Hannah R. Marston1 & Joost van Hoof2,3

1 School of Health, Wellbeing & Social Care, The Open University, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK7 6AA, UK.

2 Chair of Urban Ageing, Faculty of Social Work & Education, The Hague University of Applied Sciences, Johanna Westerdijkplein 75, 2521, EN Den Haag, the Netherlands.

3 Institute of Spatial Management, Faculty of Environmental Engineering and Geodesy, Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, ul. Grunwaldzka 55, 50-357, Wrocław, Poland.

Twitter: @HannahRMarston / @urbanageing

Evidence-based research (EBR) is a process generally found and conducted in the fields of medical and health research whereby, EBR takes the process of reviewing existing systematic reviews (Jahan, et al., 2016) to ascertain what literature, randomised control trials (RCTs) or studies already exist.

Lund and colleagues (2021) present in a series of three papers their argument for following EBR methods, and the benefits that EBR can have on informing study designs, refining research questions, built on the existing literature, and overall reducing waste. The latter is connected to establishing and determining whether a piece of work or research actually does add value to the discipline/field, identifies the benefit(s) to the end users and overall the advantages on a wider societal scale.

Systematic reviews are time consuming (Lund, et al., 2021) and usually requires training, but there are advantages to a researcher or a team seeking to find solutions and answers to what may be perceived as a societal challenge. This process of initiating and conducting a systematic review while extensive and daunting to the inexperienced researcher can prove critical before setting off on the research endeavour. There are rationales to such preliminary behaviour as Lund and colleagues (2021) note:

“[…] the authors should perform a comprehensive search for earlier similar systematic reviews to avoid redundancy.” (Lund, et al., 2021, pg. 159)

Over the last decade there has been a vast amount of journal publications published by scholars globally presenting findings that the respective authors believe are new and innovative. However, as many of us do, we read the latest papers because we want to keep on top of the latest research to be able to inform our own research narratives and practices. Yet, many papers do not cite current literature even though it may have been published within the year or the last 5 years. Why is this the case….?

Surely if Lund and colleagues (2021) are correct with their argument for positing the need to integrate an EBR approach then this approach could be instilled into the field of social science, which seldom follows EBR, but has great potential in reducing the waste…?

Designing and executing a study is not always the easiest and we as researchers continue to learn from peers and senior colleagues when issues, problems and even concerns arise. And in some instances, there has to be some give and take, with a view to taking a pragmatic approach or decision to see through the planned programme of research.

Yet, reviewing previous literature or even initiating a systematic review, narrative review (Jahan, et al., 2016) or a scoping review with the latter following the PRISMA guidelines (Tricco, et al., 2018) can afford a researcher or team to realise existing literature which in turn can inform their own respective study design, research questions and ethics application to the institutional research board (IRB) (Lund et al., 2021).

A researcher or team are likely to have discussed and noted a series a of research questions that they believe need answering and are set to commence piecing the study design together, onboarding stakeholder organisations and prospective end users, while beginning the completion of the ethics application to the respective IRB. Likewise, multiple applications are likely if there are multiple educational institutes are involved and should end-users be recruited via the NHS (National Health Service in the UK) or a care home environment a more extensive ethics application is required. It should be noted that IRBs for clinical research may vary from country to country.

However, where does the current ‘state of literature’ sit with the research team and members of the IRB? Do the members of institutional IRBs discuss the following:

  1. Is there value to the proposed research?
  2. what is the actual contribution to the wider societal challenges are and whether they will actually have benefit?
  3. Are the members of the research team or researcher suitable for and have experience in delivering the planned programme of work detailed in the ethics application?

Many of us have conducted various types of research, working with colleagues from different disciplines, industry, across borders and with levels of experience, and when it comes to IRBs the differences across borders be-it nationally or internationally differ considerably. Lund et al. (2021) state:

“Funding agencies and research ethics committees are key gatekeepers of the scientific process by reviewing new study protocols to evaluate their validity. If the design and chosen methods align with and seem appropriate to answer the proposed research question, the study is judged to be valid. In addition, if the recruitment of and all dealings with human participants (and their data) is ethically acceptable, the new study is usually approved and supported. However, a further ethical dimension needs to come into focus before the new study is allowed to go ahead: Is the proposed study worthwhile? Does it add true value?” (pg. 159)

It is beyond the scope of this blog to explore in detail the exact mechanisms employed by different IRBs and funding agencies when it comes to their respective decisions of funding or signing off an ethics application. However, Lund and colleagues note:

“The extreme circumstances of formulating an indictment against the investigated physicians in the Nuremberg processes (1946e47) after the Second World War led to the formulation of an ethical code that included the following statement (Freedman, 1987): ‘‘2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by any other methods or means of study, and not random or unnecessary in nature.’’ As Benjamin Freedman states, ‘‘These principles seem to require as ethical preconditions that the study be of some value, and not simply be valid.’’ (1987)” (Lund, et al.,2021, pg. 159)

Therefore, should there be a greater responsibility placed on IRBs and funding agencies to follow the ethical codes, to conduct due diligence on the ‘state of the art of literature’ and actually question whether the proposed study adds value – based on EBR?

Disciplines within social sciences and including inter-and-multi-disciplinary work could and should learn from the approaches adopted by medical and health disciplines by employing EBR, but you as a reader may ask why?

One of the initiatives in social sciences is the Campbell Collaboration. On their website, the collaboration describes itself as an international social science research network that produces high quality, open and policy-relevant evidence syntheses, plain language summaries and policy briefs. The collaboration propagates the production and use of systematic reviews in social sciences in order to look for answers to a pre-defined question. In addition, the collaboration stimulates the production of Campbell evidence and gap maps (EGMs), which are an interactive visual presentation of the available rigorous research evidence for a particular policy domain. “An EGM consolidates what we know and do not know about ‘what works’. It shows areas with strong, weak or non-existent research on the effect of interventions or initiatives.” Apart from systematic reviews, there are a lot of other types of evidence available in the social sciences, which can be considered when conducting new research, as is outlined by Murad et al. (2016). They call for a new approach to the appraisal of evidence as laid down by their revised pyramid of evidence, in which the lines separating the study designs become wavy (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation), and systematic reviews are ‘chopped off’ the pyramid. Finally, the revised pyramid shows that systematic reviews are a lens through which evidence is viewed or applied. This approach could be very relevant for social sciences to follow.

Employing EBR into social science research and studies can afford the following:

  • Acknowledge all existing work conducted by predecessors, identify the gaps, and learn lessons from scholarly activity, even research that was conducted 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
  • With the emergence of deep learning and AI this has opened up a new world for scholars who can access text/ scholarly literature written in other languages, and from over the decades to be read by non-native speakers.
  • A deep dive, into several scientific data bases and time spent (~1-3hrs) can (re)frame prospective research questions, build on previous and existing literature, thereby contributing new knowledge, and overall adding value to the societal challenge(s) that are being targeted to be solved. Scholars should also try to consult various search engines and databases for scholarly literature, as the degree of indexation varies from one to the other.
  • Reduce the waste and surplus that is derived from studies that have not fully established the ‘state of the art of literature’. This too would demonstrate to IRBs and funding agencies the true value of the proposed research, redefine ideas, research questions and succinctly present discussions that can be utilized by many actors not just scholars in their echo chambers.

Evidence-based research has a place in the social sciences and greater transparency and recognition of previous literature should be taken into consideration before any study is rolled out or a paper positing ‘innovative’ concepts is published. It can be tricky to keep up to date with the latest scholarly activity, but there are platforms such as Research Gate or Google Scholar alerts that can facilitate this lack of knowing current or even past literature. The bottom line is that relevant work should always be cited, no matter the restrictions to the word count of a particular journal. This is also a matter of ethics in publishing. The online platform ‘Campbell Collaboration’ is an international social science research network that produces and syntheses high quality, open and policy relevant evidence that many of us can utilize to share our working practices and reduce wastage. Reviewing reference lists (a process often referred to as snowballing) on published work can also lead to predecessors’ work, while ensuring a robust study design is presented to a funding agency or IRB(s). Scholars or purists should dive into unknown waters and explore what their predecessors have done to lay the foundations, regardless of whether you are crossing disciplines or not. Crossing a discipline border does no harm, if anything it can enlighten and provide different perspectives, and diversity to the potential problem that a proposed study is aiming to solve or offer a solution.


Joost van Hoof has served as a Management Committee member of COST Action CA17117 “Towards an International Network for Evidence-based Research in Clinical Health Research (EVBRES)”, funded by the COST Association – The European Cooperation in Science and Technology. This COST Action is under the leadership of Professor Hans Lund of the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences in Bergen, Norway, and focusses on the importance and potential of EBR.


Freedman, B. (1987). Scientific value and validity as ethical requirement for research: a proposed explication. IRB, 9(6): 7-10. https://doi.org/10.2307/3563623

Jahan N, Naveed S, Zeshan M, Tahir MA. (2016). How to Conduct a Systematic Review: A Narrative Literature Review. Cureus, 4;8(11):e864. doi: 10.7759/cureus.864. PMID: 27924252

Lund, H., Juhl, C.B., Norgaard, B., Draborg, E., Henriksen, M., Andreasen, J., Christensen, R., Nasser, M., et al., (2021). Evidence-Based Research Series-Paper 2: Using an Evidence-Based Research approach before a new study is conducted to ensure value. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 129: pp158-166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclinepi.2020.07.019

Murad, M.H., Asi, N., Alsawas, M., Alahdab, F.(2016). New evidence pyramid. BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine;21:125-127. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/ebmed-2016-110401

Tricco, AC, Lillie, E, Zarin, W, O’Brien, KK, Colquhoun, H, Levac, D, Moher, D, Peters, MD, Horsley, T, Weeks, L, Hempel, S et al. (2018). PRISMA extension for scoping reviews (PRISMA-ScR): checklist and explanation. Ann Intern Med, 169(7):467-473. doi:10.7326/M18-0850.