Abstract: A Citation Network Analysis of School Social Work and Special Education Journals: The Current Research Landscape (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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A Citation Network Analysis of School Social Work and Special Education Journals: The Current Research Landscape

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Melissa Jenkins, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Paul Lanier, PhD, Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background and Purpose: The field of school social work has rapidly adapted to shifts in education, with one of the most notable being an emphasis on tiered systems of supports. In 2014, data from the Second National School Social Work Survey indicated that school social workers’ responsibilities are primarily concentrated within the most intensive tiers, increasing the likelihood of contact with students who receive special education services. Like many fields of social work practice, special education is highly transdisciplinary. Cross-sectional surveys cannot help us see changes in the field over time, as well as how research from tangential fields have influenced topical areas; new evidence-based practice research published in disability-specific journals is likely overlooked if school social workers do not have access to these journals. Not all state departments have the capacity to hire a school social work consultant to disseminate the latest knowledge of the field to regional professional organizations, including innovations in practice with students with disabilities. This concerns one of the Grand Challenges of Social Work, “Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth”, and demonstrates the need for a thorough investigation of the interconnectivity of the school social work and special education fields. The aim of this study was to identify and examine the structure of topical clusters that have emerged in the last twenty years of school social work and special education research.

Methods: We identified 10 journals that publish school social work, disability, and/or special education research and used a simple search string that yielded 100 articles published between 2000 and 2020, with 37 articles retained after a title and abstract screening. Though high impact journals were favorable, we included relevant journals with low impact factors and/or ratio of cited to uncited articles according to Scimago Journal and Country Rank as these journals tend to more specialized. Using 26 articles (13 each from primarily social work and disability-focused journals), we built a directed network of 1,173 nodes (i.e., references) and used modularity to examine communities of topical clusters. Data visualization and analyses, including network centrality measures, were conducted in Gephi 0.9.2.

Results: Approximately 40% of the network consisted of book chapters and agency/program reports, suggesting the importance of grey literature in practice-oriented fields. From the 699 journal article references we generated a 2-core subnetwork in which every article cites (or is cited by) at least two other articles, resulting in 24 nodes that represented 3.4% of the whole journal network. This 2-core network had a closeness centrality of 0.625 with risk monitoring and response-to-intervention research as the main bridges between the fields.

Conclusions and Implications: Though our search for school social work and special education journal articles was not exhaustive, a snapshot of a citation network between these two disciplines revealed areas in which information sharing should be improved. Professional development and the role of school social workers in special education was exclusively cited between social work journal articles, suggesting the need for more team collaboration research in special education and clarification of school personnel roles.