Making research accessible to inform better policy decisions

19 June 2017

[This post was originally published on the Think Tank Initiative’s blog. Erika Malich is conducting a study on research to policy linkages and research accessibility in Peru. This article offers some preliminary reflections from her ongoing project.]

We can’t expect policymakers to just know what policies are best for a given context – to make better decisions, they need evidence. This is why local data and research are so important, as they can inform policies to be more effective, and to better respond to on-the-ground realities. Yet academic research does not speak for itself. In fact, it is estimated that, on average, academic papers may be read by as few as 10 people.

Increasing the accessibility of research is therefore an important way to help strengthen the link between research and policy, and to increase the use of evidence in decision-making. But to know how to increase research accessibility, we first need to have a clear definition of what this term means.   

What is research accessibility?

When I began this study I was surprised to find that, while the term “accessibility” is used frequently, it is not clearly defined and appears to have different meanings for different people. For example, does it refer to the availability of research? Its usability? Something else? In the end, I decided to work with a concept of accessibility drawn from an information sciences study that highlights three dimensions: physical, intellectual, and social (read more about this concept in this open access article).

Simplified, this refers to one’s ability to physically obtain the information, intellectually comprehend it, and socially accept it as valid. Social accessibility is one of the more complicated dimensions, but relates back to social norms and an individual’s particular worldviews. For example, someone may choose not to accept certain types of information as valid if they conflict with their particular political or religious ideology.

Viewing research accessibility in this way helps to reveal several interesting things. For one, while many talk about the accessibility of research, they likely have only the physical dimension in mind – such as being able to get a copy of a particular article or book, or having the technology and finances to access online resources. However, thinking about research accessibility using the three dimensions mentioned above helps us to think about the concept in a different way.

The intellectual dimension helps to highlight the importance of how research is communicated – things like comprehensibility, language, and tone – all of which go a long way in how research ultimately gets used. I recently spent several weeks in Peru undertaking a study on the question of research accessibility. A number of people that I spoke with working in Peruvian think tanks discussed the value in having dedicated communications staff that can help researchers tailor how they communicate research results to different audiences.

Thinking about the social dimensions of accessibility adds another interesting layer, allowing one to consider how social networks and connections may influence research uptake. For example, the inclusion of decision-makers in the research process, also known as co-production, often leads to greater uptake of findings. Even when co-production is not possible, thinking about the social dimension of research accessibility highlights the importance of leveraging personal or institutional networks to increase the targeted reach of research.

Why is it important to think about research accessibility?

How we think about research accessibility can have important implications for how we think about the research process itself, as well as how and when findings are shared. For instance, thinking about accessibility early on can help researchers better clarify the intended outcomes of their work, and better identify the potential users, both intended and non-intended audiences. Below are two examples:

Shaping how research is shared

Several researchers and policymakers in Peru mentioned to me that policymakers are very short on time, and that they often have to make decisions using the best available information. Knowing this, researchers need to consider the physical, intellectual, and social dimensions of how accessible their research is. For example, by thinking: “How can I make it easier for a policymaker to use my findings?”

Thinking about research accessibility could help researchers to think strategically about their work, and how best to connect with policymakers. Building on the work that is already being done to increase research uptake, it could help researchers to ask critical questions such as: Is it possible to include policymakers in the research design? Are there networks that can be leveraged? How and when should the findings be communicated? This simple framework could help explicitly highlight important avenues or methods that could be used to increase the ease of access for intended audiences.

Research as a public good

Thinking about research accessibility also nudged me to consider broader accessibility implications. My early findings reminded me that researchers themselves are “users” of research, and also encounter challenges with access. Many researchers in Peru – particularly those outside of Lima – discussed the high fees and language barriers associated with some academic journals, which led to challenges in building literature reviews. For instance, one researcher at a university in Piura said:

There are renowned Peruvian researchers that publish articles in foreign journals, and you know that they are there, but you have to pay [to access them].

Seeing research as a public good – a contribution towards our communal stock of knowledge – highlights the importance of research accessibility for all. I would argue that there is a moral imperative for all researchers to try and make their work as accessible as possible.  Increasing accessibility can help research to inform other studies, or may lead to findings being applied in different contexts and at different scales. Publishing in open access journals is just a start towards this end, and some organizations are even instituting policies to further encourage open access, such as at the International Development Research Centre where I work (read about IDRC’s policy).

Some final thoughts

Thinking about research accessibility as being composed of these three dimensions – physical, intellectual, and social – helps uncover opportunities to strategically increase the ease of access to one’s research. While this framework may not capture all key dimensions involved in research to policy processes (e.g. policy-windows or political context), I believe it does complement and help confirm many existing recommendations for increasing research influence. Thinking about making research accessible can have important implications for how research is shaped and shared, ultimately helping to inform better policy decisions.