Collecting data in research

How careful planning can ensure fewer problems are encountered in data collection

How careful planning can ensure fewer problems are encountered in data collection

Picture: Nick Lowndes

Collecting research data is one of the most exciting steps in the research process. For many researchers, this is the stage when a project comes to life. It is vital, therefore, that data collection is carefully planned because, in many cases, it is the only opportunity for researchers to connect with participants and gather information that will comprise the study findings. This means that it is important to ensure that the data aligned with the research aims is collected to enable robust analysis.

If something is missed or data is collected in a less favourable way, it may be impossible to go back and collect additional data. This can have significant implications for the study’s duration, and the quality of the analysis and findings.

The choice of data collection method should be based on the research question and the methodological approach being adopted.

Methodological approach

At the most simple level, qualitative projects should involve collecting narrative or experiential data, while quantitative projects should involve collecting numerical data (Grove et al 2012, Halcomb and Hickman 2015, Polit and Beck 2017). In mixed methods projects, the methods of data collection are often chosen so that the weaknesses of one method complement the strengths of the other (Halcomb and Hickman 2015).

When planning data collection, the researcher should consider several issues. These include ensuring data are collected in a way consistent with the methodological approach and promotes quality analysis.

Researchers should also consider contextual feasibility, ensuring data collection methods are acceptable to participants and engaging them and relevant stakeholders in the research process.

Additionally, the research team should be sufficiently flexible to modify data collection as the project unfolds or if circumstances are not as predicted. Finally, the specific environment of data collection should be considered to ensure optimal data collection and researcher safety.

Video observation

Five papers in this edition of Nurse Researcher discuss a range of different issues in collecting research data.

In the first of these, James et al (2019) describe an innovative approach of non-participatory video observation to explore communication between general practice nurses and patients during chronic disease management consultations.

This novel approach enabled in-depth analysis of verbal, paraverbal and non-verbal communication in these interactions without the potentially deleterious effect of having an observer in the consultation room.

Additionally, the video recordings facilitated the research team’s microanalysis of interactions that would not have been possible via participatory observation alone.

Low impact

An important consideration in data collection is being mindful of collecting data in a way that is acceptable to the specific participant group and facilitates their participation at a low level of impact (Polit and Beck 2017).

A good example of this is described by Divall and Spiby (2019), who collected data from discussion boards on popular parenting websites from women about their birth plans.

Since many women of childbearing age regularly interact on parenting forums, this was an acceptable means of collecting data without undue burden on participants.

Data were collected by asking three broad questions, each of which was posed as a separate discussion thread on two parenting sites. Participants simply commented on the discussion thread to provide their data.

The paper also provides an insight into some of the ethical challenges of this kind of data collection. As nurses become more engaged with technology, emerging methods of data collection involve online strategies and social media, and researchers should consider these as viable options for data collection.

Participant experience

It can be difficult to engage participants in traditional approaches to data collection. In their paper, Edmonson and Pini (2019) describe the use of visual methods, such as photography, in qualitative research to provide stimuli or structure to interviews.

Through their description of photo elicitation and photo voice methods, Edmonson and Pini bring methods often used in sociology and psychology into health research.

They also offer a novel data collection method that can reduce the gap between interviewer and participant, facilitate deeper expression of participant experience and enhance the experience of participants in the research.

Successful research requires researchers to be sufficiently agile to adapt planned data collection methods should things not go as planned (Grove et al 2012).

During qualitative data collection, in particular, different lines of enquiry may emerge, or the methods being used might not be providing the anticipated kind of data (Polit and Beck 2017).

While changing data collection methods is an important strategy to rescue a study that is not going as planned, it should not be undertaken without careful considering its effects. Baillie (2019) raises the issues involved in exchanging focus groups for individual interviews during data collection. Despite the apparent similarity between focus groups and interviews, Baillie highlights their differences and the main considerations in maintaining quality in the data.

Balancing roles

Researchers may also want to consider the environment in which the data are collected. This can include security risks related to fieldwork, having sufficient private space to conduct data collection, and balancing the roles of clinician and researcher.

In qualitative studies, data collection can be an intense experience that can sometimes be overwhelming for the researcher (Polit and Beck 2017). Dawson et al (2019) describe their experience of collecting ethnographic data in the particularly complex environment of a humanitarian organisation in a remote setting.

Their paper illustrates the challenges of collecting and storing the data, as well as the difficulty of having limited communications with supervisors. This experience highlights the importance of careful planning to ensure both robust data collection and safety of the researcher.

This edition of Nurse Researcher raises a range of issues in data collection that are often silent in the literature but highly relevant to researchers.

As such, it is invaluable for researchers in the planning phase and those encountering challenges when collecting data, and raises innovative ways to collect and resolve data collection issues.

Data collection should be exciting for researchers because it ensures the voices of participants are heard and new knowledge discovered. Careful planning will help to reduce the number of challenges encountered along the way.


  • Baillie L (2019) Exchanging focus groups for individual interviews when collecting qualitative data. Nurse Researcher. doi: 10.7748/nr.2019.e1633
  • Dawson S, Jackson D, Elliott D (2019) Challenges and reflections from an international, humanitarian, short-term surgical mission on collecting ethnographic data in a remote environment. Nurse Researcher. doi: 10.7748/nr.2019.e1627
  • Divall B, Spiby H (2019) Online forums for data collection: ethical challenges from a study exploring women’s views of birth plans. Nurse Researcher. doi: 10.7748/nr.2019.e1632
  • Edmondson A, Pini S (2019) The pros and cons of using photographs in nursing research. Nurse Researcher. doi: 10.7748/nr.2019.e1620
  • Grove S, Burns N, Gray J (2012) The Practice of Nursing Research: Appraisal, Synthesis, and Generation of Evidence. Seventh edition. Elsevier Health Sciences, Amsterdam.
  • Halcomb E, Hickman L (2015) Mixed methods research. Nursing Standard. 29, 32, 42-48.
  • James S, Desborough J, McInnes S et al (2019) Strategies for using non-participatory video research methods in general practice. Nurse Researcher. doi: 10.7748/nr.2019.e1667
  • Polit D, Beck C (2017) Nursing Research: Generating and Assessing Evidence for Nursing Practice. Tenth edition. Wolters-Kluwer, Philadelphia PA.

Elizabeth Halcomb is professor of primary health care nursing, School of Nursing, University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia, and editor, Nurse Researcher 

Sharon James is PhD candidate, School of Nursing, University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia


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