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Published sources

Some publications are easy to trace - they are on the library shelves, in bookshops, or in the journals which may circulate around your agency or university. Others are less easy, either to acquire knowledge of their existence or then to track them down. Sometimes the task can be quite expensive, for example to buy conference proceedings or pay for a lot of inter-library loans, or to pay to have a computer search done for you.

Computer searching - Most people now start their searches by using a computer. The general strategy is that you use your key words to define the topic you are searching. You can also define by date of publication and other advance search features. Computerised searches are certainly convenient, but they do not do the preliminary thinking for you. You still need to have a very clear idea of what you want to search for. In some ways you need even greater clarity if you are using a computer because if you do not define your parameters narrowly enough, the computer will simply generate hundreds, or even thousands, of references in a very short space of time. You will then have to sort through these in order to get closer to the information you are seeking. So if you have not done so already, read the previous section on Searching for research.

Manual sources - If you cannot or do not want to use a computer, then it is usually a good idea to start with journals, taking the most recent and then working back through previous editions. Remember the key words you have identified as part of your clarification process. Most journals have annual indexes so turn to these first. You may need to do some detective work, such as tracking down a government report or some conference proceedings by following up a brief reference in a journal news item. It is getting quicker, but it still takes time for references to get onto the main computer databases, so skimming the journals, especially the professional ones, can be the way to get at the very latest publications.

There are six main types of literature that are normally available in published hard copy format (that is, on paper rather than electronic):

  • Books
  • Journals
  • Theses and dissertations
  • Conference proceedings
  • Research reports
  • Government publications


These are often not particularly helpful when you are trying to find out what has been going on in the topic area you are interested in. Research studies, by and large, tend not to be written up as books. It's also worth noting that books take a long time to write and to get published, so even if one seemed relevant it is probably not up-to-date. The exceptions to this are handbooks and directories of research, which can put you in touch directly with people who have conducted appropriate research. Handbooks and directories are often compiled on an annual or bi-annual basis. Recent textbooks may provide you with helpful lists of basic references.


These are probably the most helpful resource and you should be aware of the main journals in your field. There are two main sorts of journal: academic and professional. It is in the former you are most likely to find papers on research projects. The latter are very useful for getting a feel for what are live issues, but they often contain articles which reflect a point of view rather than research conducted according to acknowledged methods and principles. A problem with academic journals is again one of time scales. The chances are a paper published in a journal that comes out quarterly refers to research conducted at least two years previously. The social work journals include:

Social work literature sources

On the journal websites you can find indexes and abstracts for articles in each edition. Full copies of articles can be purchased (expensive) so it is better to find a library that subscribes to the journal either in print or electronic form. It is very important to have at your finger tips information on the key journals you should look at.

Theses and dissertations

Looking at theses and dissertations is worth giving some time to, although they can be lengthy and not that user-friendly as they are written to meet a specific set of academic requirements. Dissertations completed by qualifying or post qualifying and doctoral social work students may often be exploring an issue that is of local concern. Such material is also sometimes difficult to access, however, because it is not usually on open library shelves, but in archives. A recent one may provide a good bibliographic source, so it might be worth looking at the reference list rather than working through the whole document page by page - or just read the conclusions chapter. Some institutions will only keep such material for a time limited period, for example 5 years, before it is destroyed.

Conference proceedings

Published conference proceedings are a useful topical source. They will also give you contact names for research that has been presented at the conference. Sometimes they are published commercially, but often they are produced by the organisation sponsoring the conference. Increasingly you can find out about them, and sometimes see their contents on the WWW. The European Union (EU) for example, puts much of its output into electronic format. Increasingly key note speeches are available in text, PowerPoint or even video versions on websites. So even if you could not afford to be at a conference you can still access some of the materials. See Forging Links for an example.

Research reports

Many organisations publish their research reports and these often appear soon after the research has been completed. You usually find out about these from research handbooks and conference proceedings and websites like SCIE and rip, although these often do not provide information on smaller studies or those that have not been peer reviewed. Not all studies reach a peer reviewed stage but this does not reflect on their validity. As time passes they might also be referenced in other publications. Increasingly research organisations including universities are using their websites to disseminate research findings, which quicken the access process.

Government publications

We now live in the age of E-government, which has made access to government reports, guidance, research and performance monitoring reports and summaries, press releases, legislation and a plethora of related information a much more open affair. Every government department - the Cabinet Office, 10 Downing street, etc. - has a website that ensures the opportunity to know what is out there; and importantly how you can contribute to consultative and similar processes.

Inevitably some government reports will also come into the sources mentioned previously. It is worth just mentioning statistical reports/digests and publications such as Green and White Papers (Green Papers are consultative documents about planned legislation; White Papers are final policy documents that shape legislation). Statistical reports and digests will not give you information on research projects in the same way as a journal article, but they are an invaluable source for background information. Some reports, such as Social Trends, interpret statistics and present them textually; others only present the data in tabular format - an example is the Ten Year Census Reports.

Other key government publications are Green and White Papers in the health and social care arena. For example, the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act was preceded by the White Papers, Working for Patients (1989) and Caring for People (1989). White Papers are very useful for helping you to understand policy issues and to set priorities for research.

E Updates

Many organisations now offer registration to regular e updates, which means you are notified on a regular basis when new research reports are produced. Examples include The Policy Hub run by the Cabinet Office, SWAP, rip and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. These do a lot of the hard work for you!

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