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Background Accreditation has become ubiquitous across the international health care landscape. Award of full accreditation status in health care is viewed, as it is in other sectors, as a valid indicator of high quality organisational performance. However, few studies have empirically demonstrated this assertion. The value of accreditation, therefore, remains uncertain, and this persists as a central legitimacy problem for accreditation providers, policymakers and researchers. The question arises as to how best to research the validity, impact and value of accreditation processes in health care. Most health care organisations participate in some sort of accreditation process and thus it is not possible to study its merits using a randomised controlled strategy. Further, tools and processes for accreditation and organisational performance are multifaceted. Methods/design To understand the relationship between them a multi-method research approach is required which incorporates both quantitative and qualitative data. The generic nature of accreditation standard development and inspection within different sectors enhances the extent to which the findings of in-depth study of accreditation process in one industry can be generalised to other industries. This paper presents a research design which comprises a prospective, multi-method, multi-level, multi-disciplinary approach to assess the validity, impact and value of accreditation. Discussion The accreditation program which assesses over 1,000 health services in Australia is used as an exemplar for testing this design. The paper proposes this design as a framework suitable for application to future international research into accreditation. Our aim is to stimulate debate on the role of accreditation and how to research it.