Peter Levesque—What is the role of plain language in knowledge mobilization? (PLAIN 2013)

How do we measure the value of research?

Productivity in academia is still largely measured using the “publish or perish” model: the longer your list of publications, the more quickly you rise through the ranks in the ivory towers.

But what happens to the research after it’s out there? In an ideal world, industry, government, and community groups put it to use, and other researchers build on it to make more discoveries. “If we put billions of dollars into research, shouldn’t we get billions of dollars’ worth of value?” asked Peter Levesque, director of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization. “We couldn’t answer that question,” he told us, “because we didn’t know what we were getting.”

Part of the disconnect comes from the data explosion of the information age. For example, in 1945, fewer than five hundred articles were published in geology—it was possible for a geologist to know everything in his or her field. Today, thousands of geology articles are published each year, and there’s no way a researcher can keep on top of all of the research. Levesque gave another example: a family doctor would have to read seven research articles a day, every day of the year, to keep up with the latest discoveries. Physicians don’t know the latest research simply because they can’t.

Disseminating research via the traditional passive push of journals and conferences isn’t effectively getting the knowledge into the hands of people who can use it. The growing complexity and interdisciplinarity of research is also demanding a shift in thinking. This recognition—that knowing isn’t the same thing as doing—is one of the foundations of knowledge mobilization, which advocates not only a push of knowledge but an active pull and exchange, creating linkages between communities and encouraging joint production. Knowledge mobilization, admits Levesque, is a term wrapped up in jargon: there are over ninety terms used to describe essentially the same concept, including knowledge translation and knowledge transfer, but they all boil down to “making what we know ready to be put into service and action to create new value and benefits.” Knowledge mobilization is still a system under construction, said Levesque, but it is a promise of improvement. By getting the latest evidence into the hands of those who develop our policies, programs, and procedures, we can improve—and in some cases save—lives.

So where does plain language come in? Well, if the evidence we’re using is incomprehensible, it’s effectively useless. Solutions in complex systems require input from several sources of knowledge, and specialized language creates barriers to interdisciplinary communication. Because academics aren’t used to communicating in plain language, they need plain language practitioners to translate the knowledge for them or to consult them on knowledge mobilization projects.

A practical example of knowledge mobilization in action is ResearchImpact, where universities from across Canada have posted over four hundred plain language summaries of research. Another example is the Cochrane Collaboration, the world’s largest organization that makes current medical research, including systematic reviews and meta-analyses, available to all government, industry, community, and academic stakeholders. The Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Community of Practice aims to connect the practitioners of knowledge transfer from across the country.

Levesque advocates continuing the conversation between the plain language and knowledge mobilization communities to strengthen the links between the groups. One opportunity to do so is the Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum, set for June 9, 2014, in Saskatoon.

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