Skip to Main Content

Social Work

Key information resources for research in clinical social work, social policy, child welfare, gerontology, mental and behavioral health, military behavioral health, leadership, and social work education. Expanded resources for conducting systematic review

Systematic Reviews in Social Work

This page contains guidance for conducting a systematic review in social work, including comprehensive database searches, gray literature searching, forming a research question, brainstorming keywords, and examples of eligibility criteria and search logs.

Planning Your Systematic Review

Find out if a systematic review has already been published on your topic:

Creating Your Question (PICO)

Background vs Foreground Questions

In order to locate the most useful research, social workers must ask well-defined questions:

Background questions - the "forest" (broad in scope)

  • seek general knowledge about a condition or thing
  • not intended for making a clinical decision about a specific patient
  • contain two essential components: 1) a question root (who, what, when, etc) with a verb, and 2) a disorder, test, treatment, or other aspect of care 

Foreground questions - the "trees" (focused in scope)

  • seek specific knowledge to inform clinical decisions or actions
  • require a grasp of basic concepts to fully comprehend
  • typically found in journals and conference proceedings
  • contain 3-4 essential components (see PICO)

Content in this guide based on the nursing research guide at Oregon Health and Science University Library, created by Loree Hyde.

Typically used in evidence-based medicine, the PICO model is a useful way of formulating client, community, or policy-related research questions.


P = Problem How would I describe the problem, population, or patients?
I = Intervention What main intervention, prognostic factor or exposure am I considering?
C = Comparison Is there an alternative to compare with the intervention?
O = Outcome What do I hope to accomplish, measure, improve or affect?

Example PICO-based research question:

Among family members of patients undergoing diagnostic procedures, does standard care, listening to tranquil music, or audio-taped comedy routines make a difference in the reduction of reported anxiety?

Original PICO model by Richardson, W.S., et al (1995). The well-built clinical question: a key to evidence-based decisions. ACP Journal Club, 123(3), A12-A13.


  P = Problem I = Intervention C = Comparison O = Outcome
Treatment Disease or condition A therapeutic measure (e.g. surgery) Standard of care, another measure, or placebo E.g. mortality rate, days lost from work, pain, disability
Prevention Patient's risk factors or general health condition A preventative measure (e.g. lifestyle change) May not apply E.g. disease incidence, mortality rate, days lost from work
Diagnosis The target disease or condition A diagnostic test or procedure The current "gold standard" for the problem E.g. survival rates, mortality rates, rates of disease progression
Prognosis The main prognostic factor or clinical problem in terms of severity, duration The exposure of interest is usually *time* Usually does not apply. Identify the standard treatment if your question is about "watchful waiting." E.g. survival rates, mortality rates, rates of disease progression
Etiology or Harm Patient's risk factors, current health disorders, or general health condition The exposure of interest, including some indication of strength and duration May not apply E.g disease incidence, rates of disease progression, mortality rates


From Melnyk, B. M., & Fineout-Overholt, E. (2011). Evidence-based practice in nursing & healthcare: A guide to best practice. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Fill in the blanks with information from your clinical scenario:


In_______________, what is the effect of ________________on _______________ compared with _________________?


For ___________ does the use of _________________ reduce the future risk of ____________ compared with ______________?

Are (Is) ________________ more accurate in diagnosing _______________ compared with ____________?

Does ____________ influence ______________ in patients who have _____________?

Are ______________ who have _______________ at ______________ risk for/of ____________ compared with _____________ with/without______________?

How do _______________ diagnosed with _______________ perceive __________________?

Databases for Social Work (published research articles)



EBSCO databases. Search these together on the EBSCO platform:

ProQuest databases. Search these together on the ProQuest platform:

Additional Databases (published research studies)

Googling Gray Literature Sources

Google Web Search

Include your topic keywords, along with the word research report. Consider limiting to .org or .gov domain. Consider limiting to PDF filetype

Example: community violence research report filetype:pdf

Theses and Dissertations (Gray Literature)

Theses and dissertations completed by University of Kentucky students can be found in InfoKat Discovery. For new theses and dissertations that have just been released, they may be findable on UKnowledge only until after they have been added to InfoKat Discovery.

Other resources for finding theses and dissertations include:

Conference Papers and Proceedings (Gray Literature)

Preprint Articles (Gray Literature)