Research Best Practices: Translation and Dissemination

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(April 2008) Getting the results of research into the right hands so that it can be used to improve the health of people is not an easy task. This is particularly true for research in the social sciences. Language is often a stumbling block. The technical language of the social sciences is not the same as the general public’s.

Before research can be used to make policy or change behavior, it must be translated and disseminated. At a recent Population Reference Bureau policy seminar on best practices in research translation and dissemination, a panel of four speakers discussed various facets of how to effectively communicate research to the general public.

Efforts to spread an idea may have no effect or unintended effects due to failures in translation, noted Christine Bachrach, chief of the Demographic and Behavioral Science Branch at the Center for Population Research in the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

One of the biggest challenges in the behavioral and social sciences is the question of when to disseminate and translate results, said Bachrach. Because the behavioral and social science research tends to be cumulative, it’s often hard to know when you have a result that has strong enough evidence of causation and is generalizable enough to warrant people’s attention.

Academics love to share findings, but they are not trained to deal with the public, said Wendy Manning, director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at the Bowling Green State University. Plus, there’s little incentive in the tenure system for academics to share their findings.

A go-between or information broker might help, said John Haaga, deputy director of the Behavioral and Social Research Program at the National Institute on Aging. That person can assure the quality of an idea, judge its significance, and convey both the main idea and background to nonspecialists. Peer-reviewed journals can be a helpful source of new ideas. But someone is still needed to put what’s in the journals into context. At NIH, dissemination and translation efforts are devoted to alerting science and health journalists to what is important, said Haaga. Then they work with the journalists so they get the story straight and see it in a broader context.

One way the Population Reference Bureau spreads research ideas is through the web. Ellen Carnevale, vice president of communications and marketing at PRB, described how the web has helped PRB reach more people in a shorter period of time. Over the course of just six months, more than 500,000 visitors from 203 countries and territories came to PRB’s website. Each visitor saw an average of three to four web pages per visit. Online discussions and listservs are among several ways PRB is using the web to reach more visitors. Blogs and online communities are other ways PRB hopes to soon appeal to more users. “We need to try as many ways as possible to find these visitors and keep them,” said Carnevale.