Book reviews – Knowledge Translation edition

I realised recently that the “everything I used to blog about is now on Twitter or Goodreads instead” trend of recent years means that I never got around to mentioning my new job!

After ten years of grant writing and project management at the BC Cancer Agency, I moved to a new role at UBC and BC Children’s Hospital in November as a Knowledge Translation Specialist, focusing on epigenetics. (I KNOW – how perfect is that?! I read the job description thinking “whoa, did they write this specifically for me?!). This means that I’m responsible for fast-tracking the transfer of research findings into the hands of people who can use them in the real world – clinical practitioners, educators, social services providers, governments and other policy makers, parents, and the general public. Someone I met recently said “oh, so you’re like a life coach for scientific data?”, which I thought was perfect (and promptly stole for my Twitter bio).

It has been absolutely fab so far. I still have a lot to learn, especially on the social sciences and policy side of things, but I am very happy with the switch. It was a crazy year (I interviewed for the job just five days after moving house in August, which I do not recommend), but it was worth it for the upgrade in job, house, and neighbourhood. The commute is longer, but I bought an electric assist bike (which I DO recommend. So much. It’s awesome), and on the days I take transit I almost always get a seat, which means lots of time to read.


This elevation profile of my ride from home to my UBC office (I have two offices now because I am very fancy) is a nice visual explanation of why I bought an e-bike. SeaBus crossing not shown – I turned the tracker off for that part of the trip.

Speaking of which… since all my KT experience is self-taught, one of the first things I did after accepting the job was to order as many books about the subject as I could find on Amazon. Hopefully these brief reviews will be helpful to others who are entering the field!

The first three books form a natural set – theory, practice, and case studies – that I quite by chance happened to read in what I now think of as the “right” order.  This worked out so well for me that I would definitely recommend reading these three books in the order listed below – at the very least, read the more theoretical text first. (If you only want to read one book about knowledge translation, I would recommend The Knowledge Translation Toolkit).

Knowledge translation seems to have a distinct colour palette. Is this the case for other fields, too?

(Theory): “Knowledge Translation in Health Care: Moving from Evidence to Practice” by Sharon E. Straus (Editor), Ian D. Graham (Editor), Jacqueline Tetroe (Editor)

This book comprises a series of short chapters on a wide range of topics, including adjacent disciplines such as research ethics and health economics alongside the core KT themes. It’s a good literature review-style introduction to the field, covering diverse angles and sub-disciplines. It’s comprehensively referenced; I’ve yet to find a better list of primary literature, websites, and other resources. There’s a particularly helpful chapter on how to find relevant literature, featuring a humongous table listing all the different terms used in this field (e.g. knowledge translation versus knowledge mobilisation, transfer, exchange, or dissemination) as well as links to PubMed filters you can use to find papers specific to your own work.

This list goes on for two whole pages! (Photo taken on bus)

I also enjoyed the handful of case studies, especially the ethics example and the chapter that walked the reader through the entire KT cycle for a single project. It’s so useful to see how these concepts can be applied in practice, and I wish the editors had included more examples.

I do think the book’s attempt to cover so much ground was ultimately a mistake, though, compounded by the fact that each chapter tries to cover the whole spectrum from complete beginner to advanced expert on any given topic. This left me confused about who the primary audience is supposed to be; people who need definitions of basic concepts and terms won’t be able to contribute to advancing the field’s methodology, whereas people who arewell placed to contribute to those efforts don’t need such basic introductions. The end result of trying to cover so much ground is that there isn’t enough depth on any given subject.

I also had some editing and formatting quibbles: there are a lot of distracting typos, subject-verb disagreements, punctuation errors, and other sloppy mistakes in the edition I read. Some of the tables also include whole paragraphs of text per cell, which makes them hard to read.

(Practice): “The Knowledge Translation Toolkit: Bridging the Know-Do Gap: A Resource for Researchers” by Gavin Bennett (Editor), Nasreen Jessani (Editor)

There’s much less detail on knowledge translation history and theories in this volume, and much more advice on how to make it all actually happen. The book contains very practical suggestions, a handful of document templates (with links to more), and lots of case studies (mostly from international development projects), although these could have been more detailed. There’s some clunky phrasing in the introduction, but the rest of the book is well written and copy-edited. I also found some great quotes:

“A completed research project is like a seed. Getting the findings published in a scientific journal is like putting that seed in a packet, with a label on it. Well done! But is it “job done”? KT suggests it is only job begun, because while it remains a seed, it is only data; when it is packaged and labeled it is only information. To become knowledge, it must be taken out of the packet and planted in a place where it can grow (the right soil, the right climate, the right care) and become something useful. Even the most brilliant scientific paper becomes something useful only when it is planted in the mind of someone with the power to do something about it. The message of research findings must not only be written. It must be read, understood, and acted on”

“Knowledge is like fine wine. The researcher brews it, the scientific paper bottles it, the peer review tastes it, the journal sticks a label on it, and archive systems store it carefully. Splendid! Just one small problem: wine is only useful when somebody drinks it. Wine in a bottle does not quench thirst. Knowledge Translation (KT) opens the bottle, pours the wine into a glass, and serves it”

“Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is integral to any operation. It is usually conducted at the end of a project or term. It assesses performance in order to reward, correct, or improve. It is as useful to the concluded project itself as a post-mortem is to a corpse. […] Evaluative Thinking (ET) is an equivalent of questioning, reflecting, learning, and modifying but it is conducted all the time. It is a constant state-of-mind within an organization’s culture and all its systems. So it is not a forensic mortician; it is a doctor – checking the pulse, diagnosing condition, prescribing for prevention, remedy, and enhanced performance”.

There are some sections that seem rather generic, such as advice on best practices for emailing people and formatting documents – not horrible, but basic, and I’m not really sure why they were included here. Overall, though, this book is a very useful resource. If you’re only going to read one book on knowledge translation, I would recommend reading this one.

(Case studies): “Knowledge Translation in Context: Indigenous, Policy, and Community Settings” by Elizabeth M. Banister (Editor), Bonnie J. Ross Leadbeater (Editor), E. Anne Marshall (Editor), Deborah L. Begoray (Contributor), Cecilia Benoit (Contributor), David Burns (Contributor)

This is a collection of detailed case studies, written by researchers who’ve worked in each of the three areas listed in the title. The authors have done a great job of synthesizing general recommendations from their specific stories, making this a fantastic resource for people working in any of these three areas. For example, there’s advice on mitigating power imbalances and avoiding tokenism, involving non-profit sector partners in designing studies, communicating results to stakeholders, incorporating reciprocity and two-way knowledge exchange, bridging the divides between researchers from different disciplines, mentorship, and much more.

I found the policy section particularly insightful, and am trying to incorporate the authors’ advice on long-term thinking and relationship building into my own project planning. There’s also a lot of information on how to reach “hidden” participants in policy making (political staffers and advisers and such), the importance of timing, and other factors that aren’t immediately obvious from outside the policy world. This is definitely a book I’ll come back to over and over again as my specific KT projects continue to take shape.

The fourth book is a little different, and distinct from the set listed above – it’s not really about KT per se, but more about science communication in general.

“Tell It Like It Is?: Science, Society and the Ivory Tower” by Michele Cooke (Editor)

I loved these three essays from University of Vienna professors on different aspects of science communication beyond the deficit model, in which it’s assumed that lack of information is the only barrier to reaching non-academic audiences.

Benjamin Schmid’s contribution is about finding the relevance of the research to the target audiences, and includes various strategies for breaking down and selecting the most relevant pieces of the story for each audience without dumbing the message down.

Michaela Chiaki Ripplinger writes about biases and power structures in science communication. The core message is that it’s essential to consider and respect the diverse expertise of the audience, and to be aware of the different and sometimes competing intentions behind the production of science communication pieces. For example, there’s a potential conflict of interest in getting people excited about research for which you’re seeking funding.

The final chapter, by Michèle Cooke, covers what science communicators can learn from poetry, which is something I’d never even thought about before. For example, confident communication involves trusting people enough to give them the space to form their own interpretations of your words. I really didn’t think I’d like this section – it started off pretty “artsy” and abstract – but it was actually very helpful and thought-provoking.

Overall, this collection provides a good mix of practical and actionable advice alongside more abstract musings. It’s very well written, and a pleasure to read. However, it’s a very slim volume, with a lot of white space, including in the numbered footnotes and alphabetical bibliography that follow each chapter (annoyingly, many of the footnotes just refer to an item in the bibliography). This feels like wasted space, and I ended up wishing I’d bought the e-book instead of the hardback version.


If you’re interested in this topic, I also highly recommend Eva’s new workbook, “From Science to SciComm”, for people looking to break into SciComm careers, and for scientists who want to get better at communicating their work to non-specialists. It’s a much more practically focused guide than “Tell It Like It Is?”, full of templates and worksheets, and I wish I’d had something like it to hand when I was first moving out of research at the end of my postdoc!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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2 Responses to Book reviews – Knowledge Translation edition

  1. Grant Jacobs says:

    If only I had a large infinite! budget and an equally large amount of time! I don’t know how you get so much reading done. (My fault for being a slow writer, I think!)

    I probably have too much to read already though! I’d peek at Eva’s book but I ought to find out if their is a MOBi or ePub version first – easier to read on a book reader.

    Having a sci-comm role focused on an area like epigenetics would great!

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      IIRC, the first and third book on the list both have some contributions from New Zealand authors, so your local libraries might have copies

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