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How we can bridge the research-practice divide

16 May 2024

News and media


ANZSOG’s The Bridge research translation project recently celebrated its 100th issue of bringing academic research to public servants. During that time, Bridge writer Maria Katsonis has read over 2000 academic articles – so public servants don’t have to. In this article she writes about what she has learned, why the gap between research and practice persists, and why incentives for both academics and public servants need to change to encourage better collaboration. 

The first issue of The Bridge landed in email in-boxes in March 2020. It was borne of the need to bridge the policy-research divide between public managers and academics. The impetus was an Australian journal article which found there is large body of quality research that is highly relevant to public managers, but this is not being translated into policy or other decision-making. The article reported on the need to address the gap between very different organisational cultures and incentives. 

One hundred issues later, bridging the academic/practitioner divide is as pressing as ever and the reasons are just as relevant. I say this as someone who scans some 20 academic journal articles a fortnight to find one that will serve as the basis of The Bridge’s research brief. It is sometimes a challenge to find just one that has something to offer a public manager.  

Recent rejects include: ‘The soft underbelly of complexity science adoption in policymaking: towards addressing frequently overlooked non-technical challenges’; ‘Coping practices and the spatial dimension of authority design’; and ‘Drivers of adaptive resilience of public sector organizations: an investigation into the individual characteristics of hybrid professional managers’. 

This is not a direct criticism of the quality of the articles. They are published in reputable academic journals with distinguished editorial boards. They are based on robust research methods and contribute to scholarly public policy and management discourse. But they have not been written for a practitioner-based audience.  

The articles are published to generate new knowledge and theoretical advances. Some journals go so far as to limit their remit to the academic and research community. Articles generally use technical and unwieldy language and are based on specialised methodologies. This combination of factors makes it challenging for policymakers to interpret and apply research findings.  

There are some notable exceptions. Policy Design and Practice is an open access peer-reviewed journal aimed at both scholars and practitioners. The journal explicitly states that articles must be written to reach general readers as well as policy experts. Articles do not focus on data and methodology but instead highlight the complexity of policy problems and identify possible solutions and implementation challenges. 

The Australian Journal of Public Administration has a Practice and Policy article category which promotes greater understanding and connections between the academic and practitioner communities. All articles in the journal include points for practitioners which distil key takeaways for practitioners with a focus on translating research as evidence for practice. This goes some way to making the research base more accessible and applicable for public managers. 

The question then becomes why are these efforts to make academic articles more accessible the exception rather than the rule in scholarly journals? The issue comes down to incentives. The often-heard mantra in the halls of the academy is “publish or perish”. First coined in the 1940s, the term describes the pressure on academics to publish in order to advance their careers.  

The pressure to publish today is just as prevalent whether it’s to secure tenure, promotion or research funding. Generally, this means publishing in journals which have a reputable impact factor. This is a measure of the frequency of citation of articles published in a journal over a given period. In other words, academics are being published in journals being used by other academics for their publications. It is a closed loop and there is no structural incentive to write for practitioners. The emphasis here is on structural factors. These mitigate the efforts of individual academics who seek to reach a practitioner audience. 

The nature and extent of the gap between academic research and practice is not confined to public policy and management. We thought we were being original when we came up with the title of Academics are from Venus and public managers are from Mars for The Bridge 100th issue celebration event. It turns out there is no such thing as a new idea. After plugging the title into Google, I discovered the Venus/Mars metaphor has been applied to a range of disciplines including accounting, social work and engineering.   

The research-practice divide extends further than the academic journals which serve as a microcosm of the divide. The difficulty of communicating complex evidence-based research to policy makers has resulted in a substantial body of literature. Reasons for the divide have been attributed to values and ideologies, research needs and timeframes. It has also been described as a rigour versus relevance divide. This has a temporal dimension – robust research takes time but pressing policy problems need evidence yesterday 

Just as there are barriers to tailoring research findings to a practice-based audience, there are also barriers preventing practitioners from accessing relevant research. Accessibility and discoverability can be major impediments with academic journals having restrictive paywalls and subscription fees. There are also the constraints of time and staying across an ever-expanding body of research literature. 

The perennial gap between practice and the academy underscores the crucial role played by information brokers and research translation. These serve as intermediaries, distilling complex research findings into practical insights that can be readily understood and applied by practitioners. This is fundamentally the purpose of The Bridge.  

Fostering collaboration between academics and public managers also holds immense potential for enhancing the accessibility of research. Think roundtables, workshops and other forums that encourage dialogue and discourse. These facilitate an exchange of perspectives between researchers and practitioners and can support the co-creation of knowledge. Both the academy and the public sector have a role to play in convening these collaborative partnerships.