In Canada, the provincial and territorial health ministries are responsible for developing legislation, regulations, policies and directives to support strategic directions, and in some cases, operational decision-making for their health care systems (see  for more information about Canada’s health care system). Cohesion within this decentralised health system is maintained by national standards through the Canada Health Act . Since the end of the 1990s, leaders of governments, such as in Canada [3, 4], the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, have emphasised the importance of developing an evidence-informed health system, with decisions made on the basis of appropriate, balanced and high-quality evidence.
Evidence-informed health policymaking is described as an approach to policy decisions that aims to ensure that decision making is well-informed by the best available research evidence among other factors (e.g. institutional constraints, interest group pressures, and citizen values) . This approach was formally adapted to public health by scholars and public health practitioners about 14 years ago on the principles of evidence-based medicine [6, 7]. Public health surveillance, evidence-based guidelines, review-derived products (e.g. summaries and overviews of systematic reviews, policy briefs based on systematic reviews), primary research studies and the gray literature are all relevant sources of information for public health and health system policy decision makers . Public health and health promotion decision makers generally support the development of a readily accessible and easy-to-use source of research information [9–12]. However, developing information resources for health policy is a challenging process because of the range of decision-making settings and the tremendous diversity in the nature of information needed in the field of medicine, epidemiology, nursing, sociology, political science, administration, economics, law, statistics, public administration, engineering, and other disciplines .
Over the past ten years, studies have been conducted around the world on the relation between research evidence and policymaking to identify some of the key issues and potential solutions to promote the development and application of evidence in health care decision making [8, 11, 14–17]. Public health decision makers strongly indicated a need to receive research evidence that is specific to their decision-making environments and appears user-friendly in a concise format [18–20]. Several initiatives to retrieve research evidence, such as the development of web-based resources (e.g. Medline Plus, MORE EBN, Health Systems Evidence, Health-evidence.ca), have tended to focus on making information available and accessible (in a timely fashion) to decision makers in order to increase their capacity to use research [8, 21–24]. Moreover, intense efforts have been expended on developing knowledge management tools and services in order to enhance the use of systematic reviews (SRs) by health policy makers and managers [25–28]. Over the past years, researchers and decision makers participated in knowledge transfer and exchange activities to increase the use of research in health policy. However, recent reviews of the literature showed that few studies pertain to the implementation and evaluation of the effectiveness of these activities [15, 16].
Several factors contribute to the limited application of research evidence within program decision making and policy development [29–32]. Major barriers to evidence-informed decision making include lack of time, limited availability and access to research evidence, and limited user capacity [18, 31, 33–35]. A recent systematic review of the literature showed that little information is available on the extent to which research evidence is used in public health decision-making processes. Although a range of different types of research evidence was accessed, the authors of this review found that research evidence impact on policy was often indirect and competed with other influences .
Physical access to research evidence is a prerequisite of research utilisation by policy makers [11, 17, 18]. For the past four years, the Canadian Virtual Health Library has worked towards the pursuit of equal access to health information for all Canadian health professionals, including public health workers and health care system administrators . However, Canada still lacks a national health information service that promotes the convergence of initiatives and resources across health system organisations . National online library initiatives that enhance equal access to quality-assured health information are found in many countries, such as the United States (the National Network of Libraries of Medicine ), the United Kingdom (NHS Evidence  and the Knowledge Network ), Norway (the Electronic Health Library ), Iceland (the National and University Library ) and Australia (the National Library of Australia ).
Among the requirements for research evidence to further inform decision making, public health decision makers indicate that i) “evidence should arise from sources which are seen as unbiased (such as peer-reviewed research), authoritative and credible; and provide methodological details so rigour can be assessed” and ii) “research evidence should be made more widely available to decision makers through the use of email bulletins, public health professional organisations or clearinghouses” . To our knowledge, despite the substantial political and societal pressure to enhance the use of the best available research evidence in public health policy and program decision-making, there is no study addressing availability of peer-reviewed research in Canadian health ministries. The aim of this study was three-fold: to assess availability of (1) a purposive sample of high-ranking scientific journals, (2) bibliographic databases, and (3) health library services in the fourteen Canadian health ministries.