Open Access Research article

Describing qualitative research undertaken with randomised controlled trials in grant proposals: a documentary analysis

Sarah J Drabble1*, Alicia O’Cathain1, Kate J Thomas1, Anne Rudolph1 and Jenny Hewison2

Author Affiliations

1 Medical Care Research Unit, School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield, Regent Street, Sheffield S1 4DA, UK

2 Leeds Institute of Health Sciences, University of Leeds, 101 Clarendon Road, Leeds LS2 9LJ, UK

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2014, 14:24  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-14-24

Published: 18 February 2014



There is growing recognition of the value of conducting qualitative research with trials in health research. It is timely to reflect on how this qualitative research is presented in grant proposals to identify lessons for researchers and research commissioners. As part of a larger study focusing on how to maximise the value of undertaking qualitative research with trials, we undertook a documentary analysis of proposals of funded studies.


Using the metaRegister of Controlled Trials (mRCT) database we identified trials funded in the United Kingdom, ongoing between 2001 and 2010, and reporting the use of qualitative research. We requested copies of proposals from lead researchers. We extracted data from the proposals using closed and open questions, analysed using descriptive statistics and content analysis respectively.


2% (89/3812) of trials in the mRCT database described the use of qualitative research undertaken with the trial. From these 89 trials, we received copies of 36 full proposals, of which 32 met our inclusion criteria. 25% used less than a single paragraph to describe the qualitative research. The aims of the qualitative research described in these proposals focused mainly on the intervention or trial conduct. Just over half (56%) of the proposals included an explicit rationale for conducting the qualitative research with the trial, the most frequent being to optimise implementation into clinical practice or to interpret trial findings. Key information about methods, expertise and resources was missing in a large minority of proposals, in particular sample size, type of analysis, and non-personnel resources. 28% specifically stated that qualitative researchers would conduct the qualitative research.


Our review of proposals of successfully funded studies identified good practice but also identified limited space given to describing the qualitative research, with an associated lack of attention to the rationale for doing the qualitative research and important methodological details. Acknowledging the space restrictions faced by researchers writing grant proposals, we suggest a starting point for providing practical guidance to help researchers write proposals and research commissioners assess proposals of qualitative research with trials.

Qualitative research; Randomised controlled trials; Writing grant proposals; Documentary analysis