Barriers to research mindedness
In (Knowledge, research and practice: using reflection to connect the triad), some of the barriers to being research-minded in practice began to emerge from the findings of the (CCETSW research project). Here we focus on some of these and other issues in order to 'open up' the problems involved. We will look at:
- problems in accessing research
- attitudes to a research-minded, evidence-based culture of practice
- a lack of confidence
- improving dissemination to encourage research use
Problems in accessing research
The separation between the worlds of research and practice can make it difficult for those providing services to access the research information they need. Findings can be immersed within heavyweight books or in articles that are published in journals that are hard to access if you are not a student, or that are not themed towards social work. Such articles may also be aimed at an academic audience rather than those 'on the front line'. Those who are studying have an easier time of it, and much greater access to resources.
Recent investment at a national level in social care research and its dissemination and development has resulted in a more coherent picture of research evidence, both in terms of subject matter and availability. The internet has made access to some resources easier, but it can be tricky to filter useful information out of the plethora of readily available sources, some of which may not be credible.
Difficulties of access and filtering are sometimes used as an excuse not to draw on research evidence. However, an increasing number of academic journals now reach out to a practice audience and SCIE has provided access through Athens to a range of social work- and care-related electronic journals and e-books. Many social care research-related websites provide access to a range of research, such as Involve which works to involve the public in research and consultation. Furthermore, students and practitioners can sign up to email notification services from journals, organisations such as the NSPCC and SCIE , or RSS news feeds from other websites such as MIND. TicTOCs provides a free index service and search facility for most journals, although only abstracts are available regularly.
Further information about accessing and understanding research is available in this resource, in Making sense of research and Finding research.
Understanding the meaning of evidence-informed and evidence-based practice is central to resolving the historical lack of a research-minded culture in social work and social care. There is resistance to the idea that 'evidence' might replace, rather than support, sound decision-making in social work and social care.
The terminology of evidence-based practice has been drawn from the health world (Gray et al. 2009). Although widely used, it has also received criticism, for instance for its implication that evidence of effective practice in one context can be transferred indiscriminately across contexts and complex situations. Orme and Shemmings (2010: 21-23) describe three reasons why evidence-based practice is resisted:
- it proscribes practice
- it represents a managerial approach
- it determines what counts as 'evidence'.
Some organisations have instead adopted the term 'evidence-informed': for instance, Research in Practice states that its purpose is 'supporting evidence-informed practice with children and families', and the term is used in SCIE's Knowledge Review 7, titled Improving the use of research in social care practice to acknowledge 'the diverse and often subtle ways in which research can impact on practice, and the fact that there are other influences on practice' (Walter et al. 2004: xii).
Consider the three reasons given about why evidence-based practice is resisted (according to Orme and Shemmings). How might these problems be countered? What measures could be taken for each of them?
Evidence-informed practice is defined as practice that is grounded in sound knowledge about the needs of service users, informed by:
- the best available evidence of what is effective
- the practice expertise of professionals
- the experience and preferences of service users.
This definition recognises that decision-making includes a melting pot of issues, which should embrace the elements shown in the grid below.
Good decision-making is based on the interplay between all these elements, but importantly should include the element of research evidence, which is all too often forgotten or not made explicit in practice. However, the definition is overtly respectful of the interplay of practice expertise and the evidence.
A lack of confidence
Novice research users need to have confidence that they can make informed judgements about the usefulness of the research available to them. The development of such confidence is a task that research users, researchers and those who commission research must tackle.
The 'Critical appraisal: assessing research quality' section in this resource provides some tools to assist in building confidence. Being able to ask questions about the quality of research can allow research-minded students and practitioners to make decisions about the strength of the findings from a project:
- tentative findings make the reader pause, take stock and ask questions
- indicative findings are inconclusive or not generalisable, so practitioners and students need to recognise their specificity
- conclusive findings refer to a sample size, length of study period or other criteria that provide a high level of reliability.
These categories highlight the interplay between professional judgement and research. They indicate just how much influence evidence should reasonably provide. Currently, few studies in social care meet the highest levels of conclusive reliability. Practitioners instead use 'the best available' evidence.
However, when findings are replicated across a number of studies they do merit a greater degree of reliability. Roy Parker's findings, published as long ago as 1966, showed a clear association between placement breakdown and the presence of the foster carer's own children in the home. This has since been reinforced by a range of other studies. Sadly this highly reliable finding also provides an unwelcome example of how service providers continue at times to ignore the evidence.
Service providers need help in making informed judgements about the reliability of research findings. Discussion of the meaning of research for practice is a vital means of illuminating the process and can assist in building the confidence needed to apply research findings to practice.
Improving dissemination to encourage research use
'Dissemination' refers to communicating research findings and messages for policy and practice. It says nothing about what could or should be done after that. Dissemination is a stepping stone on the way to using research; it is not an indicator of use. Experience in the health care field h as shown that there is no magic research wand that produces change in practice. There is therefore a need for strategies to encourage:
- ownership and assimilation of research ideas
- implementation into practice
- impact on delivery of services.
These are influenced by the work environment and the organisational culture. For more information see NHS (1999), Bullock et al. (1998) and Walshe and Ham (1997).
Organisations need to be flexible, experimental and imaginative if practitioners are to adopt and implement research in their practice. Dissemination needs to take place in innovative ways, and participant groups and service user organisations can make a powerful contribution to this (Walter et al. 2004). Bullock et al. (1998) describe the workplace as the soil that enables the seeds of good research to grow into evidence-based practice. The working environment is therefore crucial to making evidence-based and evidence-informed practice happen. The clear message from research is that researchers, service users and research users have to work in partnership within the practice world. Not only should research inform practice but in turn evidence-informed practice and innovative research techniques need to emerge from developmental work with agencies and service user groups, and inform the research arena.
Dissemination can play an important part in all this. Summaries can be quicker for practitioners to read and highlight areas in the main report which would be of particular interest. Articles in online publications such as Community Care can also spark interest in the more formal findings. Where researchers have engaged with a group or organisation, they can provide a tailored report of findings to those groups.