Why the World Needs Research Translators

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Research translators are people who read research articles from scientific refereed journals and distill the wisdom from those articles into practical recommendations for practitioners. Sometimes research translators translate one article at a time (or a few), compiling the main points from the article and transforming those main points into recommendations for practice.

More effectively, research translators read many articles about a particular topic and then — based on years of immersion in the research and years of experience with practitioners — make sense of the topic findings in relation to a wider body of research and the needs of practitioners. After developing a comprehensive and practical understanding of the research findings, research translators create simple elegant models and metaphors to help practitioners deeply understand the research findings, while ensuring that recommendations are clear, leverageable, and potent.

Research translators add value because they bridge the gap between the worlds of research and practice — between groups who speak different languages.

Some researchers are brilliant in translating research into practice. Most are not. We shouldn’t blame them for their deficiencies. The world they inhabit pushes against research translation in myriad ways. Researchers are not incentivized to do research translation. Indeed, those who write popular books are often scorned by other researchers. Researchers don’t have time to hang out with practitioners to learn their language, to deeply understand their needs, to see how research gets understood/misunderstood and applied, to see what obstacles are faced. Researchers’ language pool so controls their own thinking and verbal output that they can’t help themselves in using jargon that then overwhelms the working-memory capacity of their readers and listeners.

At a minimum, here is what research translation requires:

  1. Deep and current understanding of a wide body of research.
  2. Deep and current understanding of the practitioner ecosystem, language, motivations, incentive systems, body of knowledge, blind spots and misconceptions, organizational influences, etc.
  3. Ability to compile research into practical wisdom, utilize metaphor to support comprehension, create models that balance simplicity with precision, craft recommendations that propel appropriate applications of the research while avoiding misapplication, etc.
  4. Ability to reach a wide swath of practitioners to ensure that the research-based messages are heard.
  5. Ability to craft messaging that ensures that research-based messages are understood, remembered, and found compelling enough to generate actual attempts to be used.
  6. Ability to provide corrective feedback and encouragement as practitioners attempt to utilize research-based messages.

Researchers’ Biggest Blind Spot

In my experience, most researcher’s biggest blind spot is that they just can’t communicate without the use of jargon and big words that overwhelm the working-memory capacity of those they are attempting to reach. Even when they try to communicate plainly to practitioners they just can’t do it.

Here is an example from a recent book that that authors claim is written to be accessible to practitioners. I won’t “out” the researchers here because I love their book and want it to do well.

My yellow highlights indicate jargon that is likely to overload working memory.

More than 50% of the paragraph is jargon, rendering the paragraph virtual indecipherable.

The Tragedy of the Uncommon

There are very few research translators in my field, the learning field. Ruth Clark recently retired, leaving a gaping hole. There’s simply no place for us — that is, there’s no place to earn a living as a research translator. The academy wants researchers, not research translators. Industry wants practitioners, not research translators. Those of us who try to carve out a niche as research translators find that research translation hardly pays a penny, that we must be consultants first. In some ways, this is great because it keeps us close to practitioners — and we get to see on a daily basis how research can be used to make learning more effective. In other ways, being a consultant doesn’t really give us enough time to do the research.

It is said that a successful consultant will allocate time as follows:

  • 3 days a week to paid work.
  • 1 day a week to marketing.
  • 1 day a week to administrative tasks.

For those translating research we can add:

  • 2 days a week compiling research.
  • 2 days a week crafting communications to share the research.

Ruth Clark once told me that surviving as a research translator was “really hard.” And, of course, she is the most successful full-time research translator in the history of our field.

It doesn’t make sense to wish away the realities faced, to hope the academy would make room for research translators, to hope that industry would have at least a few positions open. It’s just not going to happen anytime soon.

There is a window however. Perseverance, perhaps? But more importantly, innovating new business models that make research translation a sustainable option.

Summary

Research translation ain’t easy, but it’s a vital part of the research-to-practice ecosystem.