Scientists Should Not Be Held Accountable For Ensuring the Impact of Their Research

It has become more and more de rigour to expect researchers to be the disseminators of their own work. Every grant application requires the applicant to fill in a section on dissemination. We were recently asked to describe our dissemination plans as part of the editorial review process for a paper submitted to the BMJ. Only tact stopped us from responding, “To publish our paper in the BMJ”! Certainly when I started out on my scientific career it was generally accepted that the sciences should make discoveries and journals should disseminate them. The current fashion for asking researchers to take responsibility for dissemination of their work emanates, at least in part, from the empirical finding that journal articles by themselves may fail to change practice even when the evidence is strong. Furthermore, it could be argued that researchers are ideal conduits for dissemination. They have a vested interest in uptake of their findings, an intimate understanding of the research topic, and are in touch with networks of relevant practitioners. However, there are dangers in a policy where the producers of knowledge are also held accountable for its dissemination. I can think of three arguments against policies making scientists the vehicle for dissemination and uptake of their own results – scientists may not be good at it; they may be conflicted; and the idea is based on a fallacious understanding of the normative and practical link between research and action.

1. Talent for Communication
There is no good reason to think that researchers are naturally gifted in dissemination, or that this is where their inclination lies. Editors, journalists, and I suppose blog writers, clearly have such an interest. However, an inclination to communicate is not a necessary condition for becoming an excellent researcher. Specialisation is the basis for economic progress, and there is an argument that the benefits of specialisation apply to the production and communication of knowledge.

2. Objectivity
Pressurising researchers to market their own work may create perverse incentives. Researchers may be tempted to overstate their findings, or over interpret the implications for practice. There is also a fine line to be drawn between dissemination (drawing attention to findings) and advocacy (persuading people to take action based on findings). It is along the slippery slope between dissemination and advocacy that the dangers of auto-dissemination reside. The vested interest that scientists have in the uptake of their results should serve as a word of caution for those who militantly maintain that scientists should be the main promotors of their own work. The climate change scientific fraternity has been stigmatised by overzealous scientific advocacy. Expecting scientists to be the bandleader for their own product, and requiring them to demonstrate impact, has created perverse incentives.

3. Research Findings and Research Implications
With some noble exceptions, it is rare for a single piece of primary research to be sufficiently powerful to drive a change in practice. In fact replication is one of the core tenets of scientific practice. The pathway from research to change of practice should go as follows:

  1. Primary researcher conducts study and publishes results.
  2. Research results replicated.
  3. Secondary researcher conducts systematic review.
  4. Stakeholder committee develops guidelines according to established principles.
  5. Local service providers remove barriers to change in practice.
  6. Clinicians adapt a new method.

The ‘actors’ at these different stages can surely overlap, but this process nevertheless provides a necessary degree of detachment between scientific results and the actions that should follow, and it makes use of different specialisms and perspectives in translating knowledge into practice.

We would be interested to hear contrary views, but be careful to note that I am not arguing that a scientist should never be involved in dissemination of their own work, merely that this should not be a requirement or expectation.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

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3 thoughts on “Scientists Should Not Be Held Accountable For Ensuring the Impact of Their Research”

  1. Thanks for a provocative blog Richard. It is plausible that a new profession, the “impact generator” will emerge in time. Whether such professionals are part of research-generation teams, university/research organisation based or completely objective remains to be seen (although the danger with the last of these options is the emergence of something akin to advertising agencies, which would have their own vested interests). However we do need to separate “dissemination” from “communication”. Researchers may not be skilled at the former, but all should have some competence (at the very least) in the latter. A potentially ground-breaking finding would have no impact if the researcher could not communicate their findings to others. Here, I’m reminded of all the papers I have read which include the statement “And it can easily be shown that” followed by an incomprehensible formula. Not only have I failed to grasp the science, but I’ve also been made to feel stupid. That strikes me as a (preventable) error in communication.

  2. I agree with you, Richard, that researchers on their own may not be the best agents for getting evidence used. There is a great blog by an academic linguist on just why researchers find clear communication so hard. Not because they don’t `get it’, but because the training and currency is based on an entirely different model https://blog.oup.com/2013/02/academic-speech-patterns-linguistics/

    It is something we grapple with at the NIHR Dissemination Centre. We know that the old assumptions of `push’ – broadcast research findings and they will reach the right people – are often misplaced. And it is true that there is a real risk in an impact-conscious world of over-claiming for single studies. Indeed, BMJ is running an experiment with Cardiff University just now to counter bias in university press releases http://sites.cardiff.ac.uk/insciout/research/

    Through our NIHR Signals (https://discover.dc.nihr.ac.uk/portal/search/signals) we try to put into practice what we know from the evidence about what works. That means using journalistic principles (declarative title; results upfront), NHS-led comment to give context and critical appraisal to give a sense of the strength of evidence. Work in progress. But the bottom line is that dissemination is much more than just the old `push’ model, where the sole responsibility lies with the producer. It is much more about engagement – and that takes time and effort.

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