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Meet the editors of... Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management

An interview with: Deryl Northcott and Bill Doolin

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Image: Dr Deryl NorthcottDr Deryl Northcott is Professor of Management Accounting in the AUT Business School. Her research interests lie in this area, particularly in health sector cost and performance management, and capital investment decision making. She specializes in case study based research in order to explore uses of management accounting within real organizational contexts. She has written over 50 academic articles, 8 book chapters and a book, Capital Investment Decision-Making, which is published in three languages and used in universities around the world. Most recently, she co-edited the 2007 (3rd) edition of Issues in Management Accounting with Professors Trevor Hopper and Bob Scapens of Manchester Business School.

Image: Dr Bill DoolinDr Bill Doolin is Professor of Technology and Organization & Microsoft Chair in e-Business in the AUT Business School. He teaches and researches in e-business, with a particular interest in the implications of technology in organizations and society. His research approach has been to use qualitative methods informed by critical discourse analysis, actor–network theory, and the social construction of technology. His research has appeared in a wide range of journals and he is currently researching the adoption and use of Internet-based technologies and the discourses shaping the trajectory of biotechnology innovation in New Zealand.

 

Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management (QRAM) was started four years ago to provide a platform for qualitative research, which is making increasing contribution in this field, as people realize the value of the rich descriptive data that it produces. Interdisciplinary and international, QRAM welcomes qualitative research that is academically rigorous and tells interesting stories; that advances theoretical understanding of qualitative research and looks at it against different paradigms; and that has clear practical implications. QRAM accepts articles on a range of issues concerning accounting, management and organizations and is read by an audience of academics, practitioners and policy -makers.

Journal mission and the position of qualitative research

Can you say a bit more about why you felt there was a need for this journal?

Although there are many good accounting and management journals that are open to qualitative studies, we felt that the increasing recognition, quality and range of qualitative research warranted a specialist outlet. We were responding to a general perception that there were fewer quality journal outlets available for qualitative research. One reason for this is that many journals impose stringent word limits that are difficult to meet when reporting qualitative studies, such as case studies, where an appreciation of the organizational context is crucial to understanding the findings. Also, qualitative research tends to draw on less "taken for granted" methods and theoretical perspectives, so explaining these perspectives can make qualitative papers longer. While we suggest a word limit for QRAM submissions, we do tend to take a more lenient view of papers that need to be longer.

Is it still the case that more business-related journals favour a quantitative research paradigm?

It varies across different countries. Certainly, the north American journals generally favour quantitative research, but there is a growing number of excellent journals based in Europe and elsewhere that are more accepting of other research approaches. Qualitative research is certainly gaining stature internationally.

Why has there been such an interest in qualitative methods in accounting research, and what is the current status of qualitative research in the accounting research community?

Using qualitative methods rather than quantitative methods allows different research questions to be examined. Since accounting is a humanly constructed activity –  it takes place in different contexts, in different ways, for different reasons – there is a lot of interest in understanding how and why various accounting practices are used. What makes some accounting practices popular and others not? Why are they used? What effects do they have on organizations? These sorts of questions are very difficult to explore using surveys or databases – usually, we need to go and talk to people. The accounting research community is increasingly interested in these issues and there is a lot of excellent qualitative work being done to explore them. A forthcoming special issue focuses on the role and status of qualitative methods in accounting, so we are interested to see what interesting contributions we get for that one.

In what parts of the globe is there most interest in qualitative research and does this coincide with the journal's reach?

In Europe, Australasia and parts of Asia, qualitative research is notably stronger. We find we receive excellent submissions from all of these regions. While we have received submissions from the USA also, they tend to be less frequent. However, we don't want to limit QRAM to a particular geographical audience – we are happy to foster qualitative research wherever it's being done, and to debate why it isn't being done in other places! We are always interested in methodological contributions that reflect on why qualitative research is (or is not) relevant and valued in different contexts. Let's open up the debate on this one!

Is there a tension between the creativity inherent in qualitative research and the need to increase validity of findings?

All researchers aim to demonstrate that their findings are valid, but there are different ways of establishing validity across different genres of research. However, for qualitative researchers this isn't about achieving internal validity (as is the case for quantitative research), it's about demonstrating contextual validity. This means that the evidence presented, the way it is interpreted, and the conclusions drawn from it, must all be credible. So, qualitative researchers can still be creative – looking at interesting research questions, in varying contexts, from different theoretical perspectives – without compromising the validity of their research. Once people understand what validity means in the context of qualitative research, they realize that creativity and validity can go together.

What motivates people to take up qualitative research?

As we mentioned above, people tend to take up qualitative research because it's the most useful approach for exploring the research questions that interest them. Researchers can come to the how and why questions that are best suited to qualitative research via different paths. Sometimes, they've done quantitative research and found the answers a bit unsatisfying. For example, they may have found a statistical correlation between two variables, but can't say anything about the causality or relationship that's going on between them – to explore this, they may turn to qualitative methods. Or, people may have a connection or personal experience with a particular organization or sector. They may observe some interesting accounting or management practices and decide to undertake a case study. The motivation for doing qualitative research is usually a combination of finding an interesting research question that suits this approach, and having an opportunity arise to explore it. Also, it helps if you're a people person, particularly for approaches like case studies, where we aim to understand our research phenomena from the perspective of real people in real organizations.

Editorial scope

Can you describe the range of your subject coverage?

We have broad range of subject coverage that is reflected in our international Editorial Advisory Board. As the journal title suggests we are interested in publishing qualitative research that falls within the general fields of accounting and management, as well as at their intersection. This means that many of the papers that we publish are drawn from areas such as management accounting, financial reporting, accountability, and management control. However, we also publish papers from a wider range of interdisciplinary areas such as, for example, corporate social responsibility, supply chain management, work, and entrepreneurship. A common thread that we hope will distinguish the papers published in QRAM is the way that their authors' explicitly engage with the practical and methodological aspects of doing their qualitative research. Finally, we publish papers that discuss and reflect on qualitative research as a method in different research traditions. For example, we have published papers on the use of case studies and research diaries.

You publish a lot of case studies.  What qualities would you look for in such an article?

We accept that case studies can be conducted from a range of theoretical or epistemological positions. What we look for are case studies that utilize qualitative evidence to tell interesting and academically rigorous stories. A good case study will be built on rich description that brings the case to life, but also be theoretically informed so that reader is aided in understanding the implications of the study for theory and practice. Importantly, the case study must be plausible and convincing, so we look for a strong research method section that discusses both how the research was conducted and how the data generated was analysed.

Would you publish a paper that used quantitative methods as well as qualitative, and is it possible to integrate the two?

Yes, definitely. Mixed method research is emerging as an important approach in its own right, and we are certainly open to publishing papers that utilize such an approach. What we look for is papers in which the qualitative evidence is given at least equal weight to the quantitative data, and in which the authors make an attempt to reflect on the implications of a mixed method research design.

Are there any examples which spring to mind of particularly interesting or innovative qualitative research methods?

We were fortunate to have Professor Sue Llewellyn (Leicester University) write us a thought-provoking piece on the use of case studies in accounting and management research entitled "Case studies and differentiated realities". In it she adds to the debate on contribution of case studies by arguing that they explore multiple realities. We were so impressed with the paper that we have commissioned commentaries on it from eminent academics with an interest in this area. Another interesting methodological paper that we published discussed the use of a research diary as a tool for reflexive practice in management research. That paper was authored by Dr Sara Nadin (University of Bradford) and Professor Catherine Cassell (Manchester Business School).

In 2008 you will be publishing a special issue on the role and status of qualitative methods in contemporary accounting research.  Do you have other plans for special issues?

We decided early on in the journal's history that we would like to publish a special issue each year if possible. This provides the opportunity for other scholars in our academic community to assemble a group of papers specifically focused on a theme that they feel is important to their field. We think that this will enable QRAM to publish in areas that are at the cutting edge of accounting and management research. Past special issues have focused on management control and on organizational and accounting change. We are currently in discussions over a future special issue on work and control in the new economy, and we would welcome proposals from other academics for potential special issues on topics that fit the journal's scope.

Where do you intend to take the journal over the next five years?

Our intention for the next five years is to continue to build QRAM's reputation as a forum for high-quality international and interdisciplinary qualitative research at the conjunction of accounting, management and organization studies. We look forward to growing the journal in terms of both the number of quality submissions we receive and the number of papers we publish each year.

Publishing issues

What advice would you give to the young qualitative researcher, trying to get an article published for the first time?

First, read, read and read! Get to know the work that's getting into the journals, and make sure your own work is of an appropriate standard for the journal you're targeting. Second, take your paper to a conference, show it to respected colleagues and get comments and suggestions for improving it. It's not an easy step, to bare your soul by writing something for others to critique, but that's what getting published is all about. Get your work out there and see what reaction it gets – it's likely to get the same sort of reaction from journal editors and reviewers too. Third, make sure you are up to date with what's going on in your particular area and be clear about demonstrating what contribution your own work makes to this field. Fourth, know the journal's remit and follow the instructions to authors. We are surprised how often we have to reject papers sent to QRAM that are not qualitative studies. Finally, don't be despondent if the reviewers don't love your paper the first time around. Give yourself some time to reflect on their comments, then work methodically through their points, spelling out how you have responded to each one. Your paper will be better for it.

Do you provide any guidelines to your peer reviewers as to what qualities to look for in an article?

We use a double-blind review process involving at least two peer reviewers. Our reviewers are drawn from our Editorial Advisory Board and an increasingly large group of ad hoc international reviewers who have expertise specific to a particular paper. We ask our reviewers to comment on the:

  1. likely interest in the topic for our readers
  2. formulation of the research problem or question
  3. clarity of the paper's objectives
  4. paper's theoretical soundness
  5. methodology and data analysis
  6. organization and flow of the paper's argument
  7. legitimacy of the conclusions
  8. contribution made to the research area.

In addition, we ask our reviewers to provide a considered, constructive set of evaluative comments to help the authors improve their paper.

And finally...

You have both researched and taught in Europe but have come back to New Zealand.  What advantages, apart from the scenery, does New Zealand offer the researcher?

New Zealand has been described as a "small country, but a big laboratory". It is, in general, an innovative and flexible nation when it comes to accounting and management, perhaps because NZ businesses need to be that way to compete on the world stage. In the public sector (where we both have done a lot of our research), NZ has been a leader in many of the reforms that have been tried around the world. There is a lot of rich material for qualitative researchers to explore here, therefore. Also, New Zealanders are friendly people, so it is often relatively easy to make contacts and gain access for case studies. However, as well as enjoying the advantages of being based in NZ, we both value our close connections with international colleagues. The research world is becoming increasingly global so, to some extent, it doesn't matter where you are, you can still work with great colleagues from around the world. Given that, why wouldn't you want to live in the most beautiful country on earth?

Publisher's note

Dr Deryl Northcott and Dr Bill Doolin were interviewed in April 2007.

Visit the information page for: Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management