The PDF download debate: view from an Ethiopian research organisation

report published by the World Bank earlier this month found that over 31% of its policy reports have never been downloaded, not even once.

This is quite a startling (albeit perhaps unsurprising) finding given that one of the primary objectives of these policy reports is “…informing the public debate or influencing the development community.”

The public admission of this by the World Bank has sparked a lot of online debate and discussion amongst the international research and policy advocacy community about the value and utility of these types of policy reports (see here, here and here). Many representatives of research and advocacy organisations focused on international development have acknowledged they face similar challenges regarding the utilisation of their research and knowledge products.

This raises some interesting questions such as:

  • Have we reached the point of knowledge saturation, i.e. an oversupply of knowledge products and information?
  • Are the knowledge products produced by these organisations irrelevant or not adequately tailored and packaged appropriately to their target audience?
  • Are knowledge management and communication systems and processes in need of an overhaul?
  • Or, perhaps most importantly, are the development funds being spent on research and policy advocacy a wise investment or should these funds be reallocated for other types of development activities?

With this in mind, I would like to present a slightly different perspective, coming from someone who is currently based within a national research institute in Ethiopia.

Similar problems but different issues

The organisation where I am currently working is part of the national agricultural research network in Ethiopia. It also faces a similar problem in regards to the effective utilisation of its research outputs but this is due to a number of different reasons than those facing the World Bank or other similar organisations. These issues include:

  • Relatively low quality publications, with questionable data quality and methodological rigour.
  • Unclear or ambiguous target audiences for many publications.
  • Lack of demand-driven research, in particular the lack of clear linkages with government policy agendas and programs (research projects tend to be more driven by the interest of individual researchers).
  • Lack of effective information and knowledge management platforms for archiving and disseminating research outputs (PDFs available for download? Virtually non-existent!)
  • Lack of funding and organisational resources allocated to knowledge management, communication, and stakeholder engagement.

These issues represent a significant impediment to the utilisation of its research reports.

However, even if all these issues were to be addressed, it is perhaps just as likely the organisation would find itself in the same position as it well-resourced international counterparts.

So what are the possible solutions to this lack of uptake and impact of research for development for local research organisations?

In the case of my current organisation there is undoubtedly a need to address the issues and capacity gaps I have outlined above. As I mentioned in a previous post, the organisation already receives support to improve the technical knowledge and skills of its research staff. What is critical now is to ensure that the organisations information and knowledge management systems are up to at least a basic standard to ensure that the existing body of knowledge is not lost.

This is one area I believe stronger links between local and international research institutes should be made. For example, these organisations could pool resources to develop national knowledge management hubs that could provide technical support and services to Ethiopian research organisations to help them manage their information and communicate it effectively.

In addition, I believe there is a need for this particular local research organisation to shift towards the provision of knowledge services, in addition to the development of scientific knowledge products. These knowledge services, i.e. research consultancy projects, could be made available to government agencies but also community organisations and small businesses. This would create a much greater incentive for the organisation to build closer links with end-users because they would have to engage with them in order to understand their specific research and knowledge needs.

Finally, the organisation should try to conduct more operationally-focused research. In particular, research that supports pilot experiments in complex environments (as opposed to research primarily conducted in controlled experimental environments), as argued by Ben Ramlingam. This type of research would also require the organisation to build closer links with government agencies and development actors.

Well that’s my brief contribution on this interesting debate. Any comments welcome.

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2 Responses to The PDF download debate: view from an Ethiopian research organisation

  1. raisamirza says:

    Community-Based or Community-directed research is something that more organisations need to contend with. I would argue that knowledge management still doesn’t deliver to those who need it most: people on the ground who require sophisticated understanding of data, deliverables in order to make decisions. Often the way data is presented is not accepted to local audiences. Making infographic and local language materials is key. Another very important issue is ensuring that communities are involved in the design, research and dissemination of the research. Using social networks to disseminate information that is needed…

    • Adrian Young says:

      Very much agree Raisa, there is definitely a need for communities to play a far greater role in being involved in research design to ensure the information gathered is relevant and useful to them rather than communities being merely the subjects of research. And more suitable packaging and presentation is crucial too as you have pointed out.

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