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  1. Wolf, Zane Robinson PhD, RN, FAAN


The audit trail helps to establish the credibility of qualitative studies and serves to convince the scientific community of their rigor. The author describes the activities of the audit trail and explores the creation of its structures and processes. Excerpts of audit trails from qualitative studies are presented for faculty and students.


Qualitative investigations accomplish many purposes. Chief among them is sensitization when there is a need for in-depth understanding of human experiences, instrument development, substantiation when qualitative data embellish quantitative findings, and conceptualization when theory building is necessary. 1 However, no matter the purpose of the study, investigators bear the responsibility of convincing the scientific community that the analysis and findings of human science investigations are systematic, objective, and worthy. To accomplish this end, investigators often perform and describe many steps during the processes of data collection, data analysis, and presentation of the results of studies. One of the steps used to establish the credibility and confirmability of a qualitative study is the construction of an audit trail. 2,3 As I have explored the idea of the audit trail with nursing students, they have shared that it is a challenging concept to understand.


Qualitative investigators use the audit trail to establish the rigor of a study by providing the details of data analysis and some of the decisions that led to the findings. 4 The audit trail is also called the confirmability audit; it attests to the interpretations of the researcher. This record provides evidence that recorded raw data have gone through a process of analysis, reduction, and synthesis. It helps the peer reviewer or auditor to trace the textual sources of data back to the interpretations and the reverse. 5 Furthermore, the audit trail can provide a partial solution to the problem that could occur when qualitative and quantitative study results do not converge and investigators review raw records and findings in order to synthesize findings. 6


The disciplined abstractions of qualitative studies that culminate in their final results are seldom displayed visually, nor are the many steps carried out as data collection moves forward to the study's descriptions, explanations, and conclusions. Some of these steps remain indistinct and known intuitively to investigator. Nonetheless, the management of data sources and their interpretations must be described as much as possible so that the section on rigor or scientific adequacy is strengthened.


The textual material (data sources or raw data) of qualitative research may include: transcribed interviews, responses to open-ended questions on a survey, field notes of observations and participation with informants, document analysis, artifact analysis, art analysis (paintings and sculpture), literature analysis (poetry, essays, and journal entries), entymological material, and personal notes or the reflexive journal 7 of the investigator. The recurring interplay between the textual material or data sources and the results is accessible through the audit trail and its structure and processes. The selection, paraphrasing, and coding of data elements are connected to the larger pattern of the study through the audit trail. This helps investigators to be careful not to strip data from the context of the rest of the material as well as the setting that situates it; they can refer to the text when reflecting about and interpreting the material. Some aspects of analysis are still not evident as data are transformed and codes or themes are named during the interpretive process of the study. For example, one of the major limits of the audit trial is accounting for the cognitive processes and momentary decisions that go along with the writing and revision process of qualitative research. A series of dated drafts of the results of each study provide the most convincing evidence.


However, the audit trail provides documentary evidence for neutral experts or peer reviewers with expertise in qualitative research to review and verify the path the investigator followed from raw textual data to results. Typically, the student and seasoned investigator engage at least one expert. The auditor reviews the process of the study and establishes its dependability. 3 Consequently, this helps investigators assess the quality of their work. For the audit to be systematically conducted by peers, 8 the parts of the audit trail must be organized and the documents that compose it easily followed. Thus, the accuracy and legitimacy of the procedures and decisions to reach the findings are validated. 9