Understanding Nursing and Healthcare Research


Patricia Cronin, Michael Coughlan & Valerie Smith

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright

    List of Figures and Tables


    About the Authors

    Patricia Cronin is an Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin prior to which she worked at City University, London. She has been involved in healthcare education for 20 years. Her clinical background is in surgical and gastrointestinal nursing, which she teaches at undergraduate level. She has a special interest in enabling students to engage in research and theory and these areas form the focus of her postgraduate teaching. She has published widely, co-authoring three books and has written book chapters and journal articles related to clinical skills, gastrointestinal nursing, research and theory.

    Qualifications: PhD, MSc, BSc Nursing & Education, DipN (Lond), RN.

    Michael Coughlan is an Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing, Trinity College Dublin, where he has worked since 2002. He is a Registered Nurse Tutor and has been involved in nurse education for over 20 years. He has a wide experience in guiding and supervising students undertaking literature reviews and research studies at both an undergraduate and postgraduate level. His interests include research, and haematology and oncology nursing and he has a number of publications in these areas, including co-authoring a book on undertaking literature reviews.

    Qualifications: BNS, MEd., RPN, RGN, RNT.

    Valerie Smith is a part-time Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin and a part-time Research Fellow in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, National University of Ireland, Galway. She is a Registered Midwife, Nurse Tutor and General Nurse and has been involved in healthcare education and research since 2005. She currently leads modules on research evidence for practice, supervises and mentors students at undergraduate and postgraduate level and facilitates workshops on research methods, in particular, systematic review methodology. She has published widely in the area of maternity care and research methods, reviews for six international healthcare journals, and is an associate editor for the BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth journal.

    Qualifications: PhD, MSc, BSc (Hons) Midwifery, PGDip (Stats), PGDip (CHSE), BNS, RGN, RM, RNT.

    About the Companion Website

    Visit the companion website at https://study.sagepub.com/cronin to find a range of teaching and learning material for lecturers and students, including the following.

    For Lecturers

    Seminar plans which relate to key issues in nursing research. These can be downloaded for use in your classes or adapted to meet your own needs. The activities are based on group work or individual study.

    PowerPoint slides to use in your lectures or seminars.

    For Students

    Free online readings to use as examples of research. These are indicated by the icon in the text.

    Multiple choice questions to test your knowledge.

    Flashcard glossary of key terms in nursing and healthcare research to help you revise.

    Web links related to each chapter of the book.

    Critical appraisal tool for use in assessments.

  • Glossary

    Accessible population (Study population)

    This is a portion of the target population that a researcher can easily access. The accessible population needs to be representative of the target population if inferences to the target population are to be made.

    Action research

    Action research incorporates working with participants in a specific situation to problem solve an issue that is identified as needing development/improvement and identification and enactment of an intervention (change) to achieved the desired outcome.

    Apriori coding

    A template of possible codes is created before the formal analysis process begins.


    Respect for a person's right to self-determination and freedom of choice.


    Doing good.

    Bivariate analysis

    The comparison of two variables to determine if there is a relationship between them.

    Categorical data

    Data such as nominal and ordinal level that can be categorised into distinct groups but have no inherent numerical value.

    Case study

    Case study is the study of single or multiple cases (unit, group or entity) in its own right. The cases have clear boundaries and are studied in context because they always occur in a physical and social setting.

    Causal-comparative/ex-post-facto designs

    Non-experimental designs that are closest to an experiment because the research question is causal but it is not possible to manipulate the independent variable.

    Causal relationship

    A relationship whereby a change in one variable causes a change in another variable.


    This is a study where data is gathered from the entire target population.

    Central tendency

    The single value that represents the distribution of the data. There are three measures of central tendency namely the mode, the median and the mean.

    Clinical equipoise

    A state of uncertainty about the benefits of treatments being evaluated in a randomised clinical trial.


    Forcing or placing undue pressure or influence on a person.

    Commissioned study

    A study in which an external funding body, such as a professional organisation, a government department or a private funding source, has requested that research on a particular topic be done.


    Having the ability or necessary skills to perform an action.

    Concept analysis

    This is a review of the literature to determine the attributes and characteristics of a concept.

    Continuous data

    Data that have a numerical value such as interval and ratio level and can be measured along a continuum.

    Correlation co-efficient (r)

    Is a number between −1.0 (perfect negative correlation) and 1.0 (perfect positive correlation) that represents the strength of the relationship between two or more variables. 0.0 indicates no relationship. A positive correlation means the variables move in the same direction while a negative correlation means they move in opposite directions.

    Correlational designs

    Non-experimental designs that can measure or test the relationship between two or more variables.

    Correlation indices

    A calculation of the existence and/or strength of a relationship between two variables.


    Accuracy and truth in research findings.

    Critical analysis

    An appraisal of the quality of a research study. Unlike a critique in that only significant strengths / limitations of the study are presented.

    Critical/transformative/participatory/advocacy paradigm

    Paradigms that are concerned with social conditions and a critique of the known structure of society. Advocacy and participatory world views draw on critical theory and their focus is on enablement, empowerment and emancipation.


    A critical examination of a research study that identifies the strengths and limitations of that study. It is often undertaken as an academic exercise.

    Data saturation

    This is said to be achieved when no new themes are emerging from the data and participants’ descriptions reflect previous data gathered. It is an indicator that data collection can cease.


    Commonly referred to as ‘general to specific’. In research, testing of an existing theory takes place and is then either accepted, rejected or modified. Associated with theory testing research.


    An ethical theory which focuses on duty and obligation in research.

    Descriptive/observational designs

    Non-experimental designs that broadly focus on observing or describing a phenomenon to provide a precise account of its existence or nature, its prevalence and/or distribution.

    Descriptive statistics

    Analysis that is undertaken to describe the characteristics of those involved in a study. The most common features that involve analysis of one variable at a time (univariate analysis) are frequency/distribution, central tendency and dispersion/measures of variability.

    Dispersion/measures of variability

    Measures of dispersion offer insight into the spread (dispersion) of scores in a set of data.


    The spreading, circulation or dispersal of something, especially information, widely.

    Documentary sources

    Any form of records related to the lives of individuals, groups, communities or societies.

    Frequency distribution

    Concerned with how many times a value appears in the data. These can be presented as actual numbers (n), percentages or category (where there are large numbers).


    The branch of philosophy that studies the history of knowledge.


    The opposite of rationalism, empiricism is located in the belief that our knowledge is derived from our experiences of the world. The vehicles for our experiences are our senses.


    A branch of moral philosophy concerned with that which is right or wrong, good or bad, fair or unfair.


    Ethnography is the study of the culture and social structure of groups and has its roots in anthropology.

    Exclusion criteria

    These are conditions whose presence or absence, depending on the study, will exclude individuals from the target population.

    Experimental designs

    Concerned with conducting experiments and include three elements: intervention, control and randomisation.


    A person, organisation, group or platform that allows or denies people access to participating in a research study.


    The ability to extend or apply a study's findings to individuals outside of the study sample in the wider, general community.

    Grounded theory

    In grounded theory methodology a systematic set of procedures are used to develop theory that is ‘grounded’ in the data.

    Guttman Scale

    A cumulative scale where respondents tick statements with which they agree. It is hierarchical, that is, when a person ticks a statement with which they agree it is likely that they will also agree with statements lower down in the hierarchy.


    Diversity or differences in some element, for example practices or populations.


    The opposite of heterogeneity and refers to similarity in elements.


    A statement that expresses a relationship between two or more variables that will be examined in a study. It may be considered a prediction of the possible results of a study.

    Inclusion criteria

    These are distinct conditions that will identify those who will be included in the target population.


    Commonly referred to as ‘specific to general’. In research, it is where enough observations and measurements of a phenomenon are made until a confident generalisation can be made. Associated with theory generating research.

    Inductive coding

    Coding directly from the data in analysis of narrative (words).

    Integrative review

    This is an all-encompassing review of the literature (experimental, non-experimental, theoretical and conceptual) whose aim is to offer an in-depth understanding of a phenomenon.

    Inferential statistics

    Analysis that attempts to establish if there is a relationship between variables; making inferences (predictions) about the wider population from which the sample was drawn and assessing the probability that the outcomes of the study are dependable and did not happen by chance.


    Paradigms whose central belief is that reality is constructed through the meanings human beings develop as a result of their experiences and their interactions with others in a social world.


    A formal dialogue between two or more people for the purpose of eliciting information about a phenomenon of interest. Can be undertaken in person, on the telephone or through electronic media.

    Journal impact factor

    A measure that reflects the frequency with which a journal's articles are cited in the scientific literature. It is often used as a proxy measure for the relative importance of a journal within its field.


    Fairness and equity.

    Levels of data

    Refers to the type of numerical data collected in a research study. There are four main types, that is, nominal, ordinal, interval and ratio.

    Level of significance

    This refers to the degree to which a finding probably occurred by chance. This is usually set at less than or equal to 0.05 per cent; meaning that chance will only play a role in this finding at worst five times in every 100.

    Lexical semantics

    The analysis of word meanings and relations between them.

    Likert Scale

    A scale that measures level of agreement with a series of pre-defined statements.

    Measurement Scale

    A series of questions that measures or tests variables related to a phenomenon.


    A statistical pooling of results from all of the individual studies reporting on an identified outcome in order to provide an overall single result for that outcome.


    Pertaining to a body of strict practices and procedures or a set of working methods used by those engaging in a process of inquiry.

    Mixed method

    Mixed method studies that combine or blend methods that are normally associated with different paradigms in one study.

    Multivariate analysis

    The comparison of more than two variables to see if there is a relationship between them.

    Narrative review

    Also known as a traditional literature review. It should be undertaken in a systematic manner, with clear review strategies and searches that are systematic in nature.

    Narrative research

    Narrative research refers to spoken or written text that gives an account of something (event(s) and/or action(s)) that are connected.

    Non-experimental design

    All studies that are not experimental or quasi-experimental.


    Avoidance of harm.

    Non-probability sample

    This is a sample that is probably not representative of the target population. Convenience and purposive samples are examples.

    Non-response bias

    A potentially inaccurate presumption that can be made by not accounting for the non-responders in a survey.

    Normal distribution

    Demonstrates the spread of the scores in a data set. Data that are normally distributed produce a ‘bell’ shape when scores are plotted on a graph. Also known as a ‘Gaussian’ curve. In a bell curve most data are concentrated around the centre with the frequency of scores falling off at either side.

    Null hypothesis (Statistical hypothesis)

    This is a testable statement asserting that there is no relationship between two or more variables. By statistically rejecting the null-hypothesis the researcher accepts the hypothesis as true.


    Where a researcher directly observes phenomena in the natural setting or context.


    Definitions vary but all refer to a ‘pattern’, ‘example’ or ‘exemplar’. Most quoted definition is that of Kuhn (1970) who describes a paradigm as the underlying assumptions and intellectual structures that direct research and development in a given field.

    Personal knowledge

    Knowledge by ‘acquaintance’. Associated with having experience of something.


    A phenomenon is an aspect of reality that can be experienced or sensed. Phenomena when labelled are known as concepts.


    Phenomenology is a philosophy rather than a scientific method that underpins a variety of methods for studying and understanding individuals’ ‘lived experiences’.


    A dummy treatment, for example, a sugar pill.


    May be defined as all the components that are deemed to have one or more common characteristics and therefore constitute a group.


    Paradigms that underpin the scientific method with prediction, generalisation, measurement, observables and researcher objectivity as key features.

    Power analysis

    A statistical test to identify the sample size required to prevent a Type II sampling error.


    The likelihood that the results were not obtained by chance alone if the null hypothesis is true. Assuming that the null hypothesis is true the p value tells researchers how rarely they would observe a difference as large (or larger) than the one they did.

    Probability sample

    This is a sample that is probably representative of the target population. Simple random and stratified random samples are examples.

    Procedural knowledge

    Knowledge ‘how’. Associated with the practical knowledge of how to do something.

    Propositional knowledge

    Knowledge ‘that’. Associated with theories, facts, laws.

    Prospective correlation study

    A study that recruits participants and follows them forward in time to determine any relationships between the variables under examination in the study.

    Qualitative descriptive/Exploratory design

    Research methodology whose purpose is to describe/explore a phenomenon/problem/issue. Can encompass a broad range of questions relating to people's experiences, knowledge, attitudes, feelings, perceptions and/or views.


    Similar to an experiment in that the manipulation of an intervention is always present but the criteria of control and randomisation may be missing.


    A document that contains a series of questions designed to obtain information about a phenomenon of interest. Can incorporate tests or scales.

    Randomised controlled trial

    A study, in which participants are allocated to two, or more, groups by random (i.e. by chance). The participants in each group receive a different treatment.


    Located in the belief that propositional knowledge comes to us through the use of reason.


    Consistency in measurement instruments and dependable study results.


    This is the degree to which a sample reflects the characteristics of the population from which it was drawn; thus the term representative sample.

    Research question

    This is a clearly defined question that a researcher intends to seek an answer to, in the course of a research study.


    Extreme thoroughness and accuracy in research achieved through strict methods, processes or procedures.


    A selection of individuals or items used to illustrate the possible responses or behaviours of the population.

    Sample frame

    All of the individuals who are part of the total population.

    Sampling bias

    Inaccuracy in sampling that leads to an over representation of one or more subgroups within the sample.

    Scoping review

    A scoping review also known as a scoping project/scoping study is a review undertaken to identify the scope or range of literature that is available on a particular topic or broad research question.

    Sensitive data

    Data related to private issues or issues which people find embarrassing, threatening or emotionally difficult to discuss.

    Significance level

    The level at which the researcher is prepared to accept or reject the null hypothesis. It is commonly set at 1/20 or 0.05 and expressed as a probability value, for example, p ≤0.05. In certain situations a smaller p value may be set, for instance, p ≤0.01.

    Standard deviation

    A measure that calculates the dispersion of the scores in a dataset in relation to the mean.


    Surveys are a widely used data collection method in the application of non-experimental research that gathers numerical data.

    Systematic review

    A method of enquiry that brings together all of the studies on a particular topic in one place to answer a specific review question.

    Target population (Theoretical population)

    All individuals or units that are deemed by the researcher to have one or more common characteristics and from whom the sample will be drawn.


    Theory provides knowledge about the world in which we live through research. There are multiple, conflicting definitions of theory but there are some common characteristics:

    • Theory is concerned with some aspect of the world.
    • Speculates on how reality might be or ought to be.
    • Theories are never certain and always subject to change.
    • Theories are comprised of phenomena (concepts).
    • Theories are comprised of propositions that identify the nature of the relationship between concepts.

    Theory generating research

    Research that generates theories usually inductively.

    Theory-practice gap

    The discrepancy between theoretical/scientific knowledge and how care is given in clinical practice.

    Theory testing/validating research

    Research that tests/validates theories usually deductively.


    Trust in the findings of a study and knowing them to be reliable and true.

    Type II sampling error

    Occurs when, as a result of a sample size that is too small, there is a failure to reject the null hypothesis and demonstrate significance in a statistical test.

    Univariate analysis

    The analysis of one variable for the purpose of describing it.


    An ethical theory that supports research where the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people is central.


    Accuracy, truth and soundness in study design and conduct.

    Virtue ethics

    An ethical theory that is concerned with how a researcher behaves and the quality of his/her character in making decisions and judgments.


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