Qualitative studies and the headline problem


If you want to know what a study does and does not say, you need to read the whole study – indeed, if you’re looking at a paper in an academic journal, and you really want to get to the bottom of it, you might even want to contact the authors to ask for a more detailed report.

But the truth is, you can’t read everything.  Sometimes you just read the abstract, or even the title.  If the title is particularly catchy, that’s the message that may stick in readers’ heads.  And that’s a bit of an issue because studies don’t always produce black and white answers that can be summarised in a nuanced way in ten or twenty words.

So I get really frustrated by the tendency, which is really quite common in qualitative research, of using a quotation from one of the study participants in the study title.  I’ve come across two in the last fortnight: “I wish I had AIDS’: A qualitative study on access to health care services for HIV/AIDS and diabetic patients in Cambodia“.  “These girls gave me AIDS. Why should I use condoms?’ Clients of Sex Workers in Kamathipura Express Their Attitudes About HIV“.  Both studies (if you read them in their entirety) are informative.  Both were conducted with very small and non-representative samples.  In both cases, authors chose to highlight the most shocking statements they heard from study participants in the titles of their articles.  The quote in the Cambodia article comes from a diabetes patient.  I have no doubt the person in question felt that way.  They may also have known nothing about what it is like to live with HIV treatment.  Whether any HIV patients would rather have diabetes, we do not know – it looks like the researchers didn’t ask.  Likewise, I’m sure the client quoted in the India study said what it says he said. I’d also wager that some of the other study participants said much more pleasant but much more dull things.  But the headline is what’s going to stick in peoples’ minds.