Closing the Gap Knowledge Mobilisation FAQ


In 2020, we spoke to our Closing the Gap Network Plus funded projects, to ask them what they knew about knowledge mobilisation, and what questions they had. We used this feedback to inform workshops with researchers about how to do, and how to research knowledge mobilisation. We recognised that the questions raised weren’t specific to Closing the Gap, and so we wanted to make a resource for anyone working in research to access, should they have the same questions.

Knowledge mobilisation is an evolving field, and like any discipline there are different viewpoints within it. This is intended only as an introduction to the topic, and we can only skim the surface of some of the more complex issues. We do not provide this guidance as a suggestion that this is the right or only way to approach knowledge mobilisation.

We encourage you to both explore the suggested reading and go beyond this, to develop your own understanding as it relates to your discipline or area of work. We hope that this resource nevertheless helps provide some clarity and suggestions about common issues.

We’re keen to receive feedback, so if you use this resource, please get in touch and let us know if it helped and how it could be improved.

The questions we cover:

Is mobilisation different to knowledge translation?

Where does PPI fit into knowledge mobilisation?

Is all dissemination activity knowledge mobilisation?

If I’m disseminating research to other researchers, does that count?

There are many terms used about knowledge mobilisation. These include knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, knowledge translation – so many that some in the field use “K*” to cover them all. In our workshops, we advise that you don’t get too caught up in issues of terminology. It’s more important to think about what you are doing than what you should call it. In terms of choosing a label, be practical and use the term that has traction in your area or with your funder.

Within Closing the Gap we have our own pragmatic definition: Knowledge mobilisation is activity that involves working with research users to make research usable and useful.

That activity can be about learning from the knowledge that the users themselves have – the lived experience of service users for example, or the contextual and local knowledge of frontline clinicians. It may be that other researchers are the intended recipients of this knowledge; the knowledge itself is acquired through working with others, and the way it makes research more valuable is for researchers to be made more aware of it and use it to inform their work.

We do explicitly differentiate knowledge mobilisation from dissemination and from impact. Both these terms are commonly used by researchers and funders to talk about things that happen at the end of research – how the final work is disseminated (shared, published, publicised) and what effects this has. These are obviously important aspects of knowledge mobilisation – research cannot be useful if it is not shared, and ‘being useful’ is the impact we are aiming for. However, these can occur only at the end of the research cycle, and our definition recognises that working with users can happen at any point. Activities that happen at the beginning or during a research cycle, such as priority-setting with users, or co-designing interventions to be tested, can be considered knowledge mobilisation as they are about working with users to make decisions about what research would be useful, and how research can be carried out collaboratively with users.

One possible exception in terms of definitions is whether implementation science is the same as knowledge mobilisation. We follow the journal of Implementation Science definition that implementation science is the “scientific study of methods to promote the uptake of research findings into routine healthcare in clinical, organizational, or policy contexts” This means that implementation science could involve knowledge mobilisation and vice versa, but they’re not entirely the same thing. We note however that this is our perspective, and you may find others in the field who either think the two are very much same, or alternatively disagree that they have much in common!

Further reading

  • This paper is an example of comparing terminology used, which concludes that there are core principles shared in what is done around partnership working and collaboration, rather than one term being more specific or correct.
    • Nguyen T, Graham ID, Mrklas KJ, et al. How does integrated knowledge translation (IKT) compare to other collaborative research approaches to generating and translating knowledge? Learning from experts in the field. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2020;18(1):35. doi:10.1186/s12961-020-0539-6
  • Similarly, these papers report and discuss the variety of terms in use:
    • Farley-Ripple EN, Oliver K, Boaz A. Mapping the community: use of research evidence in policy and practice. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. 2020;7(1) doi:10.1057/s41599-020-00571-2
    • Hoekstra F, Mrklas KJ, Khan M, McKay RC, Vis-Dunbar M, Sibley KM, et al. A review of reviews on principles, strategies, outcomes and impacts of research partnerships approaches: a first step in synthesising the research partnership literature. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2020;18(1). doi:10.1186/s12961-020-0544-9
  • This paper aims to be an introduction to implementation science frameworks for clinicians and others working outside research. This would be an example of viewing an overlap with implementation science and knowledge mobilisation, where the focus is on how implementation science can support researchers to better work with users to make research useful.
    • Lynch EA, Mudge A, Knowles S, Kitson AL, Hunter SC, Harvey G. “There is nothing so practical as a good theory”: a pragmatic guide for selecting theoretical approaches for implementation projects. BMC Health Services Research. 2018;18(1):857. doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3671-z
  • If you would like some insight into the debate over terms, and why some prefer certain terms over others, this paper may be a start:
    • Greenhalgh T, Wieringa S. Is it time to drop the ‘knowledge translation’ metaphor? A critical literature review. J R Soc Med. 2011;104(12):501-509. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2011.110285

How do you decide who is a knowledge user?

Are patients’ knowledge users or does this only mean professionals?

How do you reach people outside your current network?

What if the target of my research is sharing to other researchers?

When you wrote or as you are writing your research funding application, you will have referred to who you expect to benefit from your research, and/or who you think would need to act on your research for these benefits to be achieved. This could be particular health professional groups, or patients, carers, service users themselves. It could be specific organisations, or it could be policy makers or commissioners. In our experience, researchers can sometimes struggle to articulate who they think their research is for, but being explicit about this can help in planning your research as well as planning for mobilisation. It can help to use stakeholder mapping, and particularly to do this with other members of the research team, to be more transparent about who you expect or hope to influence.

This may also be an opportunity for research activity. Do you need to collect data to understand who the different actors and stakeholders are? For example, do you know that you want mental health nurses to do something differently, but you need to do some work with nurses to ask them who influences their practice, who is responsible for incentives or resources that may affect whether they engage, and who they look to for guidance?

It may be that you need to reach out to potential users and start to develop relationships with them. In our training, we often find that researchers feel anxious about getting in touch with people outside universities. It’s important to remember that people are often pleased that a researcher wants to speak with them, and appreciate the opportunity to find out more about what you do (in practice, it’s researchers themselves who are a ‘hard to reach’ group). To work out who to contact, if you are part of a multi-disciplinary group or network which includes people with roles in user groups, (for example if you work with a clinical academic or with someone who is on the board of a charity), then you could begin by asking them as a form of informal snowballing.

One common finding in the literature is that one size does not fit all. Different audiences need different products, or for content to be tailored to them. This can be a problem if we have limited resources. However, if you can’t create several outputs for several audiences, it may be more effective to create one output that has value for one audience, than to create one output that doesn’t have value for any audience.

Further reading

  • This communications toolkit from the Health Foundation includes a section on identifying and prioritising audiences.
  • This paper draws on communication theory to suggest how to think about communicating research to different audiences – consider “Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect”.
    • Wilson PM, Petticrew M, Calnan MW, Nazareth I. Disseminating research findings: what should researchers do? A systematic scoping review of conceptual frameworks. Implementation Science. 2010;5:91. doi:10.1186/1748-5908-5-91
  • Two examples of research seeking to understand what influences knowledge users to act on or use evidence:
    • Ellen ME, Léon G, Bouchard G, Ouimet M, Grimshaw JM, Lavis JN. Barriers, facilitators and views about next steps to implementing supports for evidence-informed decision-making in health systems: a qualitative study. Implementation Science. 2014;9(1). doi:10.1186/s13012-014-0179-8
    • Wye L, Brangan E, Cameron A, Gabbay J, Klein JH, Pope C. Evidence based policy making and the ‘art’ of commissioning – how English healthcare commissioners access and use information and academic research in ‘real life’ decision-making: an empirical qualitative study. BMC Health Services Research. 2015;15(1):430. doi:10.1186/s12913-015-1091-x

How can I have impact when this is a small pilot project?

What’s the correct definition of impact?

What counts as impact?

What do I report in terms of impact?

There is not an agreed single definition of impact of research. You may however want to check whether your funder has a specific definition that they use.

Researchers we spoke to tended to think of impact as very large and far-reaching changes, to change how services are provided across England or to change the experience of care for patients across the NHS. We agree that research should aim to make bold impacts, but these very broad ideas are unfeasible for most research (particularly within the timeframe of a typical research project). 

It was also notable that while researchers talked about impact in terms of these changes in practice, when we asked about achieving this, they still tend to just think about dissemination in terms of publishing a research paper, and then perhaps also producing something to accompany the paper (such as a lay summary). We would encourage researchers to think about whether an academic paper, or something that just refers people to a paper or summarises that paper, is the best way to reach and engage with their user audience, or whether a different approach or a different product from the research is needed. We see a ‘knowledge product’ as anything that shares evidence with users –a policy briefing, a toolkit, a decision aid, a webinar, a workshop, a meeting, can all be knowledge products.

To help with both thinking about how impact can be achieved and what impacts can feasibly be reported, we suggest focusing on getting potential knowledge users to engage with your study or its findings.  Remember that before potential users can act on research, they need to know about it. Getting research ‘in the room’ with the right audience is a crucial first step to impact, and reach and engagement can be measured and reported are likely to be more feasible to capture in an individual project’s timeframe. These can be engagement metrics such as number of times an online briefing was accessed, or number of sign-ups from different professional groups to a meeting or webinar. They could also be assessed in terms of impacts reported by those users, for example whether the event or product increases their awareness of research, their confidence to engage with research, or their intention to use research findings.

Two frameworks that we think can be useful are:

  • Sarah Morton’s Contributions Framework – recognising the importance of engagement with research, this framework can be used to capture “research uptake” and “research use” .  These involve reporting who interacted with the research and how, and their reactions or reported changes in knowledge or skills.
  • Vicky Ward’s Framework for Knowledge Mobilisers – offers categories for reporting what kind of activity is undertaken and why. Importantly, the framework includes a suggestion to capture Whose knowledge is being mobilised, recognising that those we see as research users can have their own professional knowledge and insight which is to be shared.

We discussed above that our definition of knowledge mobilisation can include sharing knowledge from other groups with researchers to influence the research process. This means that a key impact could be the difference that external knowledge has made to research, rather than the impact the research itself had. We have found this is especially important to consider with service users, patients and carers.

Further reading

  • The frameworks we recommend:
    • Ward V. Why, whose, what and how? A framework for knowledge mobilisers. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice. 2017;13(3):477-497. doi:10.1332/174426416X14634763278725
    • Morton S. Progressing research impact assessment: A ‘contributions’ approach. Research Evaluation. 2015;24(4):405-419. doi:10.1093/reseval/rvv016
  • This paper exposes the common problem that researchers tend not to articulate who they think will use their findings and how, and suggests a method for having structured conversations to make this explicit.
    • Borst RAJ, Kok MO, O’Shea AJ, Pokhrel S, Jones TH, Boaz A. Envisioning and shaping translation of knowledge into action: A comparative case-study of stakeholder engagement in the development of a European tobacco control tool. Health Policy. 2019 Oct 1;123(10):917–23. doi:10.1016/j.healthpol.2019.07.012
  • This paper discusses the importance of considering how researchers themselves are impacted when we are sharing knowledge from patient and public contributors:
    • Staley K, Barron D. Learning as an outcome of involvement in research: what are the implications for practice, reporting and evaluation? Research Involvement and Engagement. 2019;5(1). doi:10.1186/s40900-019-0147-1

Is knowledge mobilisation research?

Is knowledge mobilisation about dissemination or is it a research method itself?

Do you need to do another study to do knowledge mobilisation?

There is an irony that the way we communicate and share evidence is not usually itself evidence-based. There are research gaps around knowledge mobilisation, and how it can best be done. For this reason, knowledge mobilisation research is needed. We encourage researchers to see this as an opportunity, to conduct some research work around their knowledge mobilisation activity, to evaluate and report it and therefore contribute to the evidence base. We recognise however that this is additional work, and it may not be feasible or desirable for everyone. We do encourage researchers however to recognise that knowledge mobilisation may be an unexplored topic in their area, and therefore either requires either resource within projects to enable proper evaluation, or could be the focus of further work to develop, deliver and report knowledge mobilisation activity. Some funders for example offer additional funds for projects to consider how to achieve impact (such as Closing The Gap’s own Impact Accelerator fund).

Further reading

  • This paper reviews the challenges of knowledge mobilisation and suggests ways forward, including greater attention being paid to “the science of knowledge-to-action”
    • Holmes BJ, Best A, Davies H, et al. Mobilising knowledge in complex health systems: a call to action. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice. 2017;13(3):539-560. doi:10.1332/174426416X14712553750311
  • This paper discusses the irony that most knowledge mobilisation activity itself is not underpinned or informed by knowledge mobilisation research:
    • Powell A, Davies H, Nutley S. Missing in action? The role of the knowledge mobilisation literature in developing knowledge mobilisation practices. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice. Published online 2016. doi:10.1332/174426416X14534671325644

General resources and further reading

This is a list of papers relevant to knowledge mobilisation compiled by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR).

The Knowledge Mobilisation Alliance is a network of current and former NIHR Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellows. Their website includes links to papers, examples of knowledge mobilisation activity, and guides and resources.

This is the Canadian Institute of Health Research guide, using their preferred term ‘knowledge translation’.

Journals which publish papers on knowledge mobilisation include:

  • Health Expectations
  • Evidence and Policy
  • Research For All
  • Health Research Policy and Systems
  • Research Involvement and Engagement
  • Implementation Science/ Implementation Science Communications

This FAQ resource was prepared in November 2021 by Dr Sarah Knowles, Prof Rachel Churchill and Dr Emily Peckham.