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Make the most of qualitative research

Nature Sustainability aims to give qualitative studies the recognition they deserve.

To address grand sustainability challenges, we need more than numbers alone. A lot of knowledge is uncovered through qualitative means only. Such methods can be more practicable to address urgent issues or where large samples are difficult to access. Crucially, often few people are pivotal to gain certain insight, so a large-N survey or experiment cannot replace a rich and nuanced interview or focus group discussion.

There are ways to enhance the potential of qualitative research to contribute to sustainability. The first step is to give qualitative evidence the scholarly and practical recognition it deserves. Doing so requires adequate understanding of its value to support practice, for example using the principles to balance evidence types proposed by Game and colleagues in a Comment in this journal.

Second, we need to share qualitative data more — for example, in public repositories, for it to support and inspire further knowledge. However, this sharing is rare relative to that of quantitative data. In this issue, Alexander and colleagues discuss in a Perspective why that’s the case and what each actor involved in the generation and diffusion of science can do to enhance qualitative data sharing.

Third, alongside quantitative publications we need qualitative papers, and they can share the same format. In this issue, we present two such examples: combining expert interviews and document analysis, Miller and colleagues identify key barriers to implement prescribed burns — a measure that can reduce wildfire impact; and, using a mixed-methods approach, Rosenberg and colleagues find evidence about the link between gender inequality and energy access in India.

A number of features in these two papers can help and encourage researchers in preparing their qualitative work for publication in strong interdisciplinary journals. Qualitative papers can be concise and their terminology accessible — and this will certainly help the study reach more readers. Further, qualitative research does have methods that can be explained in a dedicated section, much like quantitative studies. Readers and peer reviewers need to know how this new knowledge was produced, for example, how interviewees were selected, why they were questioned about certain themes, what set of documents were analysed, or how the data were coded. Finally, presenting creatively qualitative evidence — such as direct quotations from research subjects — can make a real difference when writing concisely and for a broad audience. Crafting a cohesive and engaging narrative is remarkably hard if it intertwines with numerous direct quotations (much like prose filled with point estimates and P values). Moving those quotations to be in display items — and referring to them throughout the text — can enhance communication.

Since its launch, Nature Sustainability has been open to all research that can contribute to sustainability in meaningful ways, regardless of methodological approach — and here we reinforce this commitment.

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Make the most of qualitative research. Nat Sustain 3, 73 (2020).

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