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Index of Research terms

Unsure of what a research term means? Use our handy glossary

These are some of the terms that are used in research. If there is a term that we have not included, please let us know.

Index of terms



This is a brief summary of a research study and its results. It should tell you why the study was done, how the researchers went about it and what they found.



Data analysis involves examining and processing research data, in order to answer the questions that the project is trying to address. It involves identifying patterns and drawing out the main themes, and is often done with specialist computer software.

Applied health services research


Applied health services research provides data, evidence, and tools to make health care affordable, safe, effective, equitable, accessible, and patient-centered. For example, products stemming from health services research serve to enable providers and patients to make better decisions. They also can be used to design health care benefits and inform policy.

Case series or case study


A case series is a descriptive study of a group of people, who usually receive the same treatment or who have the same condition. A case study is observation of a single person. This type of study can describe characteristics or outcomes in a particular group of people or person, but cannot determine how they compare with people who are treated differently or who do not have the condition.

Clinical research


Clinical research aims to find out the causes of human illness and how it can be treated or prevented. This type of research is based on examining and observing people with different conditions and sometimes comparing them with healthy people. It can also involve research on samples of blood or other tissues, or tests such as scans or X-rays. Clinical researchers will also sometimes analyse the information in patient records, or the data from health and lifestyle surveys.

Clinical trial


Clinical trials are research studies involving people who use services, which compare a new or different type of treatment with the best treatment currently available. They test whether the new or different treatment is safe, effective and any better than what already exists. No matter how promising a new treatment may appear during tests in a laboratory, it must go through clinical trials before its benefits and risks can really be known.



Data is the information collected through research. It can include written information, numbers, sounds and pictures. It is usually stored on computer, so that it can be analysed, interpreted and then communicated to others e.g. in reports, graphs or diagrams.



Dissemination involves communicating the findings of a research project to a wide range of people who might find it useful. This can be done through:

  • producing reports (often these are made available on the Internet)
  • publishing articles in journals or newsletters
  • issuing press releases
  • giving talks at conferences
  • It is also important to feedback the findings of research to research participants.

Ethics committee


The committee convened to provide independent advice to participants, researchers, funders, sponsors, employers, care organisations and professionals on the extent to which proposals for a study comply with recognised ethical standards.

Feasibility Study


A feasibility study describes research undertaken before full-scale research to determine if the research can be done. Feasibility studies tell researchers what is needed to design the main study in an acceptable way. For instance, feasibility studies often assess the willingness of potential participants to take part and stay in the study until the end, and/or the time needed to collect and analyse data.

Focus group


A focus group is a small group of people brought together to talk. The purpose is to listen and gather information. It is a good way to find out how people feel or think about an issue, or to come up with possible solutions to problems.

‘Grey’ literature


Grey literature is material that is less formal than an article in a peer review journal or a chapter in a book – so it's not easily tracked down. It includes internal reports, committee minutes, conference papers, factsheets, newsletters and campaigning material. However, 'grey literature' may be made available on request and is increasingly available on the Internet.



A meta-analysis is the statistical strategy that is used in a systematic review to bring together the results of several studies into a single result. It is described as a 'statistical synthesis of results' and is usually used if the results of the individual studies in a systematic review are similar in terms of population, outcome and intervention.

Outcome measures


Outcome measures are used to assess the effects of a treatment or service. They might include physical measurements - for example measuring blood pressure, or questionnaires - for example measuring people's perception of their health status or well-being. So if someone takes part in research, they may be asked questions, or may be asked to have extra tests to assess how well the treatment or service has worked.



A participant is someone who takes part in a research project. Sometimes research participants are referred to as research 'subjects'.

Patient information sheet


Researchers must provide a patient information leaflet to everyone they invite to take part in a research study, to ensure people can make an informed decision about whether or not to take part. The leaflet explains what taking part will involve and should include details about:

  • why the research is being done, how long it will last, and what methods will be used
  • the possible risks and benefits
  • what taking part will practically involve e.g. extra visits to a hospital or a researcher coming to interview someone at home
  • what interventions are being tested, or what topics an interview will cover
  • how the researchers will keep participants' information confidential
  • what compensation is available to people if they are harmed as a result of taking part in the research
  • who to contact for further information
  • how the results will be shared with others.

Peer interviewers


In peer interviews the participants are interviewed by people who have a similar experience to them – their peers. For example, in a project to find out about children's experiences of after school care, children with experience of using after school care may act as peer interviewers, asking other children for their views.

Peer review


Peer reviewing is where a research proposal or a report of research is read and commented on by people with similar interests and expertise to those who wrote the proposal or report. Peer reviewers might be members of the public, researchers, or other professionals. Peer review helps to check the quality of a report or research proposal. Members of the public who act as peer reviewers may choose to comment on:

  • whether the research addresses an important and relevant question
  • the methods used by researchers
  • the quality of public involvement in the research.



PICO is a term used to describe four things that you need to think about when asking a question that can be researched. It can also be useful to have these four areas in mind when you are searching for information on the internet:

  • Population (this describes the group that you are interested in e.g. condition and age)
  • Intervention (this is what you are going to do to the group selected)
  • Control (this is what we are to compare the intervention/treatment with. 'Usual care' is a term often used –this means comparing the treatment you are interested in with whatever would be usually received)
  • Outcome (this is what you want to achieve/hope will happen as a result of the treatment/intervention)



A placebo is a fake or dummy treatment that is designed to be harmless and to have no effect. It allows researchers to test for the 'placebo effect'. The placebo effect is a psychological response where people feel better because they have received a treatment, and not because the treatment has a specific effect on their condition. By comparing people's responses to the placebo and to the treatment being tested, researchers can tell whether the treatment is having any real benefit.



See Research Proposal



A protocol is the plan for a piece of research. It usually includes information about:

  • what question the research is asking and its importance/relevance
  • the background and context of the research, including what other research has been done before
  • how many people will be involved
  • who can take part
  • the research method
  • what will happen to the results and how they will be publicised.

A protocol describes in great detail what the researchers will do during the research. Usually, it cannot be changed without going back to a research ethics committee for approval.

Qualitative Research


Qualitative research is used to explore and understand people's beliefs, experiences, attitudes or behaviours. It asks questions about how and why. Qualitative research might ask questions about why people want to stop smoking. It won't ask how many people have tried to stop smoking. It does not collect data in the form of numbers. Qualitative researchers use methods like focus groups and interviews (telephone and face-to-face interviews).

Quantitative research


In quantitative research, researchers collect data in the form of numbers. So they measure things or count things. Quantitative research might ask a question like how many people visit their GP each year, or what proportion of children have had an MMR vaccine, or whether a new drug lowers blood pressure more than the drugs that are usually used. Quantitative researchers use methods like surveys and clinical trials.

Randomised controlled trial


A controlled trial compares two groups of people: an experimental group who receive the new treatment; and a control group who receive the usual treatment or a placebo. The control group allows the researchers to see whether the treatment they are testing is any more or less effective than the usual or standard treatment. In a randomised controlled trial, the decision about which group a person joins is random (ie based on chance). A computer will decide rather than the researcher or the participant. Randomisation ensures that the two groups are as similar as possible, except for the treatment they receive. This is important because it means that the researcher can be sure that any differences between the groups are only due to the treatment.

Research proposal


This is usually an application form or set of papers that researchers have to complete to say what research they want to do and how they want to do it. It will also cover the aim of the research, what the research questions are, who will be involved (both as participants and in carrying out the research), the timescale and the cost.



A stakeholder is anyone who has an interest in a research project. It includes the people and organisations who are actively involved, as well as the people who might be affected by the outcomes.

Systematic review


Systematic reviews bring together the results of all studies addressing a particular research question. They provide a comprehensive and unbiased summary of the research.

User researcher


A user researcher is someone who uses or has used health and/or social care services because of illness or disability, who is also a researcher. Not all researchers who use health or social care services call themselves user researchers. Calling yourself a user researcher is making a statement about your identity as a service user as well as a researcher.

Working Group


When an issue or query has been prioritised, the first stage in turning this into a research proposal is to set up a working group. This is a group of people who are particularly interested in the topic and who are willing to feedback and share their ideas, experience or expertise. This group could be made up with families, professionals and members of the research team. The group will meet several times to think about how to turn the issue into a research question using the PICO format, to think about the practicalities of a research project, and to develop a protocol. They will consider if this topic can be carried forward for research and explore potential funding.