Auditing your Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) research study in some way or another can be a robust, effective, and transparent way to enhance quality assurance. This article is one of two episodes that explore a range of auditing options and activities so that you can think about what might work for you and (of course) discuss it with your supervisor(s) or other relevant stakeholder.
Size does matter in the context of auditing your IPA study
The lengths to which you extend any audit process that you engage in will most likely depend on the level of your degree and thus the size and complexity of your research study (PhD>Prof Doc>M>UG).
When thinking about auditing your IPA, I suggest that you consider your timeframe for completion in addition to the level of support that is available to you to conduct the elements of audit that you decide you want to engage in.
The paper or audit trail
At its most basic level, your paper trail or audit trail for your study will be one vitally important aspect of demonstrating quality for your IPA.
What is a paper trail or audit trail for my IPA research study?
The paper or audit trail (these terms are often used interchangeably) is a transparent record of the research decisions made and steps taken from the very start of the study (e.g., when developing your study design) to the reporting of the findings.
In other words, it is a record of everything that you have done that can be followed via a literal trail of paper that could be provided to your assessor/examiner.
Much like the breadcrumbs dropped by Hansel and Gretel, your literal paper trail will guide your auditor (this could be a supervisor or might be your examiner or could even be a peer researcher – see later for a discussion about this) through your research process in a stepwise manner should they wish to check that you have conducted your research rigorously.
As you can probably elucidate – this is a very transparent way to document the research process and make it available for scrutiny from someone who has been less involved in the process (if at all).
Another important quality process related to the audit trail is the independent audit process. This is where a person external to your study provides independent scrutiny as a ‘check’ on the quality of your IPA analysis or even your research study as a whole. I will cover this process in more detail below.
What should I include in my paper trail or audit trail for my IPA study?
Overview of inclusions for your paper trail:
A clear and transparent description of the research process, including the rationale for research decisions around design and data collection and the like.
In addition, a detailed account of the measures taken to manage the data effectively and ethically, plus a detailed report of the actions or steps taken to analyse the data and report the findings.
Inclusions in more detail:
Basically, it is a documented record of the steps you took throughout the research process and the research decisions you made at each point.
Really this should cover each step of the journey from start to finish but is particularly important around the process of data analysis. As such, you should include as much detail as you can regarding how you moved from raw transcripts to your final analysis and interpretations.
For a thesis, particularly at doctoral level, you would support your paper trail with worked examples in your appendices.
Example of a worked example:
For example, for an IPA you might follow the analysis for one particular participant so that your examiner (your ‘auditor’ in this context) could take a quote for that person in your analysis chapter and find it in an example of your fully annotated transcript (or portion of this) included in the appendices.
Note: do not include a blank transcript (or portion of this) in your appendices – this defeats the object of the transparency exercise as your examiner/assessor will want to see your exploratory noting/coding.
This quote should be able to be tracked through to the table of PETs for that participant and then the table of GETs for the cross-case analysis, in which the contribution made by your chosen participant should be evident.
The quote can then be followed back to the written narrative account in your thesis, bringing it full circle through the analytic process.
Employing location identifiers in your analysis can help with this ‘track and trace’ process.
This is why it is important to be systematic in your data analysis and to save successive drafts (as I keep banging on about like a broken record in my workshops) so that you can produce evidence of the development of the analytic account that you present in your write up.
You are probably also coming to realise the importance and usefulness of your reflexive research journal too, in this context.
This material, while messy and contingent at the time of chronicling, can still nonetheless support your paper trail by providing commentary on how your analysis and interpretations have developed over time.
It is essential to organise this material systematically and with clarity so that any external person (whether that be your examiner, your supervisor, even a peer researcher, or an external auditor of some nature) can find their way through it as easily as possible.
You aim to store and organise your data AND analytic workings in a systematic, methodical, and orderly ‘chain of evidence’ (Smith et al, 2009, p.183; 2022, p.152) that leads from the initial stages of the research right through to the final report.
Suggested components for your IPA study paper or audit trail
Smith et al. (2009, p.183) give a helpful list of what we might include for an IPA (note: there are some minor additions in here from yours truly!)
- Initial notes on mapping the topic area and formulating the research question
- The research proposal and ethics application
- The interview schedule (or other data collection method details or instruments such as diary prompts you may have given to participants, for example)
- The recordings (or other raw data)
- The annotated transcripts showing exploratory commentary and formulation of ES (or other processed data showing analytic work)
- Tables of PETs/GETs (from each individual and group analysis)
- Draft reports
Where should I put my paper trail?
For the most part, in your appendices, your method chapter, and stored separately ready to be produced if required.
Breaking down the location of your paper or audit trail for your IPA study
You will have no doubt noticed that much of the material listed above will be found in your thesis write up anyway.
For example, you will include a comprehensive account of your research procedure in your method section/chapter. This is very likely to include details about your recruitment strategy and interview process, plus examples of your data collection materials such as your interview schedule/guide.
So much of the material that you place in your method chapter and related appendices will form part of your audit trail.
All other material that may be relevant to your audit trail can be stored separately either digitally or physically, depending on the item (e.g., raw data, annotated transcripts and drafts of your analysis and write-up as a whole).
My recommendation is to catalogue these additional items so that you have a clear record of what might be available for audit and can facilitate your auditor’s navigation of the material should it need to be inspected.
References and further reading
All that remains now, before I sign off for this exciting episode, is to direct you towards your essential reading for this area:
No brainers and IPA-specific absolute must-reads
In the second edition, pages 152-153/locations 5304-5329 of:
Smith, J.A., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2022). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method, Research (2nd ed.). London: Sage
In the first edition, pages 183-4 of:
Smith, J.A., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method, Research. London: Sage.
Other relevant journal articles that are worth reading, especially if you are doing a doctoral level study
De Kleijn, R., & Van Leeuwen, A. (2018). Reflections and review on audit procedure: Guidelines for more transparency. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 17, 1-8. Note: this is open access – yay!
Please do read Episode Two for more on why you are advised to generate an audit or paper trail, the different levels of audit you might engage in for your IPA study, and some epistemological considerations around the auditing process for your IPA.
Wishing you all the best with your IPA!
Until next time,
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