Underuse of research
'We need to be able to rely on social science and
social scientists to tell us what works and why, and what types
of policy initiatives are likely to be most effective. And we
need better ways of ensuring that those who want this information
can get it easily and quickly.'
'Evidence can be ignored, it can be used as a cosmetic
to dress up what has already been agreed, or it can be used as
the ground on which an inquisitive, experimental approach is built.'
M & Mount, K. (1998)
These two quotes, from very different sources sum up the challenge
for social care workers, students, and for researchers too. They also
demonstrate the gap that exists between the worlds of practice and research
that must be bridged if research is to be better used, and is to be
experienced as more useful in services for vulnerable people. The ultimate
judges of success are the customers - those people in the community
who need and/or receive social care services. The outcomes for them
and their experience of the services and interventions offered are the
litmus test of satisfaction and effectiveness.
Using research knowledge effectively relies on a sequence of events,
actions and people. If any part fails the whole is unlikely to be realised.
This is a particular challenge within social care where these 'chains'
are long, drawn out and often terminally thin. At its simplest:
- researchers must do research that others can and wish to use
- awareness of research needs to get to those most likely to be able
to make use of it,
- research findings should be presented in forms that enhance their
accessibility and usability.
Those who practice can benefit from the knowledge afforded by research.
Practitioners need to:
- recognise the value of research
- be able to link research knowledge with other influences on their
- be critical in their use of the research
- understand its impact on their subsequent work.
In reality there are many more links than this but the key point remains
the same - attending to each link in the chain is as important as having
a clear understanding of the whole.
Four factors that inhibit effective use of research in practice are
Problems in accessing research
The false separation between the worlds of research and practice can
make it difficult for those providing services to access the research
information that they need. Findings are often immersed within heavyweight
textbooks or in articles that are published in journals that are hard
to access or not social work themed. These may be aimed at an academic
audience rather than for those 'on the front line'. Recent investment
at national level in social care research and its dissemination and
development has resulted in a more coherent picture of research evidence,
both in subject matter and in availability. However the explosion of
web-based resources can be as taxing as a lack of information.
Difficulties of access and filtering, however, are sometimes used
as an excuse not to draw on research evidence. More academic journals
now also reach out to a practice audience and the plethora of Internet
resources are demonstrated by the listing in this resource.
A big issue for practitioners and students is access to computers
and lack of time to do the searching required for locating and sifting
through research findings. This problem has to be addressed by changes
in organisational culture that in turn will result in more equipment
and time being made available to make evidence-based practice a reality.
Other things that might help:
- greater clarity and simplicity in explanations of research methods
- more short, peer-reviewed research reports and fewer 'great tomes'
- identification of a research review methodology that is less 'expert'
led and more 'system' led,
- the Social Care
Institute for Excellence (SCIE).
Promoting a research-minded, evidence-based culture
Understanding the meaning of evidence based practice is central to
resolving the historical lack of a research-minded culture in social
work and social care. A definition of ‘evidence-based’ from
the health world has been adapted by Research in Practice (opens in
new window) for social care work with children and families. It 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 best available 'evidence'
Good decision making is the interplay between all these elements, but
importantly should include the element of 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
A lack of confidence
The novice research user needs to have confidence that he or she can
make informed judgements about the usefulness of the research available
to them. The development of such confidence is a task for research users,
researchers and those who commission research to tackle.
Roy Parker's categorisation
of research findings is still relevant and may help you to be clearer
about a hierarchy of evidence for studies using qualitative, quantitative
or mixed method approaches. This might mean:
||findings make the reader pause, take stock and ask questions
||the findings are inconclusive or not generalisable, so practitioners
or students need to recognise their specificity
||findings refer to a sample size and/or length of study period
that provides 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 reliability. Herein lies the significance of using '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 finding, first published as long ago as 1966 (Parker),
showing a clear association between placement breakdown and the presence
of the foster carers' own children in the home 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 this evidence.
Staff 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.
Opportunities for such dialogue are more achievable for many practitioners
away from pressures of day to day work, for example at conferences and
Dissemination is not enough
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 healthcare
field has shown that there is no magic research wand that produces change
in practice. There is 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
et al (1998) and Walshe
and Ham (1997) and also see Changing practice
within this resource.
Organisations need to be flexible, experimental, and imaginative if
practitioners are to adopt and implement research in their practice
- see Batestone and
Edwards (1996), Muir
Gray (1997), Eve et
al (1997) and
Pinkerton (1998). 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 therefore is crucial to making evidence based practice happen.
The clear message from research is that researchers and research users
have to work in partnership within the practice world. Not only should
research inform practice but in turn evidence based practice and innovative
research techniques need to emerge from developmental work with agencies
and inform the research arena.