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Searching for research studies in children’s social care: Some techniques and tools

This report looks at five techniques that may help with a search for research studies in children’s social care.

Focus areas

Whole system, Professionals

THEMES

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Summary

This report looks at five techniques that may help with a search for research studies in children’s social care.

Objectives

To explore some new, or less used, searching and screening methods and see how these compared with traditional methods for finding research papers of relevance to two topics in children’s social care. This was a ‘case study’ approach using two very different research questions:

  • a review of systematic reviews in children’s social care; and
  • a systematic review exploring the impact of Intensive Family Prevention Services on out-of-home placement.

How we went about it

Five methods were looked at to see how these compared with traditional methods to identify relevant studies (where human researchers decide on search terms, search databases, and screen abstracts):

  1. Using text analysis to identify the most common words and phrases used by authors in relevant research studies to use as search terms to find other relevant studies;
  2. Seeing how useful some databases and web sites were in finding relevant research papers;
  3. Looking at citation analysis (the identification of newer papers that have referenced relevant papers) as a search method;
  4. Looking at co-citation analysis (identifying citation networks where studies have two or more references in common) as a search method;
  5. Using machine learning to recognise papers more likely to be relevant from the content of their titles and abstracts and boost them to the top of the list of abstracts to be read by human researchers.

Implications

Results suggest that those looking for published research within children’s social care should consider using a wide range of search terms and information sources, including web-sites.

Where the identification of the vast majority of research studies for on a topic is needed (within a comprehensive or ‘systematic’ review) researchers might also consider text analysis to help suggest search terms and additional searching methods (such as citation analysis) to ensure that they find as much of the relevant research as possible. Use of machine learning may well reduce the screening work needed to find relevant studies where the literature search finds a very large number of candidate records.

What next

This work provides guidance for practitioners and researchers looking for research studies in children’s social care. However, the study looked at two research questions only and explored the value of these methods in updating an existing literature review. Further research studies to look at additional review updates and new review topics, and at some of the methods in more detail, will be helpful.