Research Methods for Information Research

7. Beyond research methods

7.7 Towards evidence-based library and information work?

You have a work-related decision to make. When was the last time that you responded to such a situation by asking what the research evidence could contribute to that decision? Have you ever reacted in such a way? Where would you turn to find the research evidence if you did decide to take this route and, assuming that your quest was successful, how much credence would you be able to place on what you had discovered?

Moving into evidence-based working

The concept of evidence-based (or E-B) working and its application in practice has been pioneered in the health service (first in North American and then Australasia and the UK). The approach is increasingly applied in the UK social care sector and adapted (in one version rebadged less challengingly as evidence-informed practice) in the British education system. The key components common to all these sectors include:

  • availability of sufficient evidence of high enough quality to inform a specific practice question
  • synthesis of the available evidence on a key question to provide an overview of the findings
  • adequate dissemination of the evidence to enable practitioners to gain access to the evidence in an appropriate form
  • disciplined reporting of the research processes and the evidence in ‘practitioner-friendly’ manner, to enable people to gauge the relevance, importance and reliability of the evidence
  • fostering of a management climate and introduction of structures to encourage E-B working
  • professional development support for managers to equip them to find and appraise the evidence
  • active debate about the nature and basis of professional knowledge and practice.

E-B and LIS

How does the library and information field internationally shape up to this sort of challenge? Overall, there appears to be a continuing gap between much academic research and practice. Local research and evaluation may provide evidence to inform practice. However, efforts to address issues of educational, social and economic impact of services are often constrained by an absence of baseline information about how well the service is doing now.

What can we do?

If the research – practice gap is to be bridged we first need to ask whether we are doing the right kinds of research. Do we need more in depth studies of the problems of providing services in complex social settings? Should a main focus of research be on the comparative effectiveness of different approaches to service delivery, or should the emphasis be on rigorous national and international service outcomes-focussed work using sophisticated quantitative methods such as comparative controlled trials? And is there any place for yet more national surveys of library and information processes and activities - which contribute almost nothing to our understanding of the value and impact of services?

This boils down to recognition that the ‘natural’ interests of the research community in exploring and understanding social processes in depth may have to give way to the outcomes focus demanded by service managers and politicians. Turning to the need for debate, efforts to apply E-B approaches in other fields have brought issues about the nature of professional practice and knowledge to the fore:

E-B approaches tend to assume that professional practice follows a technical-rational model (emphasising rules, laws, routines, prescriptions; efficient systems; technical expertise; fixed standards, knowledge seen as graspable and permanent, etc.) the role of professional judgement may be undervalued views of good practice arising from experience and peer discussion also tend to be discounted. This raises a real issue about what constitutes the evidence base uncertainty, messiness, unpredictability and unique situations are part of the working life of most professionals, calling for “wise judgement under conditions of considerable uncertainty”. E-B working makes no allowance for this dimension.

But what do we mean by ‘evidence’? In a paper for the Higher Education Academy, Peter Knight of the Open University24 begins by asserting that “‘Evidence’ cannot prescribe action” (I would suggest ‘should not’) before observing that ‘evidence’ is only as good as the questions we ask and calling on higher education researchers to learn to ask better questions. He then navigates into the long-running debate about the relationship (if any) between research evidence and policy decision-making, arguing that ‘evidence’ needs to be mediated, because it is complicated, complemented because it is incomplete, and championed because even strong evidence gets ignored otherwise. Finally, he calls for expertise-based, rather than evidence-based, policy and practice. “Experts”, he says, “are plainly informed by evidence but they add value to it, by making judgements about cases not directly covered by the evidence at hand and identifying areas in need of study. They can also,” he hopes, “engage with policy-makers in ways that inert evidence cannot.” Apart from suggesting that we should re-present Knight’s concept as ‘expertise-based and evidence-informed practice’ I can only agree with these sentiments.

24. KNIGHT, P. ‘Reducing uncertainty: public discussion on the meaning of ‘evidence based’ in higher education’ Higher Education Academy (no date).