Supply and Demand for Research

Measuring knowledge production and utilization for social work in the U.S. and Europe 69% - the number of the most 100 highly cited social work articles published in U.S. journals

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


The U.S. National Science Board indicates significant international growth in research article publication, with U.S. and European scholars in a photo finish for the lead.

Like other social sciences around the world, social work has had a longstanding commitment to knowledge production and utilization—a commitment motivated in social work by the impact of research on practice and policy making. Unlike other social sciences, however, in social work there are few comparative analyses between research in the U.S. and Europe. Indeed, one of the few studies on the subject that is available documents the “Great Atlantic Divide”—referencing the fact that the social work knowledge produced on one side of the Atlantic has little currency on the other.

Hoping, in part, to test the widely shared assumption that social work scholarship in Europe emphasizes theoretical work while scholarship in the U.S. emphasizes empirical work, Nicole Kreisberg, AM ’13, and I compared journal article publication in the U.S. and Europe. That research became the basis for a paper that was recently accepted for publication in the British Journal of Social Work.

Nicole and I used a database of the 100 most frequently cited U.S. and European social work articles. Rather than analyzing the frequency of articles published, as has been done in previous research, we examined demand for certain types of social work knowledge by analyzing the frequency of articles cited, or used, and measured the extent to which these articles were conceptual/theoretical or research/empirical. We defined conceptual/theoretical articles as those that reviewed or critiqued conceptual frameworks or theories or advocated some framework or theory over another. We defined research/empirical articles as those whose intentions were to report on research, to discuss the use of evidence or evidence-based practice, or to present a new tool for methodological utilization.

Our expectations going into the study were supported. Overall, there was greater demand for (more frequent citation of) articles published in U.S. than in European English-language journals. All together, 69 of the 100 highly cited articles were published in U.S. journals and 31 were published in the European journals.

Further, the majority of the U.S. articles were research or empirical articles and the majority of the European articles were non-research, conceptual or theoretical articles. Fifty-eight percent of US articles were classified as empirical or research articles while 35 percent of European articles were.

Finally, only 3 percent of European articles (one article), compared with 15 percent of U.S. articles, used rigorous research methods to assess a social work intervention. Interestingly, the only frequently cited article assessing a social work intervention published in a European journal was by SSA Professor Mark Courtney (an analysis of the effectiveness of a U.S.-based foster-care program). Frequently cited evaluations in U.S. journals included a study of the economic well-being of women before and after having received TANF , a meta-analysis of parent-training programs, and an evaluation of housing first services for a homeless subpopulation with co-occurring substance use and mental illness.

Despite the emphasis on rigorous evaluation of social work interventions in the U.S. in the last fifteen years, the demand (frequency of citation) of rigorous evaluations of social work interventions was at 15 percent—very similar to the supply (frequency of publication) of rigorous evaluation documented 15 years earlier in “Social Work Research and the Quest for Effective Practice,” a paper that was published in the journal Social Work Research.

What can we learn from these numbers about social work’s participation in the international knowledge production enterprise? First, the knowledge explosion is taking place all over the world in social work along with the other social sciences. There is strong demand for social work knowledge—although the demand for specific types of knowledge may differ in Europe and the U.S. Specifically, findings show the subject of theory is more likely to be referenced in Europe than in the U.S., and, despite the push in the U.S. for more rigorous evaluations of social work interventions, there has been little change in the last fifteen years.

As the profession of social work is rapidly expanding around the world, research and knowledge development will undoubtedly play a central role in the professionalization of social work. Our comparative analysis reveals that, although political and policy contexts give distinct shape to knowledge production and utilization in Europe and the U.S., the social work profession is fully engaged in the global explosion of knowledge production and utilization.

Jeanne C. Marsh is SSA’s George Herbert Jones Distinguished Service Professor.