Reflective journals in qualitative inquiry

This week’s guest blogger is Kyu Ha Choi, who is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sport Management and Policy program in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA. His research focuses on sport event management with emphasis on the development of sport along with qualitative research methods.

Screencast on reflective journals in qualitative research

I initially had three questions that pertain to the concept of reflective journals in relation to qualitative research. Those three questions were: (1) what is the reflective journal in qualitative research? (2) why do we implement reflective journals in our research? and (3) what are the outcomes of employing reflective journals in research? In response to these questions, the objectives of this essay are to understand the concept of reflective journals within qualitative research and to understand why reflective journals are implemented in qualitative research. This essay has been written for any researcher, but especially novice researchers who are not very familiar with or have a limited knowledge of reflective journals in qualitative research and how they might incorporate them in their research. This essay will help researchers learn about the possible outcomes of employing reflective journals and outline some challenging issues of using reflective journals in research.

The reflective journal in qualitative research is a written record by the researchers themselves and is written throughout the research process. A reflective journal includes the details of what the researchers did, thought, and felt while analyzing the data. Then, the rationale behind those thoughts and percepts are recorded. According to Russell and Kelly (2002), keeping self-reflective journals during the analysis process is a strategy that facilitates reflexivity by using the researchers’ journals to examine “personal assumptions and goals” and to clarify “individual belief systems and subjectivities” (p. 2). By doing so, keeping reflective journals consciously acknowledges the values and experiences of the researchers rather than attempting to control their values through methods. In other words, the reflective practice encourages researchers to talk about the presuppositions, experiences, and actions and rationales behind them during the research process. In this regard, reflective journals are increasingly becoming visible within qualitative research.

As for the attributes of reflective writing, the fact that the reflective journal is written in the first-person point of view makes the writing fundamentally subjective. Through writing in the first-person point of view, the centrality of the researcher is acknowledged. Also, self-awareness and an internal dialogue that help in analyzing important issues in the research are supported. In this regard, Jasper (2005) noted that “the purpose of reflective writing is learning which will precipitate some form of action or change in behaviour… is to facilitate the researcher’s discovery and provide a verifiable audit-trail of the research process.” (p. 250) Reflective writing also develops critical thinking by enhancing higher-level conceptual skills. This development is supported because writing down ideas urges the author or researcher to develop and rationalize, which motivate the author to acquire new knowledge that is associated with the research. Finally, reflective writing, along with critical thinking, enables researchers to broaden their perspectives and discover new thoughts and research practices.

Reflective journals as data mainly fall into two categories. First, the products of reflective writing can be used as primary data. Autobiographies, journals, and logs are examples of the case in which reflective writing is employed as the primary data. Reflective writing as the primary data source is well-established in qualitative research, especially in the field of nursing and education. This essay focuses on reflective journals as the secondary data category, including field notes with reflection-on-action that includes insights and references to other data sources. Smith (1999) highlighted in his study that written reflections on one’s own feelings create an audit trail of one’s reasoning, thus contributing to the trustworthiness of the findings by supporting the researcher’s subjectivity.

One of the main reasons why the qualitative researcher maintains a reflective journal is to achieve a rigorous research process. Issues of rigor in qualitative research refer to the trustworthiness of the study (Guba & Lincoln, 1985), and some attributes of rigor include credibility, dependability, and transferability. According to Jasper (2005), reflective journal writing allows researchers to own centrality of their research process, which contributes to the legitimacy of the knowledge claims. Also, reflective journal writing provides an audit trail which clearly indicates the procedural steps that enhance the transparency of process. Moreover, a reflective journal is particularly useful when things did not happen as planned and as one’s thinking changes.

The primary purpose of using reflective journals is to enable researchers to explicitly map their role as researchers. By allowing the subjectivity of the researchers, reflective journals record one’s experiences, thoughts, opinions, and feelings and make them an acknowledged part within the data analysis and interpretation processes. By doing so, researchers can make a vague and unorganized research process more visible not only for themselves but also for their readers. Also, use of reflective journals affects the research process by changing the research design or approach if necessary. Last, but not least, as previously mentioned, use of reflective journals provides an audit trail of the research design, which enhances the transparency of the research process.

Despite the positive potential outcomes from using reflective journals, several challenging issues are associated with reflective journal writing. One potential issue is on ethical grounds in which confidentiality is hard to account for when reflective writing is practiced poorly. Another noticeable issue is hindsight bias. The practice of reflective journal writing may cause hindsight bias which happens when researchers know the outcome of their research in advance and consequently judge that outcome as more likely if they had not known that outcome knowledge (Rehm & Gadenne, 2013). As a result, researchers must overcome several issues in order to conduct a rigorous and reliable reflective journal writing that contributes positively to the research process.

Use of the reflective journal may seem a bit bothersome and time-consuming to some researchers. However, this practice certainly helps qualitative researchers to have a central role in a research process and enhances the transparency of the research process. I am certain that reflective journals are worthy of the required time, and we should make reflective journaling a priority in any type of research.


Glaze, J. E. (2002). Stages in coming to terms with reflection: student advanced nurse practitioners’ perceptions of their reflective journeys. Journal of Advanced Nursing37(3), 265-272.

Greenwood, J. (1998). The role of reflection in single and double loop learning. Journal of Advanced Nursing27(5), 1048-1053.

Hannigan, B. (2001). A discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of ‘reflection’ in nursing practice and education. Journal of Clinical Nursing10(2), 278-283.

Jasper, M. A. (2005). Using reflective writing within research. Journal of Research in Nursing10(3), 247-260.

Jones, P. R. (1995). Hindsight bias in reflective practice: an empirical investigation. Journal of Advanced Nursing21(4), 783-788.

Koch, T. (1996). Implementation of a hermeneutic inquiry in nursing: philosophy, rigour and representation. Journal of Advanced Nursing24(1), 174-184.

Ortlipp, M. (2008). Keeping and using reflective journals in the qualitative research process. The Qualitative Report13(4), 695-705.

Rehm, J. T., & Gadenne, V. (2013). Intuitive predictions and professional forecasts: Cognitive processes and social consequences (Vol. 20). Elsevier.

Russell, G. M., & Kelly, N. H. (2002, September). Research as interacting dialogic processes: Implications for reflexivity. In Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Vol. 3, No. 3).

Smith, B. A. (1999). Ethical and methodologic benefits of using a reflexive journal in hermeneutic‐phenomenologic research. Image: The Journal of Nursing Scholarship31(4), 359-363.

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