What We Mean When We Say “Knowledge Translation”

By Kathryn Sibley

KT is short

What is Knowledge Translation (KT)? Simple question, un-simple answer. That’s because there is no single agreed-upon definition of KT. Look up ten papers on KT, and you’ll find ten similar (but not identical) definitions. Actually, if you searched the academic literature you’d find more than 100 definitions or words used to describe KT [1]. No wonder when discussing KT, you’ll often hear people pause to ask a qualifying question: “What do you mean when you say KT?”

So here’s what we mean when we at KnowledgeNudge say KT. We define knowledge translation as “the synthesis, dissemination, exchange and ethically-sound application of knowledge to improve health, health service delivery and the healthcare system.” This definition [2] is derived from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) definition of KT. The CIHR definition has a few more words and focuses specifically on Canadians, but given our interest in global domination, we like this more generalized version. This definition emphasizes four key components; synthesis; dissemination; exchange; and application; any of which could be described as KT (hence the confusion when people talk about doing KT).

Synthesis

This refers to the process of synthesizing results from individual research studies and interpreting the results within the context of global evidence [3]. Synthesis is regarded as the fundamental unit of KT when considering potential for widespread implementation [4]. Systematic reviews [3], scoping reviews [5], realist reviews [6], and rapid reviews [7] are all examples of knowledge syntheses.

Exchange

This acknowledges that both producers and users of research have knowledge to impart on the other, and can learn from one another. In the context of KT, exchange often refers to the establishment of partnerships between these two groups, such as involving patients and the public as partners in the research process (often called patient engagement) [10]. Integrated KT is a frequently used term in the discipline, which is defined as a collaborative approach to research that engages end users at all stages of the research process [11]. It is based on the premise that involving users leads to more solutions-focused research with results more likely to be implemented. We view integrated KT as a type of knowledge exchange.

Application

This is the process of putting research into practice [12]. Implementation is a common synonym for this process. Historically, application of research findings was a haphazard, common-sense or best guess kind of process. However, with increased interest in optimizing knowledge application, development of KT theory has proliferated. KT theory refers to a coherent and non-contradictory set of statements, concepts or ideas for organizing, predicting and explaining the movement of research into practice [13], and there are almost as many theories as there are definitions of KT [14]. There is also a rapidly growing evidence base for evaluating implementation methods in an effort to identify the best ways of putting knowledge into practice [4]. Some of these methods are theory-based; most are not; and there is much debate in the field about the need for theory-based KT [15]. So far there is no clear winner, nor a clear winning way to apply research in practice.

Dissemination

This refers to communicating or sharing research findings. Traditionally research dissemination was limited to peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations targeted towards other researchers [8] — but along with the KT movement, targeted and non-traditional dissemination strategies, such as social media [9], are expanding rapidly. This blog is a form of knowledge dissemination. End-of-grant KT is a common synonym in Canada for dissemination.

Finally, it’s important to note the distinction between the practice and the science of KT. KT practice refers to engaging in or conducting any of the above activities. Anyone can practice KT (and specialized KT practitioners are often referred to as knowledge brokers). KT science (aka KT research) refers to the scientific study of KT methodologies, including but not limited to synthesis, exchange and dissemination approaches. Implementation science refers specifically to the study of methods to promote the systematic uptake of clinical research findings into routine practice [16]. Ideally, KT practice should be informed by KT science, and if carried out appropriately, can also serve to advance KT science.

And that’s what we mean when we say “Knowledge Translation”.


About the Author

Dr. Kathryn Sibley is the Director of the Knowledge Translation platform at the George & Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation (CHI), Canada Research Chair in Integrated Knowledge Translation in Rehabilitation Sciences, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba. Find her on Twitter at @kmsibley.