Qualitative researchers rely on peer feedback in many aspects of the research process, including study design, analysis strategies, and discussion of findings. Peer debriefing sessions are a formal and essential part of this feedback process where the research team seeks out input to strengthen the rigor, transparency, and credibility of their research project. In this article, we'll look at the peer debriefing process and its contribution to qualitative research. Understanding the procedures involved with peer debriefing will benefit researchers in helping them craft more robust research.
First, consider that any given qualitative research study involves a multitude of aspects, each of which require meticulous and thoughtful planning. These aspects include the following:
This is a lot to consider and this can potentially overwhelm any researcher. There are also countless other occurrences that arise during the course of research that you may not anticipate (e.g., an incomplete disclosure occurs while obtaining informed consent, or the presence of video editing tools may raise questions about an experiment involving video data). Given the endless possibilities in naturalistic inquiry, expecting one researcher to account for every eventuality during the course of a study might be too much to ask.
Now think about the kind of help you can get from your colleagues and other researchers. They might have relevant background information pertaining to a research context that you might lack. Their outsider perspective can provide feedback regarding how can your research explain your main points. Maybe they can point you to some further reading on the topic you are researching. Or perhaps they have expertise in writing practices to help explain the world around us through research.
Peer debriefing is especially useful in studies that involve data collection with human subjects. Take a study about pallative care, for example. The informed consent process for patients, who are facing terminal illnesses, and their friends and family can be fraught with challenges. How do you conduct interviews in a way that doesn't lead to participant psychological discomfort? Perhaps there is a novel approach to interviews that you wish to take, but the employment of such techniques raises special issues that might require advice from a colleague familiar with the approach.
One use of a peer debriefing process is to bring in that colleague who can review the entire process of interview data collection with you, making sure that you don't deceive participants or otherwise adversely affect the data collection process. A peer debriefing with colleagues who can guide your research can not only give feedback on the theories and methods involved to establish the necessary research rigor but also discuss best practices so you understand what your IRB expects and avoid any ethical pitfalls common in human subjects research.
While there are many reasons you may want to consider conducting a peer debriefing, some of the best practices and required elements in the process are generally the same.
You may also decide to formalize the peer debriefing process through a series of interviews or a focus group discussion, which can be rendered into transcripts for later analysis. However, the goal of peer debriefing is not to collect a formal debriefing statement but rather to gain clear guidance on how to conduct research.
Peer debriefing that relies on colleagues who are knowledgeable about the research area, appropriate methods, policy guidance, or key analytical strategies can provide an informative explanation about possible pathways for improving your research design. Given the dynamic nature of qualitative research, the best guidance for theories and methods is oftentimes a dialogue with other researchers, making peer debriefing among qualitative researchers a useful educational tool and means for engaging with thought provoking questions. Finally, the feedback you gather from peer debriefing can only bolster your writing of the procedures section of your research paper.
Invariably, peer debriefing means bringing in colleagues who may not (and depending on your preferences, should not) have a vested interest in your study. While this may provide an objective, outsider view that can guide your research, this also means that their preferences may not align with yours in terms of methods and analysis. Keep in mind that you are the principal investigator of your study. While keeping an open mind about different methodologies and epistemologies is key to more reflexive and robust qualitative research, ultimately the final decision about how your study is designed rests with you.