Definition: Finding the right evidence

Having a clearly defined idea of what you want to find out, developing a search question using key terms, an appropriate range of resources and a coherent search strategy will help you to find the right evidence.

Key Points: 
  • Formulate a clear idea of what you want to find out (your search question) and check that it is the right question.
  • Take extra care in deciding your search terms; they greatly influence the results of your evidence seeking.
  • Think carefully about the sources of evidence you decide to search and be able to explain your decisions.
  • Make clear notes about your search strategy so that you or someone else can repeat the same search.


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  • There are many ways in which a search for evidence can be triggered. Some of the more common include:

    • Local evaluations of services
    • Service user feedback
    • Team results against national or local Performance Indicators
    • New national research findings
    • New legislation or guidance

    When finalising your topic of investigation, ensure you can answer ‘yes’ to at least four of the five questions below:

    • It ties in with our strategic objectives and/or key priorities
    • It is important to service users
    • There is likely to be a body of research evidence on the topic
    • We will be able to evaluate our own practice in this area
    • We are able and prepared to change our practice in this area
  • For managers engaged in evidence-informed planning or practitioners committed to evidence-informed practice, there are three key components to consider when formulating questions about the effectiveness of services:

    • Target: Who are your service users?
    • Intervention: Which services are you considering introducing, developing or changing?
    • Outcome: What do you want to achieve?

    Furthermore, you need to decide which of three types of outcome question to use:

    • General: You know what the problem is, but have no particular solutions in mind.
    • Specific: You know what the problem is and have a solution in mind, but you want to know whether it works or not.
    • Comparative: You know what the problem is and have several solutions in mind. You want to know which one will be the most effective.

    Example 1: ‘How can we maintain the health of looked-after children?’

    • Target: looked-after children Intervention: health promotion
    • Outcome: maintenance of good health
    • Type of question: general

    Example 2: ‘Can key worker systems for disabled children and their parents help increase family income?’

    • Target: families with disabled children Intervention: key worker system
    • Outcome: increased family income
    • Type of question: specific

    Example 3: ‘Are user-held records more effective than agency-held records in achieving greater user satisfaction with services and greater record accuracy?

    • Target: all service users
    • Intervention: user-held records
    • Comparison intervention: agency-held records
    • Outcomes: user satisfaction; record accuracy
    • Type of question: comparative


    In light of these examples, review your own search question. Break it down into its component parts. Are you clear about:

    • Your target?
    • Your intervention?
    • Your desired outcomes?: bear in mind there is often more than one outcome to be considered - as in example 3 type of question (general, specific or comparative)

    Once you have formulated a clear search question, check it with your colleagues and key stakeholders. This way you can be sure the evidence you go on to find will be relevant for all stakeholders.

  • Focusing on the most important words in your search question is vital to planning a good search. Returning to our previous examples of information needs and search questions, we have highlighted the key words:

    • ‘How can we improve the health of looked-after children?’
    • ‘Can key worker systems for disabled children and their parents help increase family income?’
    • ‘Are user-held records more effective than agency-held records in achieving greater user satisfaction with services and greater record accuracy?

    Review your own search question and identify the key words. It is important now to identify equivalents for your key words, to ensure your subsequent search is comprehensive.

    Keyword Equivalent
    looked after children children in care
    user satisfaction client satisfaction; user views
    elderly people older people, older adults
    drug abuse drug misuse; substance misuse

    You may find the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) ‘Topic trees’ (both alphabetical and hierarchical) useful prompts when thinking of equivalent terms. Remember to think of synonyms, acronyms, abbreviations and plurals. If you want your search to return relevant information from other countries, remember there are alternative terms used in different countries (e.g. ‘social care’ in England and Wales, ‘social services’ in Scotland).

    You can download the SCIE Topic trees from:

  • There are many sources you can use to find research evidence including:

  • A search strategy is a complete record of the approach you have taken to finding information about your search question. A search strategy would include:

    • Your search question
    • Your key words and alternative search terms
    • The evidence sources you have chosen and your rationale for choosing them
    • The limitations you have put on your search, for example, ‘evidence from 2005 or later’; ‘evidence from UK only’; ‘secondary research only’
    • How you have used your key words and other search terms
    • The dates during which you have conducted your searches