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Evidence-Based Practice for Social Work

This guide shows how social work researchers can take advantage of resources from the library as well as free resources to track down the best evidence

Things to Consider

  • Your question needs to be relevant to the client's outcome and include only resources which are available.
  • Your question needs to be clear and focused in order to get relevant results. Remember, when you search databases you are talking to a machine, not another person. Use terms the machine will understand.
  • Consider how the terms you will be searching are labeled. They may be called something different by non-professionals or by different disciplines. You will likely want to include all of these various synonyms when searching.
  • You're initial question may be incomplete but as you search you will likely be able to refine your terms to make your question more complete.
  • Keep it simple. Don't try to answer multiple things at once. Stick with one question at a time.

Answerable Question & Building Search Strategy


P - Patient or Population

I - Intervention

C - Comparison (if any)

O - Outcome

Search Strategy

  • Develop 'answerable question' using PICO
  • Search one term or concept at a time
  • Consider all possible terms, including synonyms to describe the topic
  • Use OR to broaden your search
  • Use AND to narrow your search
  • Try different combinations of terms, particularly if limited retrieval
  • Review search results; critically appraise retrieved articles
  • Consider using limits for publication types, age, human, and evidence-based
  • Revise search as appropriate


*Shlonsky & Gibbs, 2004 call this COPES searching, Client-Oriented Practical Evidence Searching

Primary versus Secondary Studies

Primary Research
A research study where data is collected by the investigators conducting the research. This can include carrying out a survey, coding specific behavior or doing an experiment.


Secondary Research
A research study based on data which other investigators have collected. Using U.S. Census data, finding articles and systematic reviews from a library database are all examples of secondary research. Secondary research is much less expensive and time consuming than primary research. Much of social science research relies on secondary data gathered and compiled by others. ¹


¹ Lewis-Beck, Michael S. "Secondary Data." Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods. 2003. SAGE Publications. 27 May 2010. <>.