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Framework for organising and analysing and mapping research synthesis methods

Our question driven framework aims to describe and analyse the array of methods in research synthesis in the social sciences. The framework is underpinned by a typology of social science questions, which we have developed by analysing a sample of recent papers from all the social science disciplines listed by ESRC. We identified basic questions of description, comparison, measurement, relationship and evaluation (distinctions also listed in methodological textbooks). In addition, we analysed whether the questions were generating, exploring or testing theory. This typology has been used to frame our discussions with other researchers developing research synthesis methods. It is also being used in an associated project examining cross cutting aspects of the ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme. The typology clearly distinguishes the main forms of both primary research and research review. We are using it to develop a framework of how different questions relate to detailed dimensions of difference between reviews and the methodological challenges that these raise. This is also allowing us to develop conceptual maps of the range of existing methods of quantitative and qualitative synthesis methods.

Duration: 2005 ongoing

Researchers: Elaine Barnett-Page, Karen Bird, David Gough, Angela Harden, Amelia Hempel-Jorgensen, Kathryn Oliver, Sandy Oliver, James Thomas

Quality assessment of research studies and their findings

In order to synthesize findings it is important to be able to assess the quality and relevance of the research being considered. There has been much development of this issue in quantitative research but less consensus on appropriate methods in qualitative research. To progress this area of work we have first undertaken a survey of quality assessment tools for qualitative research. Although this survey revealed a number of common quality criteria across tools, there was little consensus on how the quality of qualitative research should be assessed. In order to generate empirical evidence on which criteria are most important for assessing the quality of studies in research synthesis we are now assessing the impact of different aspects of the quality of qualitative research on the findings of research syntheses. The research syntheses that we are using to generate this evidence address questions about children's and young people's perspectives on a range of health topics (e.g. mental health, healthy eating, walking and cycling). The final part of this project is the development of a new tool to assess the quality of qualitative and other types of studies examining people's perspectives and experiences.

Duration: 2007 to 2008

Researchers: Elaine Barnett-Page, Angela Harden

Methods for the thematic synthesis of qualitative research

We have been working to develop methods for the synthesis of qualitative research that can be applied more broadly than some of the existing methods of review, such as meta ethnography. This approach is based on using qualitative research methods to analyse all of the data reported in the findings of qualitative studies in an approach we have termed thematic synthesis. We have tested our thematic synthesis methods in several reviews to date and we have recently published a working paper outlining the method for others to use and evaluate (Thomas and Harden, 2007). We are also further developing ‘mixed’ methods of synthesis which integrate the findings from thematic syntheses of qualitative research with the findings of statistical syntheses of quantitative research

Duration: 2005 to 2007

Researchers: Angela Harden, Sandy Oliver, James Thomas

Applying e-Social Science to support research synthesis

The MRS Node is committed to developing and applying e-Social Science to support research synthesis. Our work is beginning to establish the utility of text mining in the social science. We are supporting the National Centre for TextMining (NaCTeM) to adapt existing text mining tools to support systematic reviewing. We are developing and evaluating an innovative search engine which aims to offer more flexible, more accurate and more inclusive searching than is currently available.
We continue to develop EPPI-Reviewer, which is web-based software that manages data throughout the lifecycle of a review and can be used in reviews that address a wide range of types of review question. As far as we are aware, it is the only software with this capability in the world. It has now been used for over 200 reviews by more than 700 users in the UK and internationally, with support and training provided by the MRS node.
The Node is also working with major UK education organisations to develop an electronic portal in conjunction with sponsorship from Microsoft (The UK Educational Evidence Portal (EEP)) and is currently hosting the pilot portal at:

Duration: 2005 ongoing

Researchers: Jeff Brunton, James Thomas