How Much Participant ‘Voice’ Should You Include in Your Thesis?

When participants give up their time to share their views, thoughts, or experiences with you as a researcher – and especially where it takes some bravery, trust, or sacrifice for them to do so – you take on a responsibility to use their contributions wisely.

As you incorporate those contributions into your thesis, it can be tempting to include everyone’s words in all their fullness. After all, if you leave something out, what happens to it? There’s no second chance for those words to be shared; no ‘thesis B’ where all the extra bits can find a home.

If you don’t quote someone, surely they have no voice?

Or at least, that’s how I often feel when I’m trusted with people’s contributions. Unfortunately, that feeling can lead to over-quoting.

Quoting participants is common practice in qualitative research and is totally expected and fine. But over-quoting (i.e. including too many quotes, or quotes that are too long) is a very common problem particularly for emerging researchers.

Cartoon of participants with speech bubbles leading into a thesis

Why is Over-Quoting a Problem?

In a thesis that has a defined word limit, over-quoting can blow your word count way too high. This can make your thesis seem bloated, and can test the patience of examiners and readers. Plus if you spend too much of your word count on quotes, you leave little room for your own discussion and analysis of the quotes, which can leave the thesis academically ‘thin’. Put these problems together and you risk having a thesis that’s too long, yet says too little.

Am I Over-Quoting?

How much quoting is too much? As a rule of thumb, if you are regularly including whole paragraphs (or even pages) of a participant’s words verbatim, you are probably over-quoting. Similarly, if your quoted text outweighs your own text analyzing and discussing the quotes, then you could well be over-quoting.

However, the appropriate amount of quoting will depend on your field and your project. If your project has an explicit goal of showcasing your participants’ voices, particularly if they are part of a marginalized group, it may be appropriate to quote more than your qualitative peers. That’s why it’s important to think about your use of participant voice in relation to your disciplinary norms and your own goals for your research. Supervisors are a great sounding board and source of advice for this kind of thinking.

It can also help to take a look at the work of other experienced scholars in your field (who share your methodology). How much do they quote? If they have published books or other works of comparable lengths to your thesis, how much of the text was direct quotes from participants, and how much was analysis or discussion? If you have included a much greater proportion of quotes than others in your field, then it may be time to reassess.

What Motivates Your Use of Voice?

If you think you may be over-reliant on participants’ comments, first think about why you’re quoting so much.

Are you quoting extensively because participants’ comments are your main form of evidence, and you want to provide ample support for your claims? Do you feel that you need to quote a lot because the conclusions you wish your readers to draw will come out of your participants’ comments? These are academic motivations for quoting.

Or are you quoting a lot because you are afraid of being cruel or insensitive by excluding someone’s views? Do your participants’ quotes all feel crucially important, and you can’t choose what to leave out? These are emotional motivations for quoting.

Overcoming Academically-Motivated Over-Quoting

If you are quoting extensively for academic reasons, then finding the right balance is a matter of considering what will get you the best academic outcome. On the one hand, examiners need to see support for your claims – so some quoting is necessary if quotes are a form of evidence in your research. On the other hand, examiners will want to see evidence of your ability to analyze information; not just reproduce it. If quotes outweigh analysis in your writing, examiners will have insufficient basis to assess your skill. This means that evidence (quotes) and analysis (your own text) need to be balanced in a way that is appropriate for your project.

In some projects, appendices can be useful for holding bulk lots of quoted text without bloating the discussion section of the thesis. You can use an appendix to collect multiple quotes that say the same thing, in order to show evidence of a particular view or contribution being common. Alternatively, you can use appendices to show how you theme participants’ contributions, and give examples of comments that illustrate the themes. Find out what’s acceptable or typical in your field; and if appendices are suitable, use them!

Overcoming Emotionally-Motivated Over-Quoting

It’s understandable to be emotionally attached to your participants’ words. They are precious taonga, and it’s our privilege as researchers to be trusted with them. So when we work with them in the thesis, it can be quite confronting to edit or exclude someone’s thoughtful contribution.

But that there’s a reason why you, as a researcher, exist. There’s a reason you are incorporating the participants’ voice into a thesis, instead of a first-person narrative. That reason is that YOU have a function in bringing participants’ voices together to create something larger.

YOU set the research questions, and YOU choose the interview or survey questions that prompt the participants’ responses. YOU parse multiple stories for meaning, identify common themes, interpret responses through particular methodological / theoretical lenses, and condense hours of interviews or pages of written responses into something that takes those words further.

One participant, on their own, may tell a story. But YOU, as the researcher, bring multiple stories together to create knowledge.

That’s an incredibly valuable contribution. And it doesn’t get made by throwing large chunks of quoted text at a page. Your contribution is made by quoting selectively, and then contextualizing, interpreting, and analyzing those quotes.

It hurts to edit, especially when you’re culling someone else’s words. But that pain is productive. It’s a byproduct of the process of turning quotes into insights; of turning words into wisdom. And that, hopefully, is something that will make your participants proud.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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