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Searching for research

If you are interested in a topic then it is very likely that other people are too. Subjects often become topical and therefore researchable; very soon there will be other people – a few or many – also undertaking research in the same field. When a subject initially becomes topical it is difficult to find out who is doing what, but soon research findings will start to be published and publicised.

This is where the literature search and review have an important part to play; some of the reasons for doing a search of existing research are:
  • to find out what has already been done
  • in order to make you better informed about a subject area
  • literature reviews are very useful for bringing together and comparing research on a particular topic
  • to learn from the findings to inform your practice
  • to find out if other people share your views about and interest in a particular topic
You might make a useful contribution to the topic by taking recommendations about effective practice forward in your own practice or as part of your placement work.

If you decide you want to try out practice tools or methods it is often a good idea to get in touch with the original researchers. Apart from being polite, there might be copyright issues to deal with, for instance if you wish to use a questionnaire which they have authored. The researchers may be able to provide you with advice. For example, the Search Institute in the USA developed a research-based ASSET model for work with children and young people. The Institute is happy for people to use the model but ask for certain principles to be adhered to in doing so.

Another reason for turning to the literature is to clarify and refine your thinking about what exactly you are looking for from research. It has already been stated that Research Mindedness implies being able to make use of research findings but first you need to find them, which is not always a straightforward task.

In this section you are reminded of some of basic tips in undertaking a search for relevant research. Before you start looking for materials there are five practical steps to take:

Step 1

Decide on the topic You might, for example, decide that as part of a service review you want to know how carers use their time when the person they care for goes to day services. You want to compare your provision with patterns elsewhere.

Step 2

Clarify it. What exactly does Step 1 mean? How are you defining carer? Caring for whom? What do you mean by day services? You therefore need to clarify your topic and sharpen your focus so that you know what it is you are looking for in the literature. You would do this by saying perhaps that a 'carer' is a person who lives at the same address as the person being cared for and who does not receive wages for providing care. 'Care' could be defined as providing help with the activities of daily living. 'The person being cared for' might, in this case, be an adult with a learning disability. 'Day services' would be defined as a day centre and/or education/employment support. You would probably want initially to confine your search to the group of service users with whom you are working.

Step 3

Define your parameters Many topics are supported by a great deal of published research; if you don't set yourself some search parameters you could end up with a mass of information from which it is difficult to extract what you are interested in. You might therefore consider limiting your search to make it more manageable. There are several possibilities for doing this:
  • Set a publication date prior to which references will not be followed up (the date will depend on the topic). This is particularly important for service-focused research, as the relevance of old studies may be limited. Many authors whose research you read will refer to and summarise the work of their predecessors. Indeed, you could be lucky and identify a review article that brings together all the major and relevant research on your topic up to a certain date.
  • Consider whether you are only interested in material published in English, or only in research conducted in the UK.
  • Be pragmatic and decide how much time you realistically have to conduct your search, and then pick only the most relevant items to fit your timetable. If you are getting material from abroad or through inter-library loans it can take quite a long time to arrive. Remember that once you've got it, you've still got to read it and work on it.
  • Make use of any facility available for computer assisted bibliographic searching, and Make a point of trying to access any abstracts which will both summarise some materials for you, and guide your choice as to what you ought to read in full. For example some local authorities produce monthly abstract summaries for staff through their intranets or on hard copy. The development of various Electronic Libraries and Databases makes this task even simpler. (See section on Electronic Libraries).

Step 4

If you have easy access, get to know your public or employer's library. You need to know your way around your library, whether it is the shelves, catalogues, computer terminals or help desk. Library staff are always keen to help people get the most from their library, so take every opportunity to seek their advice and expertise.

You need to sort out the basics, like making sure that you are actually registered as a user (registering as a computer terminal user is often a separate process); how many books you can take out at any one time; how long you can keep them; re-call and inter-library loan arrangements; and whether your library is a good source of materials on your topic and where you can find them. Being purely practical, it's also worth checking the library's opening times. If you are working shifts this is very important.

Step 5

Get to know the Internet and particularly the WWW Almost all libraries nowadays have computer terminals for you to use to access the catalogue. Many go further and have wider bibliographic materials in electronic form, perhaps on CD, or on a network. You should find that you have access to:
  • catalogues of many of the world's finest libraries, especially in North American universities.
  • electronic copies of many books and papers, including, increasingly, materials only available in electronic format
    If you are an experienced Internet user you will already know how to find many useful sources. If not then start by reading the topic on Web Search skills.

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