Research Article: Does engagement predict research use? An analysis of The Conversation Annual Survey 2016

Date Published: February 7, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Pauline Zardo, Adrian G. Barnett, Nicolas Suzor, Tim Cahill, James Wilsdon.


The impact of research on the world beyond academia has increasingly become an area of focus in research performance assessments internationally. Impact assessment is expected to incentivise researchers to increase engagement with industry, government and the public more broadly. Increased engagement is in turn expected to increase translation of research so decision-makers can use research to inform development of policies, programs, practices, processes, products, and other mechanisms, through which impact can be realised. However, research has shown that various factors affect research use, and evidence on ‘what works’ to increase decision-makers’ use of research is limited. The Conversation is an open access research communication platform, published under Creative Commons licence, which translates research into news articles to engage a general audience, aiming to improve understanding of current issues and complex social problems. To identify factors that predict use of academic research and expertise reported in The Conversation, regression analyses were performed using The Conversation Australia 2016 Annual Survey data. A broad range of factors predicted use, with engagement actions being the most common. Interestingly, different types of engagement actions predicted different types of use. This suggests that to achieve impact through increased engagement, a deeper understanding of how and why different engagement actions elicit different types of use is needed. Findings also indicate The Conversation is overcoming some of the most commonly identified barriers to the use of research: access, relevance, actionable outcomes, and timeliness. As such, The Conversation offers an effective model for providing access to and communicating research in a way that enables use, a necessary precursor to achieving research impact.

Partial Text

In 2018, for the first time, Australian universities will be assessed on 1) the extent to which they engage with industry, government and other research end-users, and 2) the impact that their research has had on the world beyond academia [1]. The Australian Engagement and Impact Assessment runs in parallel to the established Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) exercise, focused on research funding, publications, citations and peer review [1]. While impact assessment has been on and off the Australian Government agenda for some time, it was the United Kingdom that implemented the world’s first national impact assessment in 2014 [2,3]. The UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) included an impact assessment based on detailed case studies of the impacts research has had beyond academia that could be traced to an underpinning research base [4].

The Conversation developed The Conversation Annual Survey 2016, with input from Dr Zardo. Dr Zardo led inclusion of questions on use of research that forms the focus of this study (see S1 File). The survey was made available to readers via The Conversation Australian website and through their online newsletter mailed to subscribers. It was also advertised via The Conversation social media. The survey was open from 7 to 15 April 2017. Survey Monkey was used to distribute the survey and collect responses. The method of survey collection was non-random and we cannot calculate a survey response rate or compare the characteristics of respondents and non-respondents.

Overall results of the regression analyses are presented in Table 1 below. The results of the logistic regression are discussed together with the results of the classification tree below. Please note this table only includes predictors that showed a realtionships to the type of use outcome.

Analysis of The Conversation 2016 Annual survey has yielded novel insights on how information in The Conversation articles is being used to inform readers’ decision-making in their work and personal lives. This study makes an important contribution to the high quality quantitative literature on factors that predict decision-maker use of academic research evidence and expertise [11,16,58]. In particular this study draws on data from a broad range of sectors and included clearly defined types of use of The Conversation articles addressing issues identified as challenges to the interpretation of outcomes in previous research [11,12]. Further, this study has included a focus on use of The Conversation articles in personal decision-making and shown that the factors that predict individuals’ use of The Conversation articles in personal decision-making differ from the factors that influence work-related decision-making.

The Conversation annual survey has provided valuable data demonstrating extensive engagement and use of research and academic expertise by those working in sectors beyond academia. Overall, the major contribution of the study are the findings demonstrating that the majority of factors that predicted the four types of use of The Conversation articles were related to engagement actions undertaken after reading a The Conversation article, participants’ main reasons for reading The Conversation and senior and policy-related employment positions. Importantly however, different factors predicted different types of use, highlighting that interventions seeking to achieve research impact through increased engagement, must be based on a more detailed and nuanced understanding of engagement and use that is currently depicted in the rhetoric surrounding ‘research impact’. These findings suggest that senior and influential decision-makers can play a critical role in development of strategies and interventions seeking to support or increase use of research. Further, this study has shown that The Conversation is providing research-informed articles that are being used by industry and government decision-makers to inform work-related decision-making and discussion and debate. This indicates that decision-makers are finding content on The Conversation that is relevant to their decision-making needs and actionable in their context. This highlights that, for academics, publishing in The Conversation provides an excellent opportunity to increase research use, and therefore potential research impact.




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