Do you have quotitis? How to diagnose, treat, and prevent!

What is quotitis?

Quotitis is a common disease among qualitative researchers. It’s a name I have started using to refer to the tendency for people writing about qualitative data to over-rely on raw quotes from interviews, fieldnotes, documents etc.

 

Why is this a problem?

I used the term over-rely deliberately, implying not only more than is necessary, but too much to the point of being counter-productive by virtue of its excess.

The basic point is this: whether in a journal article, thesis or other scholarly publication, people are giving their time (and quite often paying money, too) to read what you have to say, not what others have said. The value add in your work comes from expressing your thoughts, interpretations, arguments, and ideas.

 

How do I know I have quotitis?

Quotitis can be diagnosed both through its manifestations in writing, but also through reflective questioning of the (often tacitly held) assumptions underpinning your writing.

Symptoms to spot in writing

Look at your findings / discussion section. How much is indented as quotes from raw data? How much is “quoting the delicious phrases of your participants” within a sentence? It would be daft of me to give a fixed proportion to limit this, so I’m not going to. Do you give multiple exemplars to illustrate the same theme? Look at the text around the quotes. Have you given yourself (word) space to introduce quotes appropriately, and to comment on them in detail?

Underlying causes (assumptions)

A full diagnosis requires you to consider what frames your approach to writing up qualitative research. Any of the following assumptions might well give the writing doctor cause for concern:

  1. No-one will trust or accept your claims unless you ‘prove’ each one with evidence in the form of quotes from raw data
  2. Participants express themselves perfectly, and your own words are never as good, and lack authenticity
  3. Not to quote participants directly is to deny them appropriate ‘voice’
  4. Raw data is so amazingly powerful it can ‘speak for itself’.

All of these assumptions are false. Perhaps at times, in certain kinds of research that place high emphasis on sharing knowledge production with participants, you may take issue with point 3. But still, I would suggest that an academic text will be more valuable by virtue of you developing ideas around data rather than just reproducing it.

Of course, the really uncomfortable truths around some cases of quotitis are as follows:

  1. You may have a fear of your own voice and words (whether self-doubt, uncertainty, insecurity), and prefer to rest in the safety of the words of others
  2. Simple laziness, for example using quotes to pad out a text and increase the number of words.
  3. Lack of analytic insight. Lots of cases of quotitis seem to be to reflect the fact that the researcher hasn’t gone much further than coding her or his data, coming up with a bunch of themes, and wishing to illustrate them with quotes from data in the text. Coding is sometimes useful as a starting point. It is rarely an outcome of analysis.

Prevention rather than treatment or cure

It is better to address underlying causes than to treat surface symptoms, so I’ll deal with this first, before presenting some tips for treatment/cure for an existing text.

Let’s challenge those underlying assumptions.

Raw data are needed to convince readers to believe your claims

This is about the ‘evidential burden’ placed on quotes from raw data. Think about it. Does a sentence or two from an interview really prove (or establish credibility) in anything by itself? Surely we have to think about where the quote came from, how it was treated as part of a sophisticated analytic process, how it relates to other features of the data, and what features of it readers are supposed to notice and interpret in particular ways.

Moreover placing the burden of proof on quotes may be utterly illogical and force (or be a symptom) of highly reductive analyses. I doubt very much that many of the most interesting analytical insights into qualitative datasets can be accurately conveyed in someone else’s words (in the case of an interview), or in your own field notes (in the case of observation). In my experience the real value-add ideas can’t be pinpointed to one bit of data or another. They come by looking across codes, themes, excerpts etc.

To prove my point I wrote a paper based on analysis of interviews with doctoral students. It was about relationships they have with other people and their impact on learning and experience. The paper does not contain one single quote from raw data. Admittedly one of the reviewers found this odd, but I argued my case to the editor and the paper stands with no raw data quoted whatsoever. Don’t believe me? Check it out here at the publisher’s website, or here (full text free) from ANU.

The justification was this: I did my analysis by identifying all the relationships between each participant and others around them (supervisors, students, family etc). I then went through and looked for all the data relating to that relationship. After several readings, I was able to write a synoptic text, summarising everything I knew about that relationship, its origins, importance and so on. This drew on all available data, and was shaped by a holistic and synthetic reading of the data. There was no one line or even paragraph from an interview that could demonstrate, illustrate, or even support what I had to say. Because what I had to say was at a different level from what students told me directly.

This is an extreme example, and I’ve written plenty of other papers where I use quotes from raw data. But I use them sparingly and I don’t operate from misplaced assumptions about evidential burden. The problem is, many referees do apply these unfortunate ideas, so be ready to defend yourself when they do!

Participants express themselves perfectly, your words are worse

Do people really speak in the most considered, informed and evocative ways? Sure, sometimes the odd gem of a quote comes out. But I’d suggest that the craft we can put into our written text, playing around with word order, phrasing, vocabulary, emphasis and so on, means we can reach much tighter and considered words than the on-the-spot responses in interviews, or madly rushed field notes.

What are raw data ‘authentic’ expressions of that your words in the paper or not? They may authentically capture what someone said or what you wrote in the field. But is that really what your paper is about? Is it not about reading into what people say, constructing a new argument out of those comments. In which case authenticity lies at a different level: what is authentic to your argument or contribution may not be what is authentic to a participant. Unless your contribution rests solely on reproducing what others say or feel about something, for example.

Not to quote is a denial of participant voice

I never promise participants they will be ventriloquized in my writing about them (though I know in some qualitative approaches this can be important). And anyway, I would never get chance to quote from all participants equally, so there would always be some who are denied more than others. Why should those who happen to say something in a particular way (the ‘real gem’ quotes) be given voice, while those who are less articulate be silenced? Not a useful or valid basis for my writing. Neither is giving everyone blanket the same ‘voice’ because that doesn’t seem likely to be a sound foundation for a balanced, well structured text either.

What’s more as I’ve hinted above, there’s another denial going on when you over-quote from raw data: denying readers access to your opinions and insights. You’re the author of the paper: it’s your interpretations and arguments I’m interested in. Don’t deny me, the reader, chance to benefit from your thoughts by hiding behind the words of others.

Raw data speaks for itself

No it doesn’t. Or at the best this is rarely the case. This is a continuation of the point above. If raw data really was that powerful and self-evident, we would simply present interview transcripts as papers and let it be. But we don’t. Why? Because readers need help and guidance in making sense of those data. You need to hold my hand, shine the light on relevant features, make links, show connections, read between the lines, and provide contextual information that is not contained in the quote itself.

So the way you introduce quotes is important – is this ‘typical’, ‘illustrative’, or chosen for some other reason? How does it relate to other quotes you could have chosen?

And you need to provide a commentary on each quote. What work is it doing in the development of your argument? What do you want readers to take from it? Why is it important?

Raw data speaks most powerfully when you speak on its behalf.

 

Treatment and cure of quotitis

Maybe you’re working on a text and you can diagnose a likely case of quotitis: the symptoms are there in the text itself, and your assumptions are in need of some serious questioning. What can you do? Here are some tips:

Ask yourself some really difficult questions, and be ready for answers you don’t want to hear: Are you over-reliant on quotes because your analysis is half-baked? Are you presenting a list of themes or categories but not doing much with them? Are you hiding behind your data because you aren’t clear about what you actually have to say or want to add to them?

Challenge yourself to sort the wheat from the chaff: are any of your quotes absolutely essential? I promise you, not all of them will be. So bin the one’s that aren’t, and start adding better introductions and commentaries on those that are most crucial. A good way to start the sorting process is by asking: am I giving three (or more) quotes when one would do? You don’t have to prove that three (or more) people said something relating to a theme by presenting three (or more) quotes. You can quote once and say something about the occurrence of these theme across your dataset.

Ask yourself ‘what is going on here’ when you read a bunch of quotes. I mean, in the sense, what do these quotes collectively say about a particular phenomenon or idea. How can you read between the lines, analyse, synthesise, interpret them together? Perhaps you can swap heaps of raw data for paraphrasing and making a higher-level argument.

Address your anxiety about evidential burden by being really clear in your methods section why readers should trust in your evidence (because your methods of data generation were appropriate and high quality) and what you have to say about it (because your methods of analysis are clearly explained so people have a sense of how you arrived at the claims you make without having to have everything ‘proved’ with a quote).

 

In conclusion

Quotitis can be painful, especially for readers. Left undiagnosed and untreated, it can be deadly (for your publications, scholarly reputation etc). Fortunately it is easy to spot, treatable, and its underlying causes can be addressed with some critical and honest reflection. Over to you…

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16 thoughts on “Do you have quotitis? How to diagnose, treat, and prevent!

  1. Ahmad Salih

    Hi Nick,

    Wonderful post. There is another type of quotitis, of which I’m a victim, that is related to the literature rather than the data; particularly when reviewing the literature. Many of the points you highlight also apply to the literature but the issue I struggle with the most is paraphrasing a beautifully written sentence or phrase. Any tips?

    Reply
  2. Prue Salter

    Thanks Nic, very timely, my supervisor just said the same thing to me but you have explained it really well. Motivated me to have another good whack at one of my analysis chapters, just reduced it from 64 pages to 48! My supervisor will be very pleased.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Prue

      Well done on the page reductions! Glad you found the blog helpful and that your supervisor and I are on the same wavelength!

      Thanks for your post

      Nick

      Reply
  3. Kathrine Jensen (@kshjensen)

    I enjoyed the post and it has got me thinking about the use of quotations. Perhaps I am an atypical reader but I enjoy reading quotes in research papers – possibly my disciplinary background in Anthropology has influenced this…
    I would agree completely that raw data does not speak for itself and that you need to present your analysis, interpretation of data and arguments. But I do think that quotes are useful to highlight the basis for those interpretations and arguments in your paper.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Kathrine. Thank you for your comments. I enjoy reading good quotations, too, if they come in the form of rich field notes, or comments where participants really say something. The ones that do less work, for me, are the short clips of a sentence or two that say nothing more than: here’s some [decontextualised] proof! So fewer quotations that develop more and offer something in themselves I think are better. My point was to debunk the myth that they are 100% required to ‘prove’ what you have to say is ‘true’, and to suggest readers are usually more interested in the analysis and interpretation not the raw data itself.

      Reply
  4. nickhopwood Post author

    Here is a response I received on email from Alain Gaimi, from INSERM in France. He raises a lot of great points!

    Dear colleagues

    A message from someone who has always done qualitative based research even though I would not define my research through the lenses of methodology… What counts are the ideas
    There is certainly a tendency to use transcribed material in research (and also iconic / images / media etc…and paraphrasing it.
    But the discussion should not be around extracts to validate an argument only. The question of validation through examples shows to what extent we are contemned by the epistemology of hypothetic-deductive approaches in which “materials” validate the reasoning and the text of the author.
    I will give a few examples in which the material is not used for validating but for illustrating and developing the ideas à partir the presentation and organization of itself

    1 : Passages from Walter Benjamin (1982-1989) : book of quotes only with very short introduction from the author explaining the aims of the project and illustrating the XIX° century Paris

    2 : Intimate communications : by Robert Stoller and Gilbert Herdt (1990) : a dialogue book between an anthropologist and a psycho-analyst about the sexual and erotic life of Sambia (a group of people in Papuasia New Guinea). The book has a theoretical introduction about clinical ethnography and most of the rest of the book are transcripts of interviews of sambaing collected by both authors and giving the dialogue and interpretations discussed between the two authors.

    3 : La souffrance du monde by Bourdieu in which Bourdieu rewrites a collection of short stories – case studies from the field and the rewriting of these materials operates as a form of interpretation.

    4 : Reality and Dream from Georges Devereux (1951) in which Devereux gives a 200 pages theoretical account and then we can read the next 400 pages of transcripts and accounts of psychological tests.

    The question is not too much or not enough : the question is do we need at all quotations from material to explain ideas ? Or do we need a lot of material to enter completely in the process including the posture of the researcher, the quotations from the researchers. It is true that with an amount of 6.000 to 8.000 words allocated for the publication of a paper even in a so-called quail journal, this is not possible. So why don’t we write monographs ? scientific monographs including integral transcripts, pictures and other iconography to present and illustrate what we have to say, the ideas that we want to defend instead of using these materials as pieces of evidence. We are forgetting that even in quantitative research statistical data are given to illustrate ideas as a rhetoric more than giving evidence….

    Have fun dear colleagues ….

    Alain Giami

    Reply
  5. nickhopwood Post author

    Here is another response emailed to me (and posted here with author’s permission), by Barbara F. Sharf, Professor Emerita, Dept. of Communication, Texas A & M University.

    I’m grateful to Barbara for her wise and thoughtful comments (which I agree with wholly), and for her letting me post them here!

    All forms of interpretive and critical research require thoughtfulness and skillful writing. Excesses in any respect are usually uncalled for, often expose a lack of discipline and understanding, and weaken the quality of the scholarship. So, yes, too many and/or overly long quotations frequently expose a novice researcher, may not contribute to truly supporting an interpretive insight, and usually try the patience of readers. However, Nigel makes some excellent arguments below concerning why and how quotes should be put to good use. I would add further that in interpretive social science and humanities scholarship using textual materials, including transcripts of interviews and focus groups, field notes, as well as original written texts, these are the researcher’s data, and the main source of supporting the researcher’s assertions. In other words, quoted excerpts, when chosen well and used judiciously, are necessary proof in constructing a sound interpretive or critical argument. Personally, I think quotitis, as it’s been presented in this forum, needs to be carefully defined and discussed. It’s not a matter of whether to use quoted material, but consideration of why and how, and what constitutes persuasive and skillful evidence for one’s argument.

    Reply
  6. nickhopwood Post author

    And yet another comment emailed to me, this time from Nigel King. More wise words – my original post has provoked the kind of discussion about quotations that I was hoping for! 🙂
    Thanks, Nigel!

    > Thanks also from me – a thought-provoking item. I mostly agree with it but have some quibbles. Without doubt one of the things I most often ask final year UG project/Masters/PhD students to address in their theses is the way they use quotes in their findings. Lists of quotes under a theme heading tell us little and don’t demonstrate much interpretive ability, and comments before or after that just paraphrase what is in the quote are even worse! A particular bugbear of mine is the use of endless very short quotes and I tend to encourage students to use fewer, longer quotes – and above all, as Nick says, to think about why they are using each one.
    >
    > My quibbles relate to the reasons why we use quotes at all, in particular in the context of the requirements of specific methodological approaches. First, while it is clearly nonsense to argue that a quotes “validates” a theme, I think there is an argument that they can give something of the flavour of the way participants talk about the phenomena in which we are interested. In a sense this is partly an aesthetic point – good use of quotes can help to engage the reader, and that is surely a worthwhile aim, given the general turgidity of academic writing! It can also add clarity to the author’s argument; if I’m making the point, for example, that many participants were hesitant to appear critical of health professionals, I feel this is strengthened by a quote that illustrates this tendency. I’m put in mind of the way scholars in subjects such as English Literature use quotes from the poets, novelists, playwrights (etc) whose work they are discussing – it’s not an exact parallel but there is some overlap in the aims of the practice.
    >
    > Second, in some qualitative approaches that seek to achieve closeness to participants’ experiences – I’m thinking particularly of phenomenological approaches here, but not exclusively these – there really would be something lacking if we never got to see the words of those whose experiences we were examining. This may appear to be a version of the “giving voice” argument, but I don’t think it’s quite the same. I often feel that such claims can be a little patronising, as if people rely on academic social scientists to acquire a “voice”, though on occasion it is valid where a particular perspective has been grossly overlooked in the literature. My argument is more about the researcher than the participant – phenomenology (and some other approaches) is particularly concerned not to force the researcher’s world view on that of the participant, and appropriate use of quotes can help the researcher step back and think about what s/he is doing.
    >
    > Thanks again to Nick for stimulating my reflection and Kerry for sharing it – feels good to pause from the daily grind and think a bit!
    >
    > Cheers
    > Nigel

    Reply
  7. nickhopwood Post author

    As a brief response to Nigel, Barbara and Alain:
    Yes! Totally!
    But I’m still amazed and shocked at:
    1. How often I’m at the receiving end of reviewers’ comments that operate on the (problematic, as we all agree) quotation = proof / validation of theme logic
    2. How often I see this logic in action in papers I’m asked to review.

    I’m all for the use of raw data – quotitis is specifically a case of OVER use or OVER reliance, or use FOR THE WRONG REASONS…

    Roll on lots of well crafted texts that make the most of quotations!

    And Alain: I love your point about monographs! I’m writing one at the moment, and the opportunity it offers to convey some real depth in the empirical material is wonderful!

    Reply
  8. Jenny Ostini

    I think that part of the reason for quotitis comes from our anxiety as qualitative social scientists to be seen to be having “real” data. But you are entirely right when you talk about how the value in our research is how we draw meaning from our analyses. We do need to have a level of transparency around method but that comes from research design and not from citing raw data.

    I’m about to start a new project using critical literacy theory to examine people’s everyday experiences of using digital media and I will be monitoring myself especially carefully for quotitis.

    On a lighter note, I circulated the article to my colleagues and have discovered a secondary use for it to discern kindred intellectual spirits based on their responses.

    Reply
  9. Elaine Kasket

    Brilliant. This goes straight into my required reading for my research methodologies modules…I’ve created a “star bloggers” section on Blackboard for links to your posts, Nick!

    Reply
  10. Pingback: Should we include audio extracts in publications? | The Sociological Imagination

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