Pathways of Research-Based Information

Student_Logo4In this post, we discuss the pathways of research-based information in policy and decision-making contexts, and models that scholars have proposed about how research information flows from production to readers. Five publications inform this discussion. The third chapter of Sandra M. Nutley, Isabel Walter and Huw T. O. Davies’s Using evidence: How research can inform public services entitled “What shapes the use of research?” serves as the primary source. Complementing this chapter, which identifies a variety of factors important in determining what research is used and to what extent in policy and practice contexts, Alistair Duff’s 1997 paper describes models of research-based information pathways proposed in the decades since the Second World War. A 2003 paper by Trin Fjordback Sødergaard, Jack Andersen, and Birger Hjørland outlines an update the 1971 UNISIST model of scientific and technology communication in light of electronic communication made possible by the internet. Two recent briefings from Environment Canada, one entitled “Effectively bridging the gap: The case for science policy workshops” and a second on “Knowledge translation and brokering: Building awareness through dialogue” describe recent activities in a policy-making context.

The Using Evidence chapter provides an insightful, comprehensive framework about the wide variety of factors that potentially influence the pathway(s)  research-based information takes on its way to reaching (or not reaching) policy-makers and practitioners. Four primary factors are considered: “1. the nature of the research; 2. the personal characteristics of researchers and potential research-users; 3. the links between research and its users; and 4. the context of use of research” (p. 68). Numerous research studies are used to elaborate about each factor in ways that are echoed by the other selected readings. Both the authors of the Using Evidence chapter and the 2010 Environment Canada report “Effectively Bridging the Gap” highlight the importance of the credibility of the research in influencing its use in policy making. Moreover, both sources found that fostering direct links between researchers and policy-makers to be essential, as demonstrated through workshops like the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment Linking Water Science to Policy workshops that are the basis of the “Effectively Bridging the Gap” report. Workshop organizers learned through a survey that participants overwhelmingly agreed that the workshop was an effective way to link policy and research, and that it was very important to sustain the relationships fostered at the workshop through electronic communication and smaller meetings.

The 2011 Environment Canada report, “Knowledge Translation and Brokering,” offers a different approach: rather than policy makers and researchers communicating directly with each other, knowledge brokering and translating activities could bridge the gap, albeit with a longer pathway from research to policy-making. The Using Evidence chapter recognizes that knowledge brokers can play an important role in creating pathways that link research and policy, and also describes some details of what knowledge brokers do in the “nature of research” factor: they present research in a user-friendly way and in a way that fits within the policy making timelines. When comparing knowledge brokering and translating activities with creating direct links between researchers and policymakers via workshops and the like, an important question that remains unresolved is whether one approach is always more effective than the other, or whether these practices are context specific. A game of telephone conversation tells us that if we are concerned about the integrity of a message, the shorter the pathway, the better. On the other hand, a language translator, while making the communication chain longer, also makes communication possible. But in an ideal world, communication is best if both researchers and policy makers can speak the same language.

However, as is clear from the articles by Alastair Duff and by Trin Fjordback Sødergaard, Jack Andersen, and Birger Hjørland, the pathways from research to policymakers and other users are anything but short and simple. These papers serve in this discussion by helping us to visualize the pathways, or models of information flow in a more general sense. Duff’s article, which traces the changes in conceptualizations of information production and flow over the last half of the twentieth century, is a useful reminder that a lot happens between the researcher publishing results and the policymakers’ use of the research. The model titled “Ecosystem of scientific communication” developed by William Goffman and Kenneth Warren in 1980, for example, shows us that funding of research via granting agencies, which are subject to economic and political influences, can then influence which research is undertaken in the first place. However, this model makes no attempt to place readers/users within its context. None of the models make a distinction about the type of reader or user, which is clearly very important in tracing information flow to policymakers or practitioners, where their position and work role, likely affects the way the information reaches them. Essentially, information produced through research does not reach all users in the same way, and this is where the models Duff explores are of limited use. The update of the UNISIST model of science and technology communication by Sondergaard, Andersen and Hjorland is a useful reminder that we must consider the variety of dissemination paths now possible with the internet, and that the flow from the producer to the user still tends to happen within somewhat porous disciplinary boundaries, all of which only add to the layers of complexity.



Duff, A. S. (1997). Some post-war models of the information chain. Journal ofLibrarianship and Information Science, 29, 179-187.

Environment Canada. (2010). Effectively bridging the gap: The case for science policy workshops. (Series No. 3). Ottawa: Environment Canada. Retrieved from

Environment Canada. (2011). Knowledge translation and brokering: Building awareness through dialogue. Retrieved from Knowledge_Translation_and_Brokering_Building_Awareness_through_Dialogue.pdf

Nutley, S. M., Walter, I., & Davies, H. T. O. (2007). Using evidence: How research can inform public services. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Søndergaard, T. F., Andersen, J., & Hjørland, B. (2003). Documents and thecommunication of scientific and scholarly information. Revising and updating theUNISIST model. Journal of Documentation, 59, 278-330.


Authors: Emily LeGrand and Britanie Wentzell

This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the new graduate course, “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making,” offered at Dalhousie University.

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