Making charities’ research more findable and useful

 

Great work could be going unnoticed because research about it is difficult to find and hard to understand, pills writes Caroline Fiennes, Director of Giving Evidence. Suspecting this, Giving Evidence has been exploring how to overcome these barriers, starting in the UK’s criminal justice sector. Find out how a checklist for research reports and meta-data tagging could help, and how these ideas could extend to your sector.

It’s possible that, somewhere, a non-profit has discovered a great way to, say, prevent re-offending or improve literacy, but nobody else knows about it so their successful innovation doesn’t spread. Surely this is unacceptable.

Make research easier to find and clearer

Giving Evidence has been exploring whether research by charities (including ‘monitoring and evaluation’) should/could be easier to find and clearer. Our work started with a suspicion that some charity research is hard to find as it’s published in places that few know to look and that some of it could be clearer about the charity’s intervention, research and results.

Would a checklist for research reports help?

We started in UK criminal justice, and consulted many experts, funders and practitioners on two proposals: a repository to hold charities’ research, and a checklist of items to include in a a structured abstract . That checklist might have things like: the intervention; the research question; the research method and how it was used (e.g., if 20 people were interviewed, how were those 20 chosen?); and the findings.

Answer: ‘yes!’

The response was very positive. One practitioner said “Yes! The system is such a shambles now that… clearly any hurdle is a good thing… This could drive awareness of the shambles”. A funder said “it can be hard to figure out from the research what they’ve actually done. Well, not hard: impossible, because they just don’t say”. Another charity said “To be honest, I don’t even know where our own research goes! You have to look on every site.”Medicine

Medicine been using checklists for reporting research for years, and with good success (e.g. CONSORT for reporting clinical trials) and are lending us their expertise. Some great additions to our initial ideas were suggested.

Meta-data tagging rather than another database

On the repository, the consensus was to use open meta-data for tagging research, rather than building a database. Various dogs didn’t bark: nobody said that it had already been done and failed, or that anybody else was already doing it. Full details and results of the ‘consultation’ are here.

Giving Evidence is now proceeding to pilot the checklist and the open meta-data. We hope to start the pilot in Q2 2015. We have an ‘anchor funder’ and are currently talking with other funders.

What’s sauce for the goose: transferring learning to other sectors

We suspect that findability and clarity of charities’ research could usefully be improved in many sectors. We happened to start in UK criminal justice, but hope that the checklist and meta-data ‘solutions’ may be helpful elsewhere too. International development NGOs are already saying that they’d like such a system. We’ll share results from the criminal justice pilot, and are happy to explore these issues in other sectors.

Turning on the light: better abstracts show us what’s actually there

This project concerns reporting of research. That is not because that is the sole problem with charities’ research – it isn’t. Other problems include quality, duplication, and proliferation of metrics. We don’t claim that fixing research reporting is sufficient, but we do think it necessary. The editor of the major medical journal which published the list of items for structured abstracts in medicine (PLoS) wrote recently that they are the most important articles PLoS has run. They are ‘akin to turning on a light in a room. It doesn’t clean the room for you [but] tells you what the room looks like.’

This project concerns reporting of research. That is not because that is the sole problem with charities’ research – it isn’t. Other problems include quality, duplication, and proliferation of metrics. We don’t claim that fixing research reporting is sufficient, but we do think it necessary. The editor of the major medical journal which published the list of items for structured abstracts in medicine (PLoS) wrote recently that they are the most important articles PLoS has run. They are ‘akin to turning on a light in a room. It doesn’t clean the room for you [but] tells you what the room looks like.’

Get in touch if you are interested: in working on this, co-funding it, extending it to your sector.

Caroline Fiennes is the director of Giving Evidence, and author of It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It, a guide to effective charitable donations.

@carolinefiennes

 

Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.