AIMS AND OBJECTIVES: The aim of the study was to enable those planning to make submissions to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise to make informed decisions regarding their research strategies. The objective of the study was to identify the factors that distinguish those units of assessment (Universities and Higher Education Institutions) that were highly rated from those that received a low rating for nursing in the Research Assessment Exercise of 2001. BACKGROUND: Nursing research differs in kind from other types of biomedical research. There is a tendency for research in nursing to be characterized by an inward-looking focus and dominated by a concern with the profession itself. DESIGN: The examination of the research output of nursing. METHODS: Data from the abstracts of journal articles submitted to the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise for nursing were extracted, classified, collated and analysed. RESULTS: The publications submitted by those in the higher-rated units showed a greater tendency than those submitted by those in the lower-rated units to report on a study involving the collection of primary data; to be multi-authored; to use either qualitative methodology or randomized-controlled trials; and to focus upon clinical issues and have patients as the subjects of the research. CONCLUSION: Nursing research is in a process of change and growth and is still of variable quality. The development of research towards patient care and clinical issues, and away from issues relating to the profession itself, is most evident among those units of assessment rated highly in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise. RELEVANCE TO CLINICAL PRACTICE: The study indicates that the best of current nursing research is focused upon clinical issues and patient care.