How KT Can Help Reduce Research Waste

Mind the Leaks in the Knowledge to Action pipeline

Given the role of knowledge translation (KT) in applying knowledge to improve health and healthcare, and the time lags in getting research into practice, KT may be helpful in reducing research waste.

What is Research Waste?

Just like we embrace the 3R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) to decrease the amount of waste going to landfills, there is a growing movement to think critically about the idea of research waste and what should be done to address it.

This concept was first raised in a 2009 editorial published in the Lancet, one of the top journals in the scientific community. In that editorial, authors Iain Chalmers and Paul Glasziou highlight the major pitfalls (or wastes) that can occur when clinicians and patients are unable to access and use health research results. They highlight four key issues that prevent research from being optimally used and lead to research waste somewhere along the knowledge to action pipeline.

1. Are the right research questions being asked?

Do the research questions match stakeholder priorities?

This is perhaps the most critical issue as it affects all other phases of the research process. Asking the right questions at the beginning could go a long way in preventing research waste. Chalmers and Glasziou discuss studies that show considerable mismatches between the priorities of researchers and the priorities of clinicians and patients. This gap is important to note because researchers are traditionally the ones developing the research question and conducting the research with the intention of providing useful information for clinicians and patients. But if the needs of those end users are not being met, the research that is being produced could easily go to waste.

2. Is the research necessary, and is it done well?

Probably not the best way to find out about previous research (but a good place to start!)

There is so much research currently available that it’s possible a new research question is not needed, and that launching a new study could be considered wasteful. In some cases the issue is a lack of awareness. Chalmers and Glasziou cite a study that found less than half of participating researchers were aware of the results of published reviews on their topic when they started a new study. In other cases, the research methods used may have too many limitations to make their findings valid, which could again result in research waste. Understanding the role of systematic reviews as a method of knowledge synthesis (one of the four main aspects of KT), can help with this. In an upcoming post, I’ll summarize some of the key elements of a systematic review.

3. Are the available research reports well-designed?

Is the research evidence missing a key piece to the puzzle?

Chalmers and Glasziou also discuss how some publications that are available do not include all the information required to make them as usable as possible. For example, sometimes intervention studies –studies that attempt to change a phenomenon through a deliberate action — do not report enough detail to allow readers to replicate the intervention themselves. Sure, these interventions can be complex. But if they are so complex as to be unusable by others, how helpful are they anyway? Groups such as the EQUATOR network (Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research) focus on addressing these issues.

4. Are the complete results of the research accessible in publications?

Knowledge isn’t much use sitting on a shelf collecting dust.

Chalmers and Glasziou discuss how negative results are often under-reported or slow to be published, while positive results are commonly over-reported in the literature. This phenomenon leads to a biased pool of published research, which doesn’t capture the whole picture (for more, read our blog on publication bias). Further, when research merely sits in labs and computer files, it represents a waste of research activities and findings. Research results need to be published regardless of the outcome — there are even peer-reviewed journals dedicated to ensuring these studies make it into the scientific evidence base.

How KT Can Help

KT can play a role in reducing research waste, particularly around the idea of integrated KT — that is, engaging research users in all phases of the research process. Chalmers and Glasziou also make a number of recommendations for reducing research waste related to: training in research methods and reporting, funding incentives, and publication standards.

Since their editorial was published, the Lancet has launched a series of articles addressing research waste across the spectrum of health research (from basic science through to systematic reviews). If you’re interested in minimizing waste in your research, these are worth checking out.

About the Author

Dr. Kathryn Sibley is the Associate Director of the KT platform at the George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation (CHI), Canada Research Chair in Integrated Knowledge Translation in Rehabilitation Sciences, and Assistant Professor in Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba.

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