Research is only as important as it is understood

Likely unobservable to even most policy wonks, the health services research community is working to enhance the dissemination of policy-relevant research. One of the latest goals is to make better use of social media. I’ve been part of the struggle to do that effectively and a participant in the wider conversation around it.

A new post on the AcademyHealth blog–whose mission includes “movement of knowledge to action”–lays out some of the key steps and challenges associated with dissemination:

The success of any knowledge transfer and dissemination strategy is affected by the personal relationships and ideologies of the people you’re trying to reach.

The research community is well served to seek out and respond not only to policymakers’ needs, but also to the needs of their intermediaries.

Publication and dissemination are part of a complex process that requires significant effort from the research community – time and effort that isn’t widely rewarded.

The dissemination conversation is an important one because the vast majority of health care related research is ignored outside the research community. That’s appropriate for some of the work: some of it is very focused on methodological issues or other research nuances that have no direct societal or policy relevance. Other work may not be of sufficient quality to justify broad dissemination. Yes, that happens, if only due to limitations of data or methods, despite everyone’s efforts to produce the best possible work.

However, there is a substantial body of work that is relevant to policy but is not accessible to journalists and policy experts outside of research. This blog, and others like that of Bill Gardner and Paul Kelleher, cite such work daily. How much gets through? Not much. Julie Suleski and Motomu Ibaraki found that less than 0.04% of journal articles in health are reported on by the media. Yes, you read that right, it’s four-one hundredth of one percent. Here’s what that looks like in a pie chart:

Now, as I wrote, we should not expect or want anything like 100% of journal articles reported on by the media. But surely more that 0.04% are worthy of some notice. Even increasing that by a factor of ten, which would be huge, would only mean less than half a percent are more widely recognized. One of the missions of this blog is to bring more papers of policy relevance to light and in a form accessible to journalists, policy experts, and a more general audience.

We can do a better job making research accessible and relevant. Those aspects of the work should be rewarded. For, if you aren’t doing those things, how much is the research really worth? A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a journal article to matter is that someone has to understand its import. The first thing that anyone should notice about journal articles is that they reveal that import reluctantly. Translation is key. As a community, we aren’t doing enough of it.

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