors do not
overinterpret or make inferences that go beyond what the results can support.
Descriptive studies, at their most fundamental, can only describe. They may
suggest or imply causal relationships, but no descriptive study can confirm a
causal relationship. Making such a statement of causality is particularly
tempting for the authors of correlation studies. This reasoning is
understandable: If two variables are strongly related, then it is tempting to
conclude that one affects or causes the other. In reality, without the controls
that are inherent in an experimental design, and without a randomly chosen
comparison group, it is impossible to confirm all the conditions necessary to
establish true causality. The correlation documents the strength of a
relationship but does not identify which variable came first. In addition,
correlation studies do not allow the researcher to rule out rival explanations for
the relationship through the control of internal validity. Ultimately, a correlation
between two variables may represent the mutual effects of some completely
different variable.

Descriptive studies are some of the most commonly undertaken types of
research studies. With the preceding cautions in mind, they can be some of
the most useful research studies for providing evidence for nursing practice.
An understanding of the patient care situation as it exists can help the nurse
plan strategies that meet existing needs and have a high likelihood of
acceptance. Knowing what is can be a powerful means for creating innovative
solutions to achieve what can be.


A descriptive study is usually explicitly identified as such in the
abstract and early in the introduction of the article. It should be
described early enough that the reader can evaluate the information
that follows in the context of a descriptive study. If this information is
not found in the introduction, then it should appear in the first
paragraph of the methods and procedures section.
Research reports may not explicitly portray a study as retrospective,
even though these designs are very common in nursing research.
Conversely, a researcher will generally state explicitly that a
prospective study was conducted. The reader must scrutinize the
data collection procedure to determine if any of the data were
collected from secondary sources. Look for terms such as ex post
facto, which is commonly used to describe retrospective designs.
The specification of the descriptive design should be easily
identifiable and a major part of the research study write-up. The


explanation may be concise, but it should provide enough detail that
an informed reader could replicate the study.
The specific type of descriptive design (e.g., cross-sectional,
correlation, or single subject) should be detailed in the methods and
procedures section, even if the study has been identified generically
as “descriptive” earlier in the study.
If the measurement process is complex, there may be a separate
section for procedures, which may be labeled as such or called
“protocols.” This section may describe variables in detail as well as
the measurement procedures.


❏ The design is identified as descriptive in the abstract and/or the

❏ The type of descriptive design is specified in the methods and
procedures section.

❏ There is a clear and appropriate link between the research
question and the descriptive design.

❏ The rationale for selection of a descriptive study is specific and

❏ The primary variables of interest are clearly identified and

❏ The interpretation and conclusions are congruent with description
and do not imply causality.

❏ If the study is longitudinal, a rationale is provided for the timing of
data collection.

Using Descriptive Research in Evidence-Based
Nursing Practice
Descriptive research is not considered strong evidence for a change in nursing
practice, but rather is more often used to assess current practice (Schmidt &
Brown, 2012). Without the controls provided by experimental designs and
control groups, these types of studies cannot provide strong conclusions about
causality—a condition necessary for support of a nursing intervention.
Nevertheless, evidence-based practice in nursing relies on expert judgment,
clinical curiosity, and an understanding of patient preferences to design
appropriate and acceptable interventions: This is precisely where descriptive
research provides a great deal of value.


Descriptive evidence has many applications in nursing practice. Assessment,
diagnosis, care planning, intervention, and evaluation of outcomes all rely on
accurate description of phenomena, patient responses to care and conditions,
and the acceptability of treatments.

Though not considered the strongest evidence for a change in nursing
practice, findings from descriptive studies can be used to support the
following applications:

Assessment of patients and patient care
Identification of risk factors for disease
Care planning
Nursing interventions
Evaluation of outcomes

Assessment of Patients and Patient Care
Descriptive studies can help the nurse determine the distribution of risk factors
and disease in a population of interest. Of particular value is assessment of
the signs and symptoms that patients exhibit as they react to treatments or
respond to their health conditions. Predictive studies, for example, can help
the nurse identify early signals that a patient may be at risk for a health
condition or complication, so that preventive steps can be initiated. Case
studies and single-subject designs aid the nurse in understanding how
individual patients may respond to treatment and clarify the unique aspects of
individuals that may affect their response to an intervention.

Diagnosis of Patient Care Conditions
Descriptive studies familiarize the nurse with the kinds of conditions that may
present in a particular patient population, thereby supporting more accurate
diagnoses of their nursing conditions. Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies
help document the health needs of populations; model tests may also
illuminate the relationship between conditions and nursing diagnoses.

Care Planning
Thorough description of the health needs of populations and the responses of
individuals to care can help the nurse plan strategies to meet those patients’
needs. Descriptive studies are particularly helpful in the design of effective
patient teaching plans and health promotion activities. Individual compliance
with a teaching plan depends on the patient’s acceptance of the need for
change and willingness to incorporate new behaviors into his or her life.
Understanding the ways that individuals respond to health conditions can help
the nurse design plans that meet each patient’s goals more effectively.



Descriptive studies facilitate interventions that are acceptable to patients and
encourage compliance. A descriptive study can also detail the difficulties a
nurse might have in implementing an intervention or the barriers that exist to
changing a current practice. Case studies are particularly helpful in identifying
which processes a nurse might use to implement a change in evidence-based
practices or how a nurse was successful in helping an individual deal with his
or her health conditions.

Evaluation of Outcomes
Descriptive studies help the nurse identify the outcomes that are reasonable
and appropriate to evaluate after a treatment has been initiated or a health
condition identified. Patient outcomes based solely on nursing actions and
interventions are difficult to quantify because other care providers are also
performing treatments and interventions that may factor into the outcome
(Polit & Beck, 2012).

As part of their routine practice, nurses make decisions that have important
implications for patient outcomes. Understanding the health problems of
populations, the responses of individuals to health treatments and conditions,
and the processes that nurses may use to initiate change are key
considerations in evidence-based nursing practice. The diversity of descriptive
research is matched only by its usefulness. The nurse is well served by
reviewing descriptive research prior to planning interventions to maximize the
probability that actions will be effective, efficient, and acceptable to those who
are served by them. Descriptive research findings enhance both nursing
practice and the patient experience.

A Note About Pilot Studies
A pilot study is an intentionally smaller version of a study, which utilizes
a limited sample size or group of measures. Its primary purpose is to
test the methods and procedures of a study prior to full implementation
of that study. A pilot study can assess the planned study’s costs, time,
efficiency, and accuracy on a smaller scale. It may be used to test
instrumentation for reliability and validity or data collection procedures
for difficulties leading to inconsistencies. Grant-making agencies prefer
to see studies that have been fully or partially tested on a pilot level
before they dole out funding, because this step provides a level of
assurance that the researcher can accomplish the research plan.

Although a pilot study is ideally a prospective part of the research plan,
some researchers may wind up describing their study as a pilot
because of an unacceptable response rate, use of a sample size with
insufficient power, or inability to verify a measurement as reliable. In
this case, the author may “live and learn” from the study by using it as a
case study, in effect, to plan a more effective set of research


Creating Descriptive Research
Descriptive designs are common in nursing research and are some of the
most easily implemented studies. As such, they are appropriate for novice
researchers in both academic and clinical settings. The information generated
by a descriptive study can support evidence-based nursing practice—but only
if the researcher performed a rigorous study that produced valid, credible
results. “Descriptive” is not necessarily synonymous with “simple,” and it is
certainly not equivalent to “careless.” Thoughtful consideration of the elements
central to study design is needed before beginning a descriptive/correlation
research study. A systematic series of decisions must be made to design a
strong descriptive study:

Clarify the purpose of the study and carefully construct a research
question. It should be easy to provide a rationale for the selection of a
descriptive study based on the purpose statement and the wording of the
research question.
Identify a design that will answer the question in the most efficient, effective
way. The specifics of the design should be the result of careful
consideration of both the strengths and the limitations of the design, as well
as the skills and resources of the researcher.
Describe the population of interest, and determine inclusion and exclusion
criteria for the sample. Devise a sampling strategy that maximizes the
representativeness of the population and supports the external validity of
the findings.
Clarify the variables of interest and write operational definitions for each
before selecting measurement instruments. If multiple raters will be used in
the study, create a data dictionary so that all the data collectors will
understand what each variable represents. Use the operational definitions
to identify the appropriate measurement tools, not the other way around.
Identify a measurement procedure that will generate trustworthy data. If
instruments or tools are to be used, ensure that they possess the
appropriate psychometric properties for the specific study design that is
Manage the data collection process carefully. Methods should be
incorporated that will ensure reliability among raters, whether they are
retrieving data from records or gathering data directly from subjects. This
often includes training and observation for reliability before data collectors
function independently.
Design a process for maintaining the integrity of the data set. Specific
measures should be planned for restricting access and ensuring
confidentiality, such as use of password-protected files and locked file
cabinets. Incorporate periodic quality checks into the data management
Use the appropriate analytic tools for the question to be answered and the
types of data being collected. Consider the level of measurement of each
variable in selecting the specific statistical treatment.


Report the analysis accurately and completely; report each test that was
run, even if it did not contribute to the overall outcome of the study. This
reduces the potential for selective retention of findings—a threat to validity
of the study.
Draw conclusions that are appropriate for the intent of the study and the
results that were found. Although it is acceptable to note relationships that
are suggested or implied by the data—and certainly to pose additional
hypotheses that should be tested—descriptive studies can only describe.

Developing a design for a study will require careful attention to each of these
elements. The fact that a descriptive design is common and basic should not
lead the novice researcher to draw the conclusion that it can be accomplished
without a great deal of forethought and planning. Considering these details will
result in a stronger study.

Summary of Key Concepts
The purpose of descriptive research is the exploration and description of
phenomena in real-life situations.
Descriptive research designs are used in studies that construct a picture or
make an account of events as they naturally occur; the investigator does
not manipulate variables.
A descriptive design can be used to develop theory, identify problems,
provide information for decision making, or determine what others in similar
situations are doing.
Two basic types of questions are addressed with descriptive designs:
general descriptive questions and questions about relationships.
Additional ways to classify descriptive studies are according to whether
they involve groups of subjects or individuals and whether data are
collected at a point in time or periodically over time.
Retrospective studies rely on secondary data that have been collected in
the past, often for other purposes; prospective studies involve data
collection in the future for the express purpose of the study.
Survey research involves collecting data directly from respondents about
their characteristics, responses, attitudes, perceptions, or beliefs.
Cross-sectional studies describe a population at a single point in time;
longitudinal studies follow a cohort of subjects over an extended period of
Descriptive designs can be used to measure the responses of unique
individuals, either through case study or single-subject designs.
Correlation studies examine relationships as they exist or may use
variables to predict outcomes. These studies may also test models for their
fit with reality.
Although descriptive research does not enable the investigator to establish
cause and effect between variables, these studies are still valuable as
evidence for assessment, diagnosis, care planning, interventions, and


Retrieve the following full-text article from the Cumulative Index to
Nursing and Allied Health Literature or similar search database:

Codier, E., & Odell, E. (2014). Measured emotional intelligence ability
and grade point average in nursing students. Nurse Education Today,
34, 608–612.

Review the article, focusing on the sections that report the question,
design, methods, and procedures. Consider the following appraisal
questions in your critical review of this research article:

1. Why did these authors select a descriptive design relating to the
research purpose statement?

2. What is the specific descriptive design used by these authors?
3. Would you feel comfortable generalizing the results of this study

to all nursing students? Why or why not?
4. Which efforts were made to ensure reliable, valid measures

(e.g., operational definitions of variables, using instruments with
low error)?

5. What are the strengths of the design, methods, and procedures
of this study? Contrast them with its limitations.

6. Did the authors interpret the results correctly—that is, without
any over-interpretation?

Brown, A., & Jordan, S. (2013). Impact of birth complications on

breastfeeding duration: An Internet survey. Journal of
Advanced Nursing, 69(4), 828–839.

Bruce, S., Feinstein, J., Kennedy, M., & Liu, M. (2015).
Humane education for students with visual impairments:
Learning about working dogs. Journal of Visual Impairment
& Blindness, 7, 279–292.

Buijs, D., Ramadi, A., MacDonald, K., Lightfoot, R., Senaratne,
M., & Haennel, R. (2015). Quantity and quality of daily
physical activity in older cardiac patients. Canadian Journal
of Cardiovascular Nursing, 25(3), 10–16.


Burns, N., & Grove, S. K. (2011). Understanding nursing
research: Building an evidence-based practice (5th ed.).
Maryland Heights, MO: Elsevier Saunders.

Byiers, B., Reichie, J., & Sumons, F. (2012). Single subject
experimental design for evidence-based practice. American
Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 21, 392–414.

Gordon, M., Henderson, R., Holmes, J., Wolters, M., & Bennett,
I. (2016). Participatory design of ehealth solutions for
women from vulnerable populations with perinatal
depression. Journal of the American Medical Informatics
Association, 23(1), 105–109.

Grove, S., Gray, J., & Burns, N. (2014). Understanding nursing
research: Building an evidence-based practice (6th ed.). St.
Louis, MO: Elsevier, Saunders.

Holm, M., Baird, J., Kim, Y., Rajora, K., D’Silva, D., Podolinsky,
L., . . . Minshew, N. (2014). Therapeutic horseback riding
outcomes of parent-identified goals for children with autism
spectrum disorder: An ABA multiple case design examining
dosing and generalization to the home and community.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, 937–

Howlett, B., Rogo, E. J., & Shelton, T. (2014). Evidence-based
practice for health professionals: An interprofessional
approach. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Jackson, C., Wernham, E., Elder, C., & Wright, N. (2013). Early
glycaemic control is predictive of long-term control: A
retrospective observational study. Practical Diabetes, 30(1),

Lu, E., Wang, R., Hebert, D., Boger, J., Galea, M., & Mihailidis,
A. A. (2011). The development of an upper limb stroke
rehabilitation robot: Identification of clinical practices and
design requirements through a survey of therapists.
Disability & Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 6(5), 420–


Melnyk, B., & Fineout-Overholt, E. (2011). Evidence-based
practice in nursing and healthcare: A guide to best practice
(2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Polit, D., & Beck, C. (2012). Nursing research: Generating and
assessing evidence for nursing practice (9th ed.).
Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Schmidt, N., & Brown, J. (2012). Evidence-based practice for
nurses: Appraisal and application of research (2nd ed.).
Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Tappen, R. (2011). Advanced nursing research: From theory to
practice. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Xie, R., Gaudet, L., Krewski, D., Graham, I., Walker, M., &
Wen, S. (2015). Higher cesarean delivery rates are
associated with higher infant mortality rates in industrialized
countries. Birth Issues in Perinatal Care, 42(1), 62–69.

Yin, R. K. (2013). Case study research: Design and methods
(5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


© Valentina Razumova/Shutterstock


Chapter 11: Summarizing and Reporting
Descriptive Data

The study of this chapter will help the learner to

Interpret descriptive data when summarized as measures of central
tendency, variability, and correlation.
Use graphical presentations of descriptive data to understand
research findings.
Critique the appropriateness of statistics used to summarize
descriptive data.
Select appropriate statistical techniques to summarize and present
descriptive data.
Evaluate the results section of descriptive studies as evidence for
nursing practice.

Bar chart

Box plot

Coefficient of variation (CV)

Correlation analysis

Derived variable

Descriptive data



Line graph






Scatter plot

Standard deviation


Standardized score

Standard normal distribution


Summarizing descriptive data is the first step in the analysis of quantitative
research data. Because it is the first step, other steps depend on its careful
completion. When descriptive data are summarized correctly, they provide
useful information about participants in the sample, their answers to survey
questions, and their responses to study inquiries.

Descriptive data: Numbers in a data set that are collected to represent
research variables.

Analysis of descriptive data entails the use of simple mathematical procedures
or calculations, many of which are straightforward enough to be done with a
calculator. Yet, these simple numerical techniques provide essential
information in a research study. When it comes to descriptive analysis, those
persons evaluating research as evidence have different needs than do those
persons who conduct the research studies. The purposes of summarizing
descriptive data for readers of research include the following:

Giving the reader a quick grasp of the characteristics of the sample and the
variables in the study to understand its appropriate application as evidence
Providing basic information on how variables in a study are alike
(measures of central tendency) and how they are different (measures of
Conveying information about the study through numerical and graphical
methods to enhance understanding of the findings (Scott & Mazhindu,

The purposes of summarizing descriptive data for researchers include the

Reviewing the data set using frequency tables to check for coding or data
entry errors
Visualizing the descriptive data—particularly the shape of distributions—to
determine whether statistical assumptions are met for the selection of
appropriate statistical analysis
Understanding the characteristics of the participants in the study and their
performance on variables of interest in the study
Gaining an in-depth understanding of the data before inferential analysis


In quantitative research, a summary of descriptive data can be accomplished
using statistical techniques such as measures of central tendency, variance,
frequency distributions, and correlation. These statistics provide a method to
summarize large amounts of data from a research study through meaningful

Care must be taken by researchers who create descriptive reports; correct
statistical techniques must be selected for the data that have been collected.
The level of measurement of a variable is a primary consideration when
deciding which statistical technique to use to summarize descriptive data. In
addition, the report of descriptive data needs to be presented in the most
meaningful way—in other words, in a way that readers readily comprehend
and cannot easily misunderstand. The same principles apply to nurses who
use statistical techniques to summarize descriptive data in the clinical setting
—descriptive data must be analyzed appropriately and reported in meaningful
ways to others in the clinical setting. Of particular importance in evidence-
based practice is using descriptive data before and after implementing the new
practice; the questions of interest are “Does the evidence apply to the
population of patients for whom the facility cares?” and “Is the change
resulting in the desired outcomes?” (Melnyk, Fineout-Overholt, Stillwell, &
Williamson, 2010).

When reading the analysis of descriptive data, the appropriateness of the
statistical technique should be appraised. Even more critical, the
summarization of the data and the nurse researcher’s interpretation of the data
must be critiqued by the reader to determine the level of confidence in the
findings as evidence.

Treatments that are planned but not delivered are a serious source of
adverse events for patients in an acute care unit. Missed nursing care
may be even more serious in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU),
where even small departures from the plan of care can lead to serious
complications. Tubbs-Cooley and colleagues (2015) conducted a
descriptive study to determine the frequency and type of missed care
as reported by NICU nurses and the factors that may have contributed
to these omissions.

These researchers surveyed a random sample of certified NICU nurses
in seven states who provided direct care. They used an existing survey
—the MISSCARE Survey—that consists of three sections: questions
related to the characteristics of the nurses, questions about the
frequency and type of missed nursing care activities, and questions
about the possible reasons for the missed care. The data, which were
collected via a web-based survey, comprised both ordinal and nominal
(classification) data.


Tubbs-Cooley et al. (2015) reported the findings in tables with sufficient
information to determine both the typical values and the ranges of
responses. The ordinal data were represented in tables that allowed the
reader to see the actual counts and percentages for responses by item.
This helped support the credibility of the analytics and the interpretation
of the results.

A range of care activities was found to be missed. Most frequently
missed were routine rounds, oral care for ventilated infants, parent
education, and parental involvement in care and oral feedings. The
activities missed least often were reassuring—these NICU nurses were
particularly attentive to hand washing, safety, physical assessment, and
medication administration. The nurses reported the most common
reasons for missed care were the frequent interruptions and urgent
patient situations that arise in an intensive care environment. As would
be expected, unexpected upturns in patient volume and care intensity
were also reported as issues leading to missed treatments.

This evidence was presented well and the variables were measured
and analyzed appropriately. NICU nurses can use this information as
evidence in developing care plans and practice guidelines that enable
nurses to ensure that every patient gets every treatment needed, at the
time it is needed.

An Overview of Descriptive Data Analysis
Statistical analysis of descriptive data is conducted to provide a summary of
data in published research reports. These data serve as the starting point for
the reader to begin making decisions regarding the strength and applicability
of the research as evidence for practice in specific populations. Descriptive
data are derived from a data set to represent research variables for the
purpose of summarizing information about the sample and do not involve
generalization to a larger set of data such as the population. For example, a
data set could contain variables including ages of participants, years of
experience as a nurse, and scores on a job satisfaction instrument. Simply
put, descriptive statistics use numbers narratively, in tables, or in graphic
displays to organize and describe the characteristics of a sample (Polit, 2010).

Descriptive statistics involve a range of complexity, from simple counts of data
to analyses of relationships. The most commonly encountered descriptive
statistics are classified in the following ways:

Counts of data, expressed as frequencies, frequency tables, and frequency
Measures of central tendency, expressed as the mean, median, and mode
Measures of variability, including the range, variance, and standard


Measures of position, such as percentile ranks and standardized scores
Measures of relationship such as correlation coefficients
Graphical presentations in bar charts, line graphs, and scatter plots

The specific types of summary statistics that are applied to descriptive data
are driven by the nature of the data and the level of measurement of the
variable. It is important to apply as many descriptive techniques as necessary
to provide an accurate picture of the variable, rather than giving only a single
measure that may mislead a reader. For example, providing a percentage of
100% hand-washing compliance for a month may look very good, but if the
frequency count is omitted—especially if that count is n = 1—a complete
picture is not provided.

Understanding Levels of Measurement
The initial, and perhaps most vital, step in descriptive analysis is to identify the
level of measurement for each variable so as to choose the appropriate
statistical analysis. This decision is the responsibility of the researchers who
create descriptive studies and is an important point for critique by nurses who
read research reports. Data can be collected in one of four possible levels of
measurement: nominal, ordinal, interval, or ratio. Each level has
characteristics that make it unique, and each requires a particular type of
statistical technique. Table 11.1 shows descriptive statistical techniques that
are appropriate for each level of measurement.

Nominal-level data are those that denote categories and have no rank order;
numbers given to these data are strictly for showing membership in a category
and are not subject to mathematical calculations. Nominal data can be
counted, but are not measured, so they can be summarized using statistics
that represent counts. Fall precautions is an example of nominal data: Either a
patient is on fall precautions or the patient is not. Summary statistics
appropriate for this level of measurement are frequency, percentage, rates,
ratios, and mode.

Table 11.1 Levels of Measurement and Appropriate Summary Statistics

Level of

Distributions Central Tendency

Variability Shape

Nominal Frequency


Ordinal Frequency



Interval/ratio Mode Mode

Standard deviation




Ordinal data are also categories but have an added characteristic of rank
order. These data differ from nominal data in that the categories for a variable
can be identified as being less than or greater than one another. However,
because the level of measure is still categorical, the exact level of difference
cannot be identified. A pain scale, in spite of its representation as a series of
numbers, is an example of ordinal data. For example, while we know a score
of 7 on this scale is greater than a 5, the difference cannot be quantified. For
example, we cannot conclude that the difference between a 7 and a 5 on the
pain scale is the same as the difference between a 4 and a 2 on the same
scale; we simply know that one number is higher than the other. Further, we
do not know that a score of 5 for one patient is the same as a score of 5 for
another patient. The fact that the pain scale is represented by numbers also
does not necessarily mean the characteristic under study has been quantified.
In our example, we do not know exactly how much pain exists; it is just rated
against other experiences of pain for that patient. The patient’s score has
simply been ranked against all other values of the variable. Statistical
techniques appropriate for ordinal data include those appropriate for nominal
data plus range, median, minimum, and maximum.

Interval and ratio data are recorded on a continuous scale that has equal
intervals between all entries; length of stay is an example. Data collected on
interval or ratio levels result in numbers that can be subjected to many
mathematical procedures, including mean, standard deviation, variance, and
evaluation of the distribution (skew and kurtosis).

Identifying Shape and Distribution
Initial analyses of data are meant to help the researcher identify the
distribution, and therefore the shape, of the variable’s data. The outcome of
this analysis, coupled with the level of measurement, guides the researcher in
selecting the appropriate statistics to represent the variable’s center and

Summarizing Data Using Frequencies
Frequency is a statistical term that means a count of the instances in which a
number or category occurs in a data set. Frequencies are commonly used in
clinical settings; for example, a frequency might be used to document the
number of infections by surgery type, the number of patient falls by nursing
unit, or the number of nurses who leave in the first 18 months of employment.
In research, frequencies are used to count the number of times that a variable
has a particular value or score. A researcher may collect data on nominal-level
variables or ordinal-level variables and then generate a frequency count per
category to summarize the data. For example, if information about gender
were desired, two values (male and female) would be collected; the number of


participants in the study who were male and the number who were female
would be tallied.

Frequency: A count of the instances that an event occurs in a data set.

Frequency data can also be used to calculate percentages, rates, and derived
variables. A percentage is a useful summary technique that shows the relative
frequency of a variable. For example, if gender was measured as a variable
and there were 180 female participants in a sample of 400, the percentage of
female participants would be 45%. The number 45% is more meaningful as a
summary value than the frequency count because readers can tell quickly that
slightly less than half of the sample was female. To calculate the percentage in
this example, the number of female participants is divided by the number of
participants in the entire sample (180/400 = 0.45 or 45%).

Rates that are clinically important can be calculated to provide information
about data trends over time. Like a percentage, a rate is calculated by dividing
the frequency of an event in a given time period by all possible occurrences of
the event during the same time period. The difference is that percentages by
definition are “per 100,” whereas rates can have a different denominator, such
as per 1000 patient-days. Monthly fall rates are an example; the number of
falls in a month is divided by the total number of patient-days in that month
and then multiplied by 1000 to give the number of falls per 1000 patient-days.
This allows for comparison between units based on opportunities for falls
(each day) instead of the raw count (number of falls). When calculated
periodically, patient outcomes expressed as rates can be monitored as a basis
for action planning to improve care (Altman, 2006).

Derived variables are created when data from other variables are put into a
simple formula to produce a new piece of information—a new variable. An
example of a derived variable is the hospital length of stay. It is calculated by
summing the number of inpatient days on a nursing unit (a frequency) in a
month and then dividing this sum by the number of patients in the unit. Rates
and derived variables may be used to represent the effects of extraneous
variables or to describe baseline performance. Operational definitions of these
variables are important to include to facilitate consistency in the method of

Rate: A calculated count derived from dividing the frequency of an
event in a given time period by all possible occurrences of the event
during the same time period.

Summarizing Data Using Frequency Tables


Interval-level data can be summarized in a frequency table as well, but they
must be grouped into categories first, which requires converting the data into
ordinal data. Because interval-level data can fall anywhere on a continuous
scale, each data point could theoretically be a unique number; as a result,
there can be many different values in the data set, which makes interpreting
the data difficult. As an example, Table 11.2 contains a data set that could
benefit from summary as a frequency table. To create a frequency table for
interval-level data, the data are sorted from lowest value to highest value,
categories are created for the data, and the number of occurrences in each
category is counted. Collapsing several years together provides an even
clearer picture. Table 11.3 represents the same data in a frequency table that
includes both counts and relative frequency (percentage). Representing
complex data in this way enhances interpretation and understanding of the
values. Although no patterns were readily apparent in the data in the original
table, review of the frequency table makes it clear that most participants in the
study had few years of nursing experience; in fact, the majority of participants
had nine or fewer years of experience.

Table 11.2 Unordered Data Set of Years as a Nurse

Years as a Nurse

13 5 23 5 3

7 5 30 20 5

8 6 17 21 11

7 6 27 5 18

2 1 9 9 16

2 1 3 5 9

1 5 30 1 28

2 2 16 3 12

5 5 20 15 17

23 20 17 9 24

Table 11.3 Frequency Table for Years as a Nurse

Years as a Nurse Frequency Percentage

1–3 11 22

4–9 18 36


10–17 9 18

18–30 12 24

Total 50 100

Summarizing Data Using Frequency Distributions
In many ways, graphical presentation of data is easier to understand because
the data are presented in summary fashion with colors, lines, and shapes that
show differences and similarities in the data set. An easy chart to create is a
bar chart for nominal or ordinal data. The most common way to design a bar
chart is to have categories of the variable on the x-axis (horizontal) of the chart
and the frequency for each category on the y-axis (vertical). Bar charts provide
the reader with a quick assessment of which category has the most
occurrences in a data set. For example, a bar chart of patient safety
occurrences (nominal data) can show which occurrences happen the most,
thereby providing information on which areas should be the focus of
improvement efforts.

Bar chart: A graphic presentation for nominal or ordinal data that
represents the categories on the horizontal axis and frequency on the
vertical axis.

A bar chart showing the frequency per category for ordinal data enables
evaluation of the shape of the distribution of values. Such graphs are called
frequency distributions or histograms. For example, the values of subjects’
pain ratings can be represented in a graph with the value (pain rating) placed
on the x-axis and the number of cases with that pain rating on the y-axis.
FIGURE 11.1 depicts a histogram of pain rating data. It shows categories for
values of the variable across the horizontal dimension, with frequencies being
displayed on the vertical dimension. In this histogram, the reader can see that
most of the values of the variable “postop pain” were between 4 and 6.

Histogram: A type of frequency distribution in which variables with
different values are plotted as a graph on x-axes and y-axes, and the
shape can be visualized.


FIGURE 11.1 A Normal Distribution

Another useful feature of the histogram is that it shows the curve of the data.
The researcher can see whether the data in the study are normal, are skewed,
or have an abnormal kurtosis. Based on the distribution of the data, the
researcher will then select the statistic for describing the center and spread of
the data. Figure 11.1 depicted an approximately normal distribution. A normal
distribution, often called a bell curve, has a large proportion of values of the
variable in the middle of the distribution and smaller proportions on the ends
(tails). The shape of the distribution is symmetrical, meaning that the right and
left sides of the distribution are mirror images. The shape of the distribution of
a variable in a research study is important because many statistical
procedures require the assumption of a normal distribution to yield reliable
results (Field, 2013).

Some variables are not symmetric, so they do not have a normal distribution.
Asymmetric distributions may be described as demonstrating skew or kurtosis.
A skewed distribution has a disproportionate number of occurrences in either
the right or left tail of the distribution. Describing the type of distribution is
counterintuitive: The skew is described by the direction of the tail. For
example, distributions with more values in the positive end of the distribution
trail out to the negative end and so are described as negative skew; those with
more values on the lower end of the scale will trail out to the positive end and
so are called positive skew. FIGURES 11.2 and 11.3 demonstrate skewed
distributions. Kurtosis refers to an unusual accumulation of values in some
part of the distribution, particularly in the size of the tails. Those distributions
with large tails are called leptokurtic; those with small tails are called


platykurtic. A leptokurtic distribution is depicted by the histogram in FIGURE

FIGURE 11.2 A Negatively Skewed Distribution

Researchers who create data have a responsibility to check the descriptive
data for compliance with the underlying assumptions of the statistical
techniques selected for use. These assumptions often include a requirement
for variables to have a normal distribution (not skewed or kurtotic) and to have
equal variances (similar spread of scores around the mean). A visual
inspection of the graphical display of values of a variable via a histogram can
give a researcher a quick indication of whether the variable meets the
requirements of the statistical test.


FIGURE 11.3 A Positively Skewed Distribution

Describing the Center and Spread
By first checking the shape of the distribution of data for a variable, the
researcher becomes able to select the most appropriate statistics to describe
the variable’s center and spread. Measures of central tendency are used to
describe the variable’s center; they include the mean, median, and mode. The
spread, or variability, of the variable’s data is calculated via standard deviation,
range, and percentiles.

Summarizing Data Using Measures of Central
A measure of central tendency is a single number that summarizes values for
a variable. These measures represent the way the data tend toward the
center; they comprise a single number used to reflect what may be a typical
response in the data set. For example, when researching care of a geriatric
population, the ages of the participants in a sample will be an important
variable to evaluate in the study. Instead of listing all the ages of participants,
a researcher can summarize the data using a measure of central tendency
such as the average (mean) age of participants in the sample. If, for example,
the mean age were 25 rather than 75, the reader would know that participants
were young adults rather than elderly participants. Other measures of central
tendency include the median and the mode.


FIGURE 11.4 A Distribution with Kurtosis

The mean is commonly called the average. This number is calculated by
adding all scores in the data set and dividing the sum by the number of scores
in the data set. Therefore, only data measured at the interval and ratio levels
are appropriate for calculating a mean score. The mean is an easily
recognized and interpreted measure of central tendency. It is familiar to most
readers and easy to calculate. The mean, however, is disproportionately
affected by extreme values. For example, the mean length of stay of joint
replacements would be 3 days if five patients each stayed in the hospital for 3
days—but it would also be 3 days if four patients each stayed 2 days and one
patient stayed 7 days. This sensitivity to extreme scores is a weakness of the
mean; thus data that are normally distributed are most appropriate to submit to
the calculation of a mean score.

Mean: The average; a measure of central tendency.

The median is another measure of central tendency, but it is not a calculation;
it is a location. To find the median, the values of a data set are arranged in
sequence from smallest to largest, and the center of the data set is determined
by finding the exact midpoint of the data. Using the example from the previous
paragraph, patients who underwent joint replacements and had hospital
lengths of stay of 3, 3, 3, 3, and 7 days would have a median length of stay of
3. When there is an even number of values in the data set, the two most
central values are averaged to obtain the median. The median can be used
with normal, skewed, or kurtotic distributions because it is not influenced by
extreme values in the data set. It can be used with ordinal, interval, or ratio


data, but its usefulness in inferential statistical procedures is limited. The
primary weakness of the median is that it represents only the middle of the
data set and can be used in only a narrow range of statistical procedures.

Median: A measure of central tendency that is the exact midpoint of the
numbers of the data set.

An additional measure of central tendency is the mode, the most frequently
occurring value in the data set. Some data sets will not have a mode; others
may have multiple modes. The mode is an easy statistic to determine, but it
has limited usefulness. It is not used in inferential statistics and provides little
information about a data set. It is, however, the only measure of central
tendency that can be applied to nominal data.

Mode: A measure of central tendency that is the most frequently
occurring value in the data set.

The mean is a dependable measure of the center of the distribution because it
uses all numbers in the data set for its calculation; however, when extreme
values exist in the data set, the mean is drawn toward that extreme score.
Thus researchers should use the mean statistic with caution in distributions
that are badly skewed, particularly those involving small sample sizes. The
median is the middle point of the data set; it is not sensitive to extremes,
making it a good choice as a measure of central tendency in distributions that
are skewed. The mode helps the reader understand if any value occurs more
frequently than others. The minimum and the maximum help assess the
spread of the data. The minimum value is the smallest number in the data set,
and the maximum value is the largest. Using the mean, median, minimum, and
maximum together helps the reader of the data used in research obtain a
fuller, more accurate picture of the study findings. How these numbers come
together to characterize a data set is demonstrated in Table 11.4. Such
numbers give an indication of the breadth of variability in the data set, but
more sensitive statistics are needed to evaluate the way individual values vary
from the typical case.

Summarizing the Variability of a Data Set
Although a typical case can be described statistically, values for individual
subjects will differ, sometimes substantially. Statistical techniques can
demonstrate variability in ways that enhance understanding of the nature of
the individual values represented by the variable scores. With skewed data, a
researcher can use a variable’s range as well as percentiles to appropriately
represent the variability of the data. To calculate the range, the analyst would
first identify the minimum and maximum values in the data set. The range,
which is determined by subtracting the minimum value from the maximum


value of the variable, is the simplest way to represent the spread of the data.
This single number provides an indication of the distance between the two
most extreme values in the data set. The range is easy to calculate, which
makes it useful for getting a quick understanding of the spread of scores.
However, more powerful measures use every number in the data set to show
the spread of the individual values.

Range: A measure of variability that is the distance between the two
most extreme values in the data set.

Variance and standard deviation are the most commonly used statistics for
measuring the dispersion of values from the mean. Just as the mean is used
to represent the center of normally distributed data, so the standard deviation
and variance are representations of the variability of data. The variance and
standard deviation provide information about the average distance of values
from the mean of a variable. Variance can be calculated using a calculator, a
spreadsheet, or statistical software. The calculation of variance and standard
deviation is explained in the box on page 305; it is illustrated here to provide
an understanding of the concept.

Variance: A measure of variability that gives information about the
spread of scores around the mean.

Table 11.4 Interpreting Measures of Central Tendency

The variable of length of inpatient stay for adult community-acquired pneumonia has values of:
Mean: 1.4 days
Median: 0.78 day
Minimum: 0.5 day
Maximum: 12.3 days

The median is smaller than the mean; this indicates a positively skewed distribution, because more
scores will be in the lower half of the distribution. Thus most people stay in the hospital for shorter
periods than this mean value, and some extreme values are likely artificially inflating the mean
length of stay. The broad range between minimum and maximum reflects that the scores are
spread out.
The variable of length of inpatient stay for pediatric community-acquired pneumonia has values of:

Mean: 2.2 days
Median: 2.4 days
Minimum: 0.5 day
Maximum: 4.6 days

The median and the mean are roughly equal; this indicates the distribution is likely a normal one.


The range between minimum and maximum is not large, and the similarity between the measures
of central tendency is a sign that extreme values are unlikely to have an effect on these statistics.
The variable of length of inpatient stay for aspiration pneumonia has values of:

Mean: 4.3 days
Median: 5.6 days
Minimum: 0.8 day
Maximum: 8.9 days

The median is larger than the mean; this indicates a negatively skewed distribution because more
scores are in the upper half of the distribution. Thus more of these patients stay in the hospital
longer than the average length of stay. There is a moderate range between the minimum and the
maximum, and a moderate difference between the measures of central tendency, indicating there
may be only a few extreme values in the data set.

The calculation results in a single score that provides information about the
spread of scores around the mean. When the variance increases, the distance
of scores from the mean is larger and the distribution is spread farther away
from the mean. The distribution will appear flat and spread out, as illustrated in
FIGURE 11.5 . Conversely, when the variance decreases, the distance of
scores from the mean is smaller, meaning more scores are clustered around
the mean, and the distribution is taller, as depicted in FIGURE 11.6. The
distribution will appear tall and thin. The variance is based on a squared value,
so it may be difficult to interpret.

The square root of the variance, the standard deviation, is a more easily
interpreted measure of the distance (spread) of scores around the mean
because its scale is proportional to the original set of numbers and represents
data in the same way as the variance. Large standard deviation scores relative
to the mean indicate that values in the data set are spread out from the mean,
and small standard deviation scores relative to the mean indicate that values
are close to the mean. The standard deviation is more frequently reported in
research reports than is variance because it is more easily interpreted
(Szafran, 2012). Variance, however, is more commonly used in the calculation
of other statistics, such as those used to determine standard error and the
differences between groups. It is helpful to calculate at least one standard
deviation value manually to understand its underlying conceptual meaning.

Standard deviation: The most easily interpreted measure of variability
of scores around the mean; represents the average amount of variation
of data points about the mean.

Variance and standard deviation are subject to the same limitations as the
mean because all scores in the data set are used in the calculation, and the
mean is used in the calculation. Thus extreme scores in the data set will affect
both the variance and the standard deviation. When it is appropriate to use a


mean to describe the data set (i.e., with a fairly normal distribution without
extreme skew), it will be appropriate to use variance and standard deviation.

FIGURE 11.5 Distribution with a Large Variance

FIGURE 11.6 Distribution with a Small Variance

Calculating the Variance and Standard
The mean and standard deviation are powerful building blocks for other
statistical techniques because they can be manipulated algebraically. In


some cases, readers of research reports want to compare the
variability of scores across different groups or even different studies.
The coefficient of variation (CV) is a calculation that produces a number
that depicts the standard deviation relative to the mean, allowing for the
comparison of the variability of different variables measured with
different scales; the comparison of standard deviations alone does not
allow for an accurate comparison. The formula for the coefficient of
variation is CV = 100(SD/x¯). Table 11.5 depicts data with their
associated measures of variability and an interpretation of these
statistics. The larger the CV, the greater the variation; conversely, the
smaller the CV, the smaller the variation.

Table 11.5 Interpreting Measures of Variability

The Variable of
Length of Inpatient

Has Values of: Resulting in a
Coefficient of


Adult community-
acquired pneumonia

Mean: 1.4 days
Standard deviation:
0.8 day

(0.8/1.4) × 100 =
0.571 × 100 = 57.1

A moderately large
amount of


Mean: 2.2 days
Standard deviation:
0.2 day

(0.2/2.2) × 100 =
0.090 × 100 = 9.0

A very small
amount of


Mean: 4.3 days
Standard deviation:
1.1 days

(1.1/4.3) × 100 =
0.256 × 100 = 25.6

A small amount of

A review of these descriptive statistics shows how the variance and
standard deviation help the reader understand a data set in terms of
what the “typical” response (mean and median) is and how individual
subjects differ from that typical response (variance and standard

Summarizing Data Using Measures of Position
Values from a data set can be divided into parts so that readers can
understand where a particular value lies in relation to all other values in the
data set. The percentile rank is the most commonly used statistical technique
for this purpose. A percentile is not synonymous with a percentage; rather, a
percentile represents the percentage of values that lie below the particular
value of interest. For example, a score of 92% on an exam may be at the
100th percentile if it is the highest score in the class. Conversely, it may be at
the 0 percentile if it is the lowest score in the class. The minimum score in a
data set is always at the 0 percentile, the maximum score is always at the
100th percentile, and the median is always the 50th percentile (given that 50%
of the scores are always below the median). Percentiles are common ways to


represent healthcare data such as patient satisfaction and scores on
standardized tests, when a fairly narrow range of scores is expected.

Quartiles are identified by dividing the data set into four equal parts. The first
quartile contains the 0 to 25th percentile rank (that is, the lowest 25% of the
scores), the second quartile contains scores in the 26th to 50th percentile
rank, the third quartile contains scores in the 51st to 75th percentile rank, and
the fourth quartile contains all scores greater than the 76th percentile rank.
This technique is particularly helpful when the researcher is examining
achievement or when performance of some subjects relative to performance of
others in the study is important. It is also a useful technique for dividing scores
on interval-level variables into logical groups to study differences between

Sometimes a researcher may want to transform scores gathered in a research
study into standardized scores, which express the distance from the mean
for a single score. Just as the standard deviation represents the spread of
scores around the mean for an entire data set, so a standardized score
represents the distance of a single point from the mean. This distance is
represented by the standard deviation so that standardized scores can be
compared across variables, even if the scale of measurement is radically
different. The most commonly used standardized score is the z-score. The z-
score is calculated by finding the difference between the individual value and
the mean, then dividing that number by the standard deviation. The resulting
score depicts the variable in terms of its relative position in the overall data

Standardized scores: A measure of position that expresses the
distance from the mean of a single score in standard terms.

When all of the scores in a data set have been converted to a z-score and
depicted as a histogram, the result is called a standard normal distribution. A
standard normal distribution has a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1.
This transformed distribution retains its original shape, and the z-scores can
be used to determine in which percentile a given score would fall. This kind of
analysis is helpful in determining the probability that an individual score would
fall in a specific place in the distribution. Distributions with a bell shape have
approximately 68% of scores between +1 or −1 standard deviation and 95% of
scores between +2 or −2 standard deviations, as shown in FIGURE 11.7.
These characteristics of a standard normal distribution are very useful as a
basis for determining the probability that a specific statistical finding is due to
standard error and become the basis for judging random chance in inferential


Standard normal distribution: A bell-shaped distribution in which the
mean is set at 0 and a standard deviation at 1.

FIGURE 11.7 The Standard Normal Distribution

All of the descriptive statistics presented thus far are considered univariate,
meaning they are used to study a single variable at a time. Such statistics are
appropriate for analysis of data collected for general descriptive studies.
Descriptive statistics can also be applied to describe bivariate relationships, or
the study of two variables at a time.

A Note About Scale
The word scale is used frequently when talking about descriptive data.
Scale refers to the units of measurement of the variable. For example,
height is commonly measured with a scale of inches, and weight is
commonly measured with a scale of pounds. Scale is also used with
respect to the potential range of the data. Height has limitations of
scale in that people are not taller than 7.5 feet; thus, if height were
measured in inches, its scale would be restricted to the range of 0 to 90
inches. Weight in people, by comparison, has been measured as high
as 1000 pounds. Thus height will never have as many possible “units”
as weight. If we try to compare these two scales—if we wanted to
compare their means, for example, to see if a person of average height
is also of average weight—the scale size means the average number of
units of weight will always be several times as big as the average
number of units of height.

Is an individual who is 15 pounds above average in weight and 2.5
inches above average in height an overweight person? It is hard to tell
using the raw values. Using percentiles or standardized scores to
represent numbers eliminates this problem. Instead of expressing a
value in terms of its absolute number of units, the value is expressed by
its relative position on the scale. This enables us to compare where


each value falls relative to its specific scale, in a standard way, so that
unit-to-unit comparisons are possible. Thus, if an individual is 1
standard deviation above the mean in weight and also 1 standard
deviation above the mean in height, he or she is not overweight.
Measures of relative position enable the comparison of values across
variables, regardless of the scale with which they are originally

Summarizing Scores Using Measures of
Bivariate descriptive statistics can be very useful in describing the strength
and nature of relationships between variables and are the appropriate tests in
correlation studies. Correlation analysis examines the values of two
variables in relation to each other. This type of analysis can be used to
examine the relationship between two variables in a single sample or between
a single variable in two samples. For example, one might expect that the
number of patients in a hospital and the number of laboratory tests ordered
would have a relationship: As the values for patient census increase, the
values for number of tests ordered increase. This type of relationship is called
a positive correlation. A different example may show a negative correlation,
such as scores on a quality-of-life scale and stages of a chronic disease. In
this example, as the stage of chronic disease progresses, the quality of life for
the client may decrease. Both of these examples focus on correlation between
two variables in a single sample. Alternatively, the values of a single variable
may be appraised for its relationship between two samples; for example, there
may be a positive correlation between the adult weights of mothers and their
daughters. It is important to note that correlation does not imply causation.

Correlation analysis: A measure that depicts the strength and nature
of the relationship between two variables.

Correlation statistics can be shown both numerically and in graphic forms. The
notation of rho or r is used to represent a bivariate correlation in a sample. The
most common correlation coefficients are the Pearson product moment
correlation and the Spearman’s rank order correlation. The former is used for
interval- or ratio-level data, and the latter for ranked or ordinal data. In either
form, the correlation can be positive or negative, with values between −1 and
+1, inclusive. Values of exactly −1 or +1 are known as perfect correlations,
reflecting a perfect linear relationship in which a change of one unit in a
variable is accompanied by a change of exactly one unit in the other variable.
A correlation coefficient with a value of 0 has no correlation. The direction of
the relationship is interpreted from the sign; a negative correlation coefficient
reflects an inverse relationship (as one variable increases, the other
decreases), whereas a positive correlation coefficient reflects a positive


relationship (as one variable increases, the other variable increases as well).
The strength of the relationship is interpreted based on the absolute value of
the coefficient itself, regardless of its sign (Kremelberg, 2010). An example of
interpretation of correlation coefficients for a set of variables appears in Table

Table 11.6 Interpreting Measures of Correlation

Variable 1 Variable 2 Correlation

What the Sign Means What the Number

length of
stay in

Results of

−0.850 The negative sign indicates an
inverse relationship; as results
of pulmonary function tests
improve, length of stay in days

0.8 to 1.0 absolute
value indicates a
strong relationship.

length of
stay in

Number of

+0.678 The positive sign indicates a
positive relationship; as the
number of comorbid
conditions increases, the
length of stay also increases.

0.6 to 0.8 absolute
value indicates a
moderately strong

length of
stay in


−0.488 The negative sign indicates an
inverse relationship; as the
quality of nutritional status
improves, the length of stay in
days decreases.

0.4 to 0.6 absolute
value indicates a

length of
stay in

from work

+0.213 The positive sign indicates a
positive relationship; as the
annual days absent from work
increase, the length of stay in
days increases.

0.2 to 0.4 absolute
value indicates a
weak relationship;
less than 0.2
indicates no

An advantage of the correlation coefficient is that it can be an efficient way to
determine both the strength and the direction of a relationship with a single
statistic. Nevertheless, a correlation coefficient reflects only a linear
relationship; in other words, the relationship has to be proportional at all levels
of each variable before it will be depicted accurately with a correlation
coefficient (Motulsky, 2010). Some important relationships in health care are
curved, rather than linear, and are not represented well by a correlation
coefficient. For example, a dose–response curve will follow a curvilinear
trajectory, but it is still a very important relationship in nursing care.

A note is in order about correlation coefficients and statistical significance.
Often, a p value, indicating the probability of chance, is reported with the
correlation coefficient. It is sometimes erroneously interpreted as evidence that
the relationship is a significant one. In reality, the p value indicates the


probability that the measured relationship is due to standard error. Even very
weak correlation coefficients can be statistically significant, and strong
correlations can result in no statistical significance. The strength and direction
of the correlation coefficient are the characteristics that must be interpreted to
determine whether the correlation is clinically significant, and this can be
determined only by the application of the clinician’s expert judgment
(Privitera, 2012).

A correlation coefficient is an efficient and easily interpretable way to describe
the degree and direction of a linear relationship between variables. These
relationships can also be represented graphically using a scatter plot. Scatter
plots are effective means for evaluating relationships and determining if those
relationships are linear. They are one of a group of graphical presentations
that can illustrate statistical results in a visual way, which are often more easily
interpreted and understood by readers.

Summarizing Data in Graphical Presentations
It is just as important to use the correct graphical technique as it is to use the
correct statistical technique to summarize descriptive data. In some ways,
graphical presentation of data is easier to understand because the data are
presented in summary fashion, with the colors, lines, and shapes of the graph
highlighting differences and similarities in the data set. Earlier in this chapter,
bar charts and histograms were shown as graphs commonly used in
identifying the distribution of data. Line graphs, by comparison, are used to
show change over time. Values for the variable are summarized by period of
time using a mean, and then each period of time is followed for a defined time
frame, such as monthly for a year. Line graphs are used in time-series
designs, in single-subject designs, or to determine the effectiveness of a new
intervention or research protocol. Line graphs are easy to read and quickly
show results over time.

Line graphs: A graphic presentation that plots means for a variable
over a period of time.

Sometimes the best way to display the data is to illustrate where the majority
of the scores lie in the data set. A box plot provides a good method to show
this, particularly when a variable is measured in different groups. The box plot
is a visual representation of measures of position. The median of the values
for a variable in all groups of participants is marked in the middle of the box.
The 25th and 75th percentiles for each group form the lower and upper edges
of the box, respectively. Scores contained within the box are those between
the 25th and 75th percentiles and represent the middle 50% of the values for
each group. The minimum and maximum values are marked with an X or
connected by a line to the box. The resulting chart is sometimes called a “box
and whiskers plot,” referring to the box with lines extending from the top and


bottom; it shows a side-by-side comparison of the relative position of data for
each group. This representation gives the reader a picture of the spread of the
data (minimum and maximum values) and where 50% of the values lie (within
the box), as well as the middle point, or median (line in the middle of the box).
FIGURE 11.8 depicts a box-and-whiskers plot for a measure of postoperative
pain in the hours after surgery. Inspection of the graph shows the reader that
hour 4 is the point at which pain reaches its peak, after which it gradually

Box plot: A graphic presentation that marks the median of the values in
the middle of the box and the 25th and 75th percentiles as the lower
and upper edges of the box, respectively. It indicates the relative
position of the data for each group and the spread of the data for

Scatter plots require graphing two variables measured from the same subject
at the same time and show the nature of the relationship between those two
variables. When all data in the set have been plotted, the graph shows
whether the points are closely grouped (associated) or scattered (no
association). The closer the dots are to forming a discernible, straight line, the
more tightly associated the variables are to one another. FIGURE 11.9 depicts
three data sets containing two variables as scatter plots. The scatter plot on
the left shows two variables that have a positive relationship to each other, the
center scatter plot shows two variables that have a negative association, and
the scatter plot on the right shows no association between the two variables.

Scatter plot: A graphic presentation that indicates the nature of the
relationship between two variables.

Charts and graphs provide useful information to readers when used
appropriately. Bar graphs are easy to create for nominal and ordinal data.
Frequency data from different groups can be compared using bar graphs so a
reader can quickly see which group has the highest number of instances of a
particular variable. Histograms are used in a similar manner for interval-level
or ratio-level data. The bars in histograms are connected, which denotes a
variable that has continuous numbers. Histograms have the added feature of
showing the shape of the distribution of a variable. Line graphs are usually
created to show the mean value of a variable over some period of time. This
type of graph is particularly helpful when a change in the mean (either higher
or lower) might signal the need to change a nursing practice. Whereas the line
graph typically shows the mean over time, the box plot shows the distribution
over time. Each box contains the 25th to 75th percentiles of the distribution.
Watching trends over time using a box plot is helpful if the median point or the
middle 50% of the distribution is important. Finally, a scatter plot is an effective


way to visually represent the strength and direction of a relationship between
two variables.

FIGURE 11.8 A Box-and-Whiskers Plot

FIGURE 11.9 Scatter Plots

Common Errors in Summarizing Data
The most elementary error is made when an inappropriate statistic is used to
summarize data. For example, a mean should never be calculated for race,
gender, or other categorical data. However, those researchers who are new to
statistical analysis may forget these levels of measurement and, seeing
numbers on the screen, run descriptive analysis. Although the statistical
analysis computer package will certainly calculate a mean when provided the
correct commands, the resulting number is meaningless. What would a mean
of 5.6 on the variable race indicate? An error! Other problems may occur when
data are entered incorrectly; this type of mistake is addressed later in the
chapter in the section on creating descriptive data.

Erroneous conclusions can be drawn about variables when some data are
presented without the benefit of seeing all appropriate descriptive data.


Descriptive data analysis of a variable should always include measures of
central tendency and variability. For example, a variable measured for two
different groups can have approximately the same mean but a different spread
of scores around the mean. The interpretation of the performance of the
groups depends on knowing both the values for a typical case and how far
individual data points deviate from the typical case.

Researchers should always disclose frequency and percentage information in
research reports so that the reader can understand whether a change in
percentage over time is a function of sample size or a change in the values of
the variable. For example, a researcher studying the development of pressure
ulcers within the first month of admission to a nursing home over a 3-month
period of time reported the following percentages: 8%, 7.5%, and 0%. The
reader might logically believe that the last month signaled a breakthrough in
preventing new ulcers. In fact, the percentage is calculated by taking number
of ulcers and dividing by total admissions for the month. When these data are
also presented as 6/75, 6/80, and 0/20, a different conclusion can be drawn:
The number of admissions has declined.

A common error in the interpretation of descriptive data is overinterpretation of
the results. In other wor