Understanding & Using Research in Social Work

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Brian J. Taylor, Campbell Killick & Anne McGlade

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    About the Authors

    Brian Taylor is Professor of Social Work at Ulster University in Northern Ireland where he has the lead role for research in social work. He spent ten years in practice and fifteen years in professional training and organisation development in social work before moving to the university. He teaches research methods to Ph.D. students and to experienced social workers undertaking postgraduate, post-qualifying study. He was module coordinator for an innovative Introduction to Evidence Based Practice module on the B.Sc. qualifying social work programme. Brian leads the university social work research cluster on Decision, Assessment, Risk and Evidence Studies and is the primary organiser of a biennial international symposium on this topic. He was a member of the Cross-Border Child Protection Research and Knowledge Transfer Sub-Committee of the North–South Ministerial Council for the island of Ireland. Brian is an honorary Senior Fellow of the School for Social Care Research of the National Institute for Health Research, London.

    Campbell Killick is employed as a Research Officer (Social Work) within a Health and Social Care Trust in Northern Ireland. This innovative post allows him to support practitioners to use research findings and participate in research activity. Campbell's social work background includes disability and mental health, and he is involved in training relating to the safeguarding of adults and children. Campbell's Ph.D. was on the topic of professional decision making in adult protection, and his research interests include professional decision making, assessment processes and the use of evidence in practice.

    Anne Glade has been Social Care Research Lead for the Social Care and Children's Directorate, Health and Social Care Board since October 2013. She is the lead on the development of the Research and Continuous Improvement Strategy (2015–2020) In Pursuit of Excellence in Evidence Informed Social Work Services in Northern Ireland. She has a long-standing career working in research and evaluation research in health and social care and other settings in England and Northern Ireland. She has a keen interest in the needs of older people, people with disabilities and people from black and minority ethnic groups. She has undertaken and published a range of research studies in these areas. Her interest in equality and human rights led to a career spanning a number of years as an adviser to a range of health and social care organisations.

    She is also a visiting lecturer and co-tutor on two post-qualifying programmes for social workers at Ulster University: the Application of Research Methods in Social Work and the Evidence Informed Professional and Organisation.

    Acknowledgements

    We would like to thank Janice McQuilkin, Joanne Knox (Assistant Librarians) and Niall Burns (Librarian) at Ulster University, who have worked with us over the past decade and have helped hundreds of social work students to develop knowledge and skills in retrieving research relevant to social work topics. We would like to thank the undergraduate (qualifying programme) and postgraduate (post-qualifying programme) social work students for their collaboration in ‘road testing’ various ideas and materials contained here. In particular, we would like to thank the experienced social workers who have undertaken the Research Methods Programme, post-qualifying M.Sc. dissertation module provided by Ulster University and employer partners, and also our fellow tutors and practice assessors on this programme. Their experiences and reflections have greatly enriched our understanding. Thanks to Mabel Stevenson, Research Assistant at Ulster University who so willingly assisted with some visual material and tidying references.

  • Appendix 1 QAT-S: Quality Appraisal Tool: Survey Research

    • Is the rationale for the study adequately described?
      • Does the study have a clearly formulated question, aims and objectives?
      • Was the question developed from a review of existing research and theory?
    • Is the study design appropriate?
      • Is there an explicit and valid rationale for the chosen method of administration (e.g. telephone interview, online or postal questionnaire, email distribution, etc.)?
      • Is the method of administration identical for all cases?
      • Has the potential for bias been addressed?
    • Is the sampling strategy clearly defined and justified?
      • Has the method of sampling (subjects and setting) been clearly described?
      • Is the sampling frame representative of the population?
      • Was the necessary sample size calculated?
      • Was the response rate adequate?
    • Are ethical issues adequately addressed?
      • Was research ethics approval sought and obtained?
      • Has consultation with service users and practitioners been discussed?
      • Are issues of informed consent and confidentiality discussed satisfactorily?
      • Were sponsorship and conflicts of interest considered?
    • Is the method for data collection appropriate?
      • Was the development of the data collection tool described in sufficient detail?
      • Was the method of data collection piloted?
      • Has the validity and reliability of the data collection tool been discussed?
    • Are the methods used for analysing data appropriate?
      • Was the approach to data analysis clearly described?
      • Was the method of analysis justified?
      • Was the testing of the statistical significance of any correlations appropriate?
    • Are the research findings adequately presented?
      • Are the findings presented in a manner that is clear and understandable?
      • Have the main characteristics of the participants been described?
      • Do the findings summarise all the data gathered?
      • Is there discussion of any null or negative outcomes?
    • Are the research findings credible?
      • Do the findings address the research question?
      • Are limitations of the study discussed?
      • Are non-respondents and missing data accounted for?
    • Are the discussion and conclusions justified and appropriate?
      • Are the findings discussed in the light of existing literature?
      • Are conclusions justified by the findings?
      • Have alternative explanations for the findings been explored and discounted?
      • Have interaction effects and confounding factors been considered?
    • To what extent are the findings of the study transferable to other settings?
      • Were the subjects similar in important respects to those of interest to you?
      • Was the context similar to or different from your own setting?
      • How applicable are the findings to practice, policy or theoretical knowledge?

    Appendix 2 QAT-Q: Quality Appraisal Tool: Qualitative Studies

    • Is the rationale for the study adequately described?
      • Does the study have a clearly formulated question, aims and objectives?
      • Was the question developed from a review of existing research and theory?
    • Is the method of conducting the study appropriate?
      • Is there an explicit and valid rationale for the chosen method (grounded theory, interpretative phenomenological analysis, discourse analysis, etc.)?
      • Is there an explicit and valid rationale for the chosen method of data gathering (focus groups, interviews, observation, etc.)?
    • Is the sampling strategy clearly defined and justified?
      • Has the method of sampling (subjects and setting) been clearly described?
      • Have the main characteristics of the participants been described?
      • Is the sample information-rich in relation to the study topic?
      • Is there a discussion about saturation of data?
    • Are ethical issues adequately addressed?
      • Was research ethics approval sought and obtained?
      • Has consultation with service users and practitioners been discussed?
      • Are issues of informed consent and confidentiality discussed satisfactorily?
      • Were sponsorship and conflicts of interest considered?
      • Has the researcher reflected on his or her own role and potential bias?
    • Is the method for data collection appropriate?
      • Was the development of the aide-memoire for data collection justified?
      • Was the aide-memoire for data collection piloted?
      • Has the learning from the piloting been recorded?
    • Is the method used for analysing data appropriate?
      • Was the approach to data analysis clearly described?
      • Was the method of analysis justified?
      • How were themes derived and differences of interpretation resolved?
    • Are the research findings adequately presented?
      • Are the findings presented in a manner that is clear and understandable?
      • Are the findings evidenced adequately by direct quotations or observations?
      • Do the findings provide a coherent model or conceptualisation on the topic?
      • Is there discussion of any more extreme or contradictory responses?
    • Are the research findings credible?
      • Do the findings address the research question?
      • Are limitations of the study discussed?
      • Is the data available for inspection beyond the primary researcher(s)?
      • Did more than one researcher perform the analysis?
      • Is data presented from a range of respondents or circumstances?
      • Are the explanations (models) presented plausible and coherent?
    • Are the discussion and conclusions justified and appropriate?
      • Are conclusions justified by the findings?
      • Are the findings discussed in the light of previous research?
      • Have alternative explanations for the findings been explored and discounted?
    • To what extent are the findings of the study transferable to other settings?
      • Were the subjects similar in important respects to those of interest to you?
      • Was the context similar to or different from your own setting?
      • How applicable are the findings to practice, policy or theoretical knowledge?

    Appendix 3 QAT-E: Quality Appraisal Tool: (Quasi-)Experimental Studies

    • Is the rationale for the study adequately described?
      • Does the study have a clearly formulated question, aims and objectives?
      • Was the question developed from a review of existing research and theory?
    • Is the study design appropriate?
      • Is there an explicit and valid rationale for the study design?
      • Does the study have a clearly formulated design (e.g. natural experiment, (cluster) randomised, interrupted time series, case control study, pre-post testing, etc.)?
      • What measures were taken to ensure fidelity (consistency) of the intervention?
      • Does the control group receive standard treatment, no treatment, or an alternative intervention?
      • Have threats to validity been adequately addressed (such as contemporaneous events, passage of time (maturation), regression to the mean)?
    • Is the sampling strategy clearly defined and justified?
      • Has the method of sampling (subjects and setting) been clearly described?
      • Have the main characteristics of the participants been described?
      • Was the necessary sample size calculated?
      • Are the intervention and control groups similar at the start?
      • If randomised, how and was allocation concealed from participants (selection bias)?
      • Are all those entering the study accounted for at the end (attrition)?
      • Is there a discussion about recruitment and any refusal to participate?
    • Are ethical issues adequately addressed?
      • Was research ethics approval sought and obtained?
      • Has consultation with service users and practitioners been discussed?
      • Are issues of informed consent and confidentiality discussed satisfactorily?
      • Were sponsorship and conflicts of interest considered?
      • Where randomised, have ethical issues been discussed?
    • Are the method for data collection appropriate?
      • Are the sensitivity, validity and reliability of data collection tool(s) discussed?
      • If a study with a control group, did those doing the measurements know to which group participants belonged (detection bias)?
    • Is the method used for analysing data appropriate?
      • Was the approach to data analysis clearly described?
      • Was the method of analysis justified?
      • Was the testing of the statistical significance appropriate?
    • Are the research findings adequately presented?
      • Are the findings presented in a manner that is clear and understandable?
      • Do the findings summarise all the data gathered?
      • Is there discussion of any null or negative outcomes?
    • Are the research findings credible?
      • Do the findings address the research question?
      • Are limitations of the study discussed?
      • Is the approach to dealing with attrition and trial crossover justifiable?
      • Are effects of contemporaneous events and passage of time considered?
    • Are the discussion and conclusions justified and appropriate?
      • Are the findings discussed in the light of existing literature?
      • Are conclusions justified by the findings?
      • Have alternative explanations for the findings been explored and discounted?
    • To what extent are the findings of the study transferable to other settings?
      • Were the subjects similar in important respects to those of interest to you?
      • Was the context similar to or different from your own setting?
      • How applicable are the findings to practice, policy or theoretical knowledge?

    Appendix 4 Search Structure Template

    Review question:

    Professional Capabilities Framework

    Professional Capabilities Framework diagram reproduced with permission of The College of Social Work

    Glossary

    Action research

    A reflective process of iterative problem solving in teams and organisations, usually focusing on a particular issue; such activity is more often termed a ‘quality improvement process’ now.

    Attrition bias

    Bias in an experimental study caused by participants not completing the planned intervention. This can be a particular issue in studies of the effectiveness of social work interventions.

    Audit

    See Professional audit.

    Blinded, blinding

    See Masked, masking.

    Boolean algebra

    When searching bibliographic databases the search terms are joined by operators (such as AND and OR) which specify how the search terms are to be treated. These operators work according to mathematical logic developed by George Boole (1815–64).

    Case-control study

    A study design in which two groups which differ in terms of outcome are identified and then compared in terms of factors which may have led to these differences in outcome. Thus people who have some undesirable (i.e. ill-)health or social outcome are compared with people who are otherwise similar to seek to identify causes. The method is widely used in epidemiology, but deserves greater usage in social work (social epidemiology) to study risk factors.

    Case study

    A detailed study of an individual person, family, group, team or organisation in its context so as to derive some knowledge from which generalisable lessons might be drawn. It is particularly useful where there is an unusual case of some problem; a case-law judgment; a pilot study in an organisation; and similar rare events.

    Census

    Where data is gathered about all the members of a given population, by contrast to a sample.

    Cross-sectional survey

    See Survey. This term is used to provide clarity where the term ‘survey’ is also being applied to longitudinal cohort studies.

    Data

    Information collected for research, professional audit or service evaluation is called ‘data’. These may be qualitative (words) or quantitative (numbers). The data may be obtained from questionnaires, files, electronic records, interviews, focus groups, observations, and through various measures such as indexes (e.g. socioeconomic status) or scales (e.g. measures of anxiety, depression, quality of life, social inclusion, stress, etc.)

    Deductive research

    Research which proceeds by logical steps of deductive reasoning to reach a conclusion about the world (see also Inductive research).

    Descriptive statistics

    Analysis of survey data that describes the sample from which data was gathered (see also Inferential statistics).

    Effect size

    In any quantitative study this is a measure of the strength of a variable in which we are interested. In (quasi-)experimental studies, this is the size of the effect caused by the intervention of interest.

    Empirical

    Derived from research, whether surveys or experiments or qualitative studies. In general reviews of evidence provide an overview of empirical research.

    Ethnography

    The study of people in their ‘natural’ environment has led to a research method that focuses on observation of people in their cultural setting, whether domestic, at work, spiritual or recreational.

    Evaluation

    See Service evaluation.

    Evidence

    Knowledge produced by research, service evaluation and professional audit activities. The term ‘evidence’ also encompasses the message that evidence is tentative (rather than the product of immutable logic), may on occasions be misleading or contradicted by other research, and is part of a process of accumulation and synthesis to form a coherent body of knowledge.

    Experimental study

    Where receipt of the intervention of interest is decided by the research team, participants are randomly allocated to the intervention under study with another group of participants not receiving this intervention (see also Quasi-experimental study; Randomised controlled trial).

    Expert validation

    The validation of qualitative research by presenting the findings for comment to those with some expertise on the topic (see also Respondent validation).

    External validity

    The extent to which the study findings may confidently be generalised to other people and situations (see also Internal validity and Reliability).

    Fidelity

    See Intervention fidelity.

    Findings

    The presentation of detailed data from a qualitative study (see also Results).

    Focus group

    A method of data gathering in qualitative research where participants share ideas on the study topic with other participants with the aim of creating a richness of data through the interaction.

    Grey literature

    Any publication that is not controlled by a commercial publisher. In practice, it is used to mean papers that are not reviewed by anonymous, ‘masked’ reviewers with expertise in the field. Grey literature includes conference papers, organisation reports and news-sheets, as well as theses and dissertations produced as part of academic studies.

    Grounded theory

    A qualitative research design which emphasises generating new concepts and a new theoretical framework. The concept of ‘saturation sampling’ – continuing sampling until no substantive new themes emerge from the data – comes from grounded theory.

    Hypothesis

    A statement about a relationship between two quantitative variables which is then tested through a survey or (quasi-)experimental study.

    Incidence

    The frequency of occurrence of an event (such as referrals for a type of problem) during a specified time period (see also Prevalence).

    Index-term searching

    Searching a bibliographic database using the thesaurus of terms on the database that has been used to index the abstracts (see also Text-term searching).

    Inductive research

    Research which argues from a limited number of examples to general (theoretical) statements about the world (see also Deductive research).

    Inferential statistics

    Analysis of survey data so as to make predictions about the entire population from which the sample studied is drawn (see also Descriptive statistics).

    Internal validity

    The extent to which the measured effects of an intervention may confidently be ascribed to that intervention, which relates to avoidance of bias in the study design (see also External validity; Reliability).

    Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA)

    A qualitative research design focusing on how a person makes sense of some aspect of their experience. In a social work context this is usually regarding their presenting problem or the process of recovery and growth through receipt of a service.

    Interrupted time series (ITS) design

    A research design where multiple observations are made over a period of time, and where there are periods with and without the intervention of interest. This enables measures of the effects of the intervention.

    Intervention fidelity

    In a (quasi-)experimental study of the effectiveness of an intervention, the faithfulness with which the intervention has been delivered. The intervention must be defined sufficiently clearly and any variations in how it is delivered must be within acceptable limits for the study to be meaningful and useful.

    Interview

    See Semi-structured interview

    Knowledge

    An understanding or explanation of a social phenomenon (such as client and family needs and the mechanisms of helping processes) based on research and theoretical understandings that are used to inform professional practice. Knowledge involves gathering, analysing and synthesising different theories (explanations) to arrive at some kind of tentative understanding, hypothesis or judgement (Trevithick, 2008, p3). An SCIE paper (Pawson et al., 2003) conceptualises social care knowledge as comprising organisational, practitioner, policy community and user and carer dimensions as well as research knowledge.

    Literature mapping

    Providing an overview of types and subtopics of literature on a particular topic (see also Systematic literature mapping).

    Longitudinal study

    A study that involves repeated measures of the same variables over time so as to identify correlations (see also Cross-sectional survey; Survey).

    Masked, masking

    A process for reducing bias in experimental studies of effectiveness by ensuring that (1) participants do not know whether or not they are receiving the intervention; and sometimes also (2) those measuring outcomes are not aware of which trial group the participant they are measuring belongs to. The term is also sometimes called ‘blinded’ or ‘blinding’, although this terminology may be confusing where the study relates to visual impairment. The terms are also used in relation to peer-review of manuscripts submitted for publication in a journal, where the reviewers do not know the identity of the author(s).

    Meta-analysis

    Combining the results of quantitative studies using statistical methods so as provide an overall estimate of effect (see Experimental and Quasi-experimental studies) or to identify patterns of correlation (see Survey).

    Meta-ethnography

    Combining ethnographic studies using principles of ethnography.

    Meta-synthesis

    Combining the findings of qualitative studies using principles of qualitative research.

    Narrative review

    A review of research where, after some process of study selection, the results of studies, whether qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods, are combined in a narrative in terms of their main conclusions (see also Narrative synthesis; Systematic narrative review).

    Narrative synthesis

    Combining the findings of studies, whether qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods, in a narrative in terms of their main conclusions.

    Natural experiment

    Where the people (or more often clusters of people) receiving the intervention of interest are not determined by the research team, but where the process of allocation might be regarded as resembling random allocation. This can occur, for example, where a new type of intervention is introduced as a pilot in one geographical area but not another for reasons unconnected with the characteristics of the population. This provides a valuable opportunity for studying the effects of a social work intervention.

    Organisational knowledge

    Generated through the management of services and the organisations that deliver them, including social care governance processes (Taylor and Campbell, 2011).

    Performance bias

    Where the difference between experience of the intervention group and the control group is not just the planned intervention, thereby mitigating or enhancing the effect of the intervention itself. This may be due to the environment in which the intervention is conducted.

    Population

    The totality of instances to which the research is to be generalised.

    Prevalence

    The proportion of a population that has a particular characteristic, such as a problem of concern to social work (see also Incidence).

    Probability sample

    The sampling approach generally used in survey research so as to gather data from a sample that is representative of the population to which the results are to be generalised. Every person in the population of interest has a chance of being selected as part of the sample (see also Random sample).

    Professional audit

    Designed and conducted to produce information to inform delivery of best care by answering the question: ‘Does this service reach a predetermined standard?’ (Health Research Authority, 2013). Professional audit is clearly distinguished for governance purposes from research and from service evaluation, even though similar research methods may be used.

    Purposive sample

    The sampling approach generally used in qualitative research whereby participants are selected ‘for a purpose’, essentially as being ‘information-rich’ in relation to the topic of the study – i.e. they have experienced what it is the researcher wants to study.

    Qualitative research

    Data gathered in the form of language and most often, for the present purpose, through interviews or focus groups although observation and written data are also used. The aim is to understand social phenomena in their natural (including service delivery and work) settings.

    Quantitative research

    Data gathered in the form of numbers whether in surveys or experimental or quasi-experimental studies, although longitudinal and case-control studies are also widely used. The aim is to measure social phenomena (including social needs, well-being and the effects of service provision) and the relationships between phenomena (such as factors that lead to higher risks or greater likelihood of benefiting from a particular intervention).

    Quasi-experimental study

    Similar to an experimental study but where receipt of the intervention of interest is not assigned by the research team as part of a randomisation process.

    Randomised controlled trial

    The classical experimental design, and best suited – where it is feasible – to measuring the effectiveness of an intervention. A group of people receiving the intervention are compared with similar people who do not receive the intervention, people having been allocated at random to the two groups.

    Random sample

    The ideal sampling approach in survey research so as to gather data from a sample that is representative of the population to which the results are to be generalised. Every person in the population of interest has an equal chance of being selected as part of the sample (see also Probability sample).

    Reliability

    The consistency of research measures, primarily in terms of whether similar results are obtained if the study is repeated (see also Validity).

    Research

    Studies aiming to derive generalisable new knowledge including studies that aim to generate hypotheses (inductive, usually qualitative) as well as studies that aim to test hypotheses (surveys or experimental) (see Health Research Authority, 2013). Research is clearly distinguished for governance purposes from service evaluation and from professional audit, even though similar research methods may be used.

    Respondent validation

    The validation of qualitative research by presenting the findings for comment to those who participated in the study (see also Expert validation).

    Results

    The presentation of detailed data from a quantitative study (see also Findings).

    Sample

    A subset of a population from which data is gathered in order to make some inference about the population as a whole.

    Sampling

    The process of selecting the sources of data to be used in a research, professional audit or service evaluation.

    Saturation sampling

    Within qualitative research the process expounded within grounded theory of continuing sampling until no new data relating to the theme is obtained, thereby providing a rich account of that construct in the findings.

    Search formula

    A sequence of topic words joined by Boolean operators that are used in searching bibliographic databases to identify relevant journal articles. The search formula may include both index-term and text-term searching.

    Secondary data

    Data that is collected by someone other than the researcher, such as organisational (client or staff) records, by contrast with primary data that is gathered by the researcher him- or herself.

    Selection bias

    Bias due to the selection of individuals or other data for analysis not being random, whether in relation to a survey sample or in relation to allocation of participants to intervention and control arms of an experimental study (see also Randomised controlled trial).

    Semi-structured interview

    A method of data gathering in qualitative research where participants have the opportunity to explore the topic of interest within the privacy of a one-to-one interview.

    Service evaluation

    Designed and conducted to define or judge current care, to answer the question ‘What standard does this service achieve?’ (Health Research Authority, 2013). Service evaluation is clearly distinguished for governance purposes from research and from professional audit, even though similar research methods may be used.

    Significance

    See Statistical significance.

    Single subject design

    See Case study.

    Single system design

    See Case study.

    Standard deviation

    (σ) A measure of the dispersion of a set of data values.

    Statistical significance

    The probability of the result not being due to chance. This may apply in relation to correlations between variables measured in a survey, or the measured effects of an intervention in an experimental or quasi-experimental study. This is measured primarily in terms of a p-value: the probability of observing the effect even though it is not attributable to the cause being studied.

    Survey

    Gathering data at a point in time to study the prevalence or correlations of variables within a population. Survey data is gathered through questionnaires or using a data-extraction tool if the data is from files or similar records.

    Synthesis

    Combining the findings of research, whether using meta-analysis, meta-synthesis, narrative synthesis or any other method that might have a specific name.

    Systematic literature mapping

    A systematic approach using explicit methods for literature mapping. The distinction between the terms parallels the distinction between narrative review and systematic narrative review, so a systematic literature map will have an explicit and justifiable method for each stage of the process: (1) study identification; (2) quality appraisal; and (3) synthesis.

    Systematic narrative review

    Where a narrative synthesis is part of a review that has an explicit and robust methodology for identification of relevant research or for quality appraisal of the research or both, but not for the synthesis, we use the term ‘systematic narrative review’. Robust approaches to quality appraisal would be a waste of effort if the process of identifying relevant research were not robust, so in practice the term most commonly applies to reviews where there is a robust search methodology for identifying studies or for both of the two stages before synthesis. Systematic narrative reviews generally address questions of perspectives on care and professional processes, including both qualitative and quantitative studies on the topic, or more diffuse questions addressed by a variety of research designs.

    Systematic review

    Where a review of research has an explicit and robust methodology for (1) identification of relevant research, (2) quality appraisal and (3) synthesis (i.e. meta-analysis or meta-synthesis) we use the term ‘systematic review’. A systematic review may address a question of outcomes of an intervention, perspectives on care processes or best evidence on risk factors and thus may focus on (quasi-)experimental, qualitative or survey research but will not cross these major categories of research design.

    Text-term searching

    Searching a bibliographic database for terms used by the author in the title or abstract of the article (see also Index-term searching).

    Thematic analysis

    Analysis of qualitative data to identify patterns of meanings expressed by participants; their understandings of the world; and their rationalisations for behaviours.

    User and carer knowledge

    User and carer knowledge is knowledge that comes directly from the experience of using a social care (including social work) service or being a primary carer (usually a family member) of someone who is using such a service.

    Validity

    See Internal validity and External validity.

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