Sources of evidence and information
As Aveyard (2010: 43) suggests, the literature that will be relevant to your focus will vary according to the direction of your interest. What is important is that you ensure the research is credible. This means that it has been carried out in a rigorous way, thoroughly, ethically and with an honest analysis of the results. It is important to note that 'quality' can mean different things in relation to social work research, and what signifies quality here is the subject of considerable debate (Shaw and Norton 2008). Below are listed the main sources for evidence, with commentary about their strengths for your own analysis. Further tools to help you appraise the quality of each report are given in the section Critical appraisal assessing research quality'.
Research that is published in peer-reviewed journals is often the first choice of literature used in student and professional work. In these journals, authors submit their papers to a process of review by two fellow academics, who usually require corrections and additional work before publication. However, this is still not a guarantee of quality, and Jesson et al. (2011: 21) point to some weaknesses in the process, saying that 'the notion of peer review is based on a belief in the reliability of the peer review process, but you should be aware that there are some limitations and drawbacks to it'. Weaknesses of this type include:
- Reviewers might have their own 'perspectives and paradigms [which] can act as a barrier to publishing new and unconventional ideas' (Jesson et al. 2011: 21). This will clearly affect their judgement.
- 'Publication bias' means that researchers do not submit unfavourable results. Therefore the picture of evidence is skewed.
- Sometimes the process falls down and shoddy or deceitful research findings get through.
Despite these potential drawbacks, peer-reviewed journal papers remain a key source of evidence for research and practice. They are the most timely of the published sources, and the research is likely to be more recent and up to date. However, this needs to be assessed as part of an appraisal of each source since it relies on the assumption of authors publishing soon after a project finishes.
It is not just new research which is submitted to journals. Some papers will be theoretical, and others will in themselves be literature reviews of one sort or another. If you are searching an index and abstract database such as ASSIA, you can choose only to find results from peer-reviewed journals. However, this may exclude other useful sources such as theses.
Literature reviews are often published as journal papers since they can provide a strong synthesis of existing research in an area of interest. They may take a traditional review format, or may be a summary of a systematic review. There are also specific online libraries of systematic reviews. Focuses that will be of interest to social care can be found at the EPPI-Centre, the Campbell Collaboration Library and in the SCIE knowledge reviews.
Books can be a useful source of background and theory, but it tends to take longer to get them published than a journal paper or systematic review. For this reason they need to be assessed carefully in terms of the contemporary relevance of the information they contain. However, there will be key texts to allow you to build theoretical frameworks and these will assist you in thinking about the methodologies involved in your project and what you should read.
Monitoring and evaluation data
Monitoring data has been an important source for services and researchers for decades. Data collection has become more sophisticated and extensive as a result of the development of computerised information systems within local and national organisations. On a national scale, statistical information is gathered and analysed by researchers at the government's UK National Statistics Office. Like other government departments, it publishes a range of reports that can assist students and practitioners in their research-minded work.
Evaluations are an important source of evidence to inform practice, but their focus of proving the value of a programme, however this is judged, makes them a particularly political form of research. Monitoring has a political content to it as well. For the research-minded student or practitioner this means you must take a critical approach to the analysis of monitoring and performance data (Dickinson 2008). Questions of bias, validity, relevance and transferability should be addressed. Attainment of performance indicators or targets can demonstrate how standards have been raised, though minimum standards may mean there is a need to go further to show real change.
In the section Where to search? a number of useful sources were given which provide additional research reports of use in research-minded work. Orme and Shemmings (2010: 66) list eight kinds of sources beyond journal papers and books in this category. These are:
- regulatory, inspection and policy documents
- practice-oriented briefings, digests and guidance
- user experience/autobiographical literature
- research listings
- research portals
- relevant service-based organisations