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Disseminating research like dandelions

I can't help but ponder the curious way we talk about and go about disseminating research: as dedicated but inexpert gardeners, and as children holding dandelion blossoms, respectively.

Dandelions can do more than sully your pristine lawn; they can be used in both savoury and sweet recipes and are loaded with health benefits. But if you want to cultivate them for such purposes, you wouldn’t grab the stem, blow the seeds and wait for your salad and tea in the kitchen. Wishful thinking.

You’d control seed dissemination: you’d plant and water them with time and care. You’d tend to them daily; harvest the greens, the flowers and the roots when ready; and delight in cooking them for yourself and others.

This is how researchers cultivate their research: with time and care and ultimately to be used by themselves and others. The trouble with this model is that very few of these others are willing (or able) to search through the weeds or prepare palatable versions of relevant research findings.

Too often, research is disseminated like dandelion seeds – blown with the winds of chance to propagate serendipitously. Though health and care researchers bear the responsibility of tending their garden of research, it should ultimately be harvested and consumed not only by them, but also by clinicians, hospital managers, policy makers and patient groups, among many others.

The responsibility of circulating research findings is generally assumed to be that of the researcher. Although we may have our small plot of vegetables at home, on the whole we don’t expect farmers to grow our food, do our grocery shopping and prepare our meals for us. We, as consumers, feed ourselves.

Too often, policy makers and practitioners expect to be spoon-fed research findings – prepared in an easy-to-digest language with clarified results ready to be used in policy or practice.

Consumers of evidence-based research likewise bear the responsibility of extracting the nutritious evidence from scientific sources and using it to nourish the health and care system. Too often, policy makers and practitioners expect to be spoon-fed research findings – prepared in an easy-to-digest language with clarified results ready to be used in policy or practice.

The expectation of researchers to disseminate their own results is deep rooted. Even the word disseminate insinuates a one-way flow of research evidence: pushed out by the researcher rather than absorbed by the consumer. There is no shortage of resources available to researchers on exactly how to make research palatable to the masses, how to ‘sell’ one’s research pre- and post-publication.

But very few instructions are given to policymakers or healthcare managers on understanding scientific publications and statistics or how to take part in developing a research plan or interpreting the results. Terms like knowledge co-production or knowledge mobilisation better describe the dual responsibility of producing and using evidence-based research, but the change in semantics does not (yet) represent a change in culture. The change in vocabulary, ironically, is seen primarily in the scientific literature.

As researchers, we of course should strive to produce sound scientific evidence relevant to public and patient needs. We cannot close our eyes, make a wish and hope that our findings reach those we intend to help. I emphasise that word because in a workshop here at the HSRUK 2018, someone asked the question, “Who is it that we want to influence with our research?”

Surely, the question should rather be: who is it that we want to help with our research and how do we go about doing that? Research should not be sold or used to persuade, but rather presented and used to ameliorate.

However, neither should our carefully cultivated results be ignored as weeds or consumed only in painstakingly prepared bits for picky palates. Perhaps dandelion greens and dandelion tea would be more commonplace if the flowers were grown and cared for in community gardens and their health benefits discussed among these gardeners.

It’s no secret that the health and care sector would benefit from this kind of community involvement. This requires that researchers leave their ‘academic bubbles’ (as mentioned by Dr Louise Wood at the conference), but of equal importance is that the rest of the sector assume responsibility in absorbing and understanding scientific research.

Allison Seeger4 July 2018