Creating Research Impact: The Roles of Research Users in Interactive Research Mobilisation

Morton, S. (2014). Creating research impact: the roles of research users in interactive research mobilisation. Evidence and Policy, preprint.


An impact assessment of research into children’s concerns about their families and relationships found many ways research had been used in different sectors by different actors. Specific impacts from the research were harder to identify. However, instances where there were clear impacts highlighted the ways research users had adapted research to fit the context for research use in order to create impact. Research users continued to draw on the research for many years after publication, creating further impact as new policy or practice agendas arose.


Sarah Morton was kind enough to share a pre-print of her article that allowed me to write this journal club post before it comes out. For more context see Sarah Morton’s blog on this paper.

This paper focuses on the key role of research users in mediating research impact and “the interaction of people and ideas in both policy and practice settings”. This paper provides an important contribution into the role of the research user. Much attention has been focused on the research, on the context of research use and on the mediation/facilitation/brokering to enable research impact but this paper focuses on the research user as a key partner in enabling research impact not a passive recipient of actionable messages.

Sarah Morton described three concepts that map from research to impact.

“Research uptake: research users have engaged with research: they have read a briefing; attended a conference or seminar; were research partners; were involved in advising and shaping the research project in some way; or engaged in some other kind of activity which means they know the research exists.

Research use: research users act upon research, discuss it, pass it on to others, adapt it to context, present findings, use it to inform policy or practice developments.

Research impact: changes in awareness, knowledge and understanding, ideas, attitudes and perceptions, and policy and practice as a result of research.”

And here’s the key about these three terms and their intentional sequence. “The phrase ‘research uptake, use and impact’ then sets out a process-orientated definition of research utilisation and implies a pathway of engagement, activity and change that creates impact.” Sarah isn’t suggesting that movement from research to impact isn’t iterative but she sets up a pathway that embraces the complexity at each stage while maintaining a progression towards impact. She points out that researchers engaging with users (=co-production) “is the start of a process of research uptake and use, and is removed by several steps…from the creation of impact“.

I also work along these lines with a co-produced pathway to impact (submitting a paper soon that will certainly reference this article, thank you Sarah!) but use the term “research implementation” where she uses “research use”.

Sarah used two methods to examine the generation of research impact: forward tracking, following up with research users who are engaging with the research to understand what they had done with the research with which they were engaging; and, backward tracking which starts with a policy or practice decision and follows up with the policy maker/practitioner to determine how much research was engaged in the decision making. Key to both of these methods is the active follow up with the research user. Since impact is measured at the level of the user then we have to ask the user what they did with the research. Don’t ask a researcher what impact the research had. Ask the research user. This is a lesson SSHRC learned from their 2013 evaluation of their own Connections (knowledge mobilization) programming. Research partners told them about impacts of research that the researchers didn’t know about.

Attribution was identified as something to be aware of. “It would seem from these two accounts that the research played a role in influencing policy but it would be hard to claim that it was the only cause of this shift. It is more reasonable to claim that it contributed to the shift.” Other factors such as “other data about alcohol problems, government actors’ own experience, constituents’ experiences and public opinion, amongst other factors, also played an important part.

Attribution is an issue but not all the time. Check out an earlier blog on this issue.

Partners – Sarah spends quite a bit of time talking about partners, partnerships and relationships. Partners are more than passive recipients of transferred and translated knowledge. In this research partners were integral to the research and the impact processes. She also mentions the critical role of trust earned through sustained collaboration. In one instance on alcohol policy a key policy influencing non-profit agency became involved in the process. In another instance “one organization was key to unlocking large scale impact”. This was a training organization that used the research on sex education in their own training sessions. These two examples illustrate the beneficial effect of working with stakeholders who can advocate for and amplify the research and evidence.

Research needs a “combination of timing – the right thing at the right time – and chiming with an existing practice agenda are key for research creating an impact in this setting.” It needs to be accessible but also needs to be reworked to suit the context. This is worth emphasizing: making research and evidence accessible (such as posting your report on a website and tweeting it out) is necessary but not sufficient to inform decision making.

Another interesting observation that Sarah doesn’t focus on is that Sarah’s end point of analysis is the research user, not the public served by improved alcohol policy or evidence informed sexual education advice provided on a youth telephone line. The public almost certainly benefits from evidence informed policy and services but that impact is mediated by the partner not by the researcher. She says, “research users’ deep understanding of the context in which they operate, their actions to adapt research to suit the very specific needs of that context, and their commitment to using research to ‘make a difference’ are key“. Our researchers don’t produce products, make policy or deliver social services. Those are roles of our research partners. Impact is therefore measured at the level of our partners.

Questions for brokers:

  1. Members of staff from Childline Scotland were involved as full members of the research team, including analysis and writing.” But not as co-authors on this paper. Why not? I have previously commented on the lack of co-authorship even when our research partners are present and active throughout the research cycle? Is it an authentic partnership when we are partners in everything except the publication?
  2. If impact is measured at the level of the user, and if those impacts can take years to occur then why do funding agencies ask researchers at the end of a project to report on impacts? What other tools or systems might be required to track the impacts of research.
  3. Working with an advocacy agency – what is the difference between advocacy and knowledge mobilization?
  4. Knowing Sarah Morton’s work and that of CRFR, I know that she has embedded knowledge mobilization skills into the research program. Is she a researcher, a knowledge broker or both? If research users are key to research use as shown in this paper, what do you think is the role of intermediaries?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence and research on knowledge mobilization more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the articles. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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