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08 September 2022

New guidance published on how best to support qualitative researchers

The guidance has been developed to protect and support qualitative researchers who conduct research and analyse data on sensitive, challenging, and difficult topics.

A diverse group of people sit in a circle and have a discussion

New guidance – devised by a group of twelve researchers from various disciplines and institutions – is published today in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods. It provides diverse experiences from the co-authors about their research into sensitive, challenging, and difficult areas, and suggests practical principles to overcome issues to ensure the highest safety and wellbeing of qualitative researchers in the field.

Lead author, Sergio A. Silverio from King’s College London said:

As qualitative researchers we have often been encouraged to think about reducing harm to participants throughout the research process, but there has been little written on how to best protect and support researchers. This guidance changes that.”

Sergio A. Silverio

Authors make a distinction between sensitive, challenging, and difficult topics, with the latter differentiated from the former two. According to the authors sensitive topics are those which delve into the ‘acutely personal’ experiences a participant has had, whilst challenging topics are focused on problems between groups or within systems. Difficult topics, however, are those which would generally be those perceived by the public as taboo, frightening, or morally objectionable.

Drawing on their personal experiences of conducting research in the field, authors cover a range of topics including sexuality, mental health, abuse, grief, and palliative care, amongst others.

The article concludes with an eight-point set of practical principles on how best to support qualitative researchers at all levels of experience when they go into the field to research sensitive, challenging, or difficult topics. Training and proper induction to the research is recommended first, followed by appropriate scheduling of data collection, employing a ‘buddy system’, and ensuring effective debriefing is conducted by the study team.

Authors also encourage researchers to use reflective diaries or journals and to engage in individual and team supervision throughout the research process. Finally, they recommend prudent use of charitable input and support, as well as formal psychological support if deemed necessary.

This guidance provides practical advice for research students and researchers and also crucially for supervisors and research leaders on how to prepare and support their staff and students working in these areas”.

Professor Jane Sandall

This guidance is recommended as a companion guide for research ethics committees and institutional review boards; however the authors advise that it be treated as a ‘living’ document that will require updates as the field of qualitative research continues to grow.

Read the full article 'Sensitive, challenging, and difficult topics: Experiences andpractical considerations for qualitative researchers' in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods.


This work was funded, in part, by The Lily Mae Foundation

Authors include:

Sergio A. Silverio (King’s College London), Kayleigh S. Sheen( Liverpool John Moores University), Alessandra Bramante (Humanitas San Pio X), Katherine Knighting (Edge Hill University), Thula U. Koops (Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf), Elsa Montgomery (King’s College London), Lucy November (King’s College London), Laura K. Soulsby (University of Liverpool), Jasmin H. Stevenson (Nottingham Trent University), Megan Watkins (London South Bank University), Abigail Easter (King’s College London), Jane Sandall (King’s College London)

In this story

Sergio A. Silverio

Research Fellow in Social Science of Women’s Health

Jane Sandall

Professor of Social Science and Women's Health

Elsa Montgomery

Senior Lecturer

Abigail Easter

Reader in Maternal and Newborn Health