Free the Knowledge

Useful knowledge for the social sector coming from academic researchers is severely limited.

Somewhat unwittingly, I have become regularly involved in discussions over the use, benefit, and quality of effectiveness research in the social sector. In general I’m a defender of the type of rigorous evaluation of social programs that has recently emerged from academic circles (see my three-part series on randomized control trials at the Financial Access Initiative blog).

But there are deep, deep flaws in the academic research model, if not in the methods employed—flaws that severely limit the knowledge we gain. The social sector continues to outsource knowledge creation to the academic sector, which is operating according to the rules of academe, not in the public interest. It’s time to free the knowledge, and social sector actors have a key role to play.

What are the problems with the academic research model?

First, the primary purpose of academic research is status within academic communities. To advance—and attain any job security—academics have to publish research in academic journals. Thus, academics are biased toward research that will be publishable in academic journals.

The academic journals, in turn, are biased toward novel research. This means they are generally not interested in research that confirms earlier findings, or that adds nuance and practicality—the kind of knowledge that social sector actors need—to earlier research. And that means that research doesn’t get done. The journals also have strong biases for positive results, which yields suspect research. Recently, studies have suggested that up to 80 percent of published medical research can’t be replicated (and therefore the results are not trustworthy). There is no reason to believe that social science research is significantly better.

Finally, there are strong incentives to lock up knowledge and data—both for journal editors and for researchers. The best research is based on a great deal of data collection, data that can turn into lots of published papers if the researcher keeps the data to themselves. Meanwhile, journal publishers have incentives to make subscriptions very expensive and private.

As a result of these dynamics, useful knowledge for the social sector coming from academic researchers is severely limited. Happily, the academic publishing model is likely in its death throes. More and more people are questioning the value and the business model of walled-garden, peer-reviewed academic journals. Recently Princeton University adopted a policy that prevents Princeton academics from granting copyright on their research to closed journals. Princeton’s move could be the start of one of the most socially important changes of our time by generating a torrent of open-access academic research.

But there is more to be done. Here’s what the social sector should do now to free the knowledge:

1) Don’t wait for academics to do quality research on issues you care about. The toolkits for designing studies and surveys are easily available. Start building knowledge on effectiveness of your programs now.

2) If you do work with an academic, require that any resulting papers be published in open-access journals or be made publically available.

3) Post the results of research you sponsor or are involved in and submit it to knowledge repositories like IssueLab.

Collectively, we can free the knowledge from the shackles of academia and make our whole sector more effective. 

Read more stories by Timothy Ogden.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • BY Karen Gates

    ON February 8, 2012 04:21 PM

    Add to your points the government expectation for “evidence-based” offerings ... and also that most social science research is quasi-experimental.

    But on the positive side ... I don’t know if the U.S. ever has had the fortune of so much human energy interested in addressing social challenges in big and effective ways. It may be this positive phenomenon that is shining a lot of light on the state of disconnection among human and knowledge resources for the tasks.

    I believe that there is valuable, urgent, and energizing opportunity to build a social innovation “ecosystem.” Like the model relayed by Judy Estrin (for physical sciences) in “Closing the Innovation Gap,” a social innovation ecosystem could connect the complementary foci of (social) science, development, and application.

    Part of the connection is between the social front line and academia. However, the core of an ecosystem may lie *within* each university. For example, developing “innovation methods” as a complement to “research methods” could support a university-level ecosystem.

    If you’re interested in viewing prototype materials associated with this type of idea, see

  • BY David Phipps

    ON February 9, 2012 04:21 AM

    Relationships between the commnuity and academic sectors are indeed challenged by cultural differences. But there is richness and oppotunity for both when the relationships are grounded in equity and co-creation where both academic and community needs can be met. York University (Toronto, Canada) works closely with our local United Way of York Region to make university research and expertise accessible for collaboration with commnuity expertise. We publish together in academic and non academic literature and we collaborate on funding applications.  Recently we placed a knowledge broker in the community working to broker relationships from the community reaching into the unviersity to complement the more traditional unviersity centric model of community engagement.

    Don’t let traditional paradigms get in the way of productive collaborations. Understand and respect each others’ needs and deveop knowldge brokers who can help bring the two cultures together in collaboration.

  • Dr. Jack Spencer's avatar

    BY Dr. Jack Spencer

    ON February 9, 2012 07:21 AM

    I wish to thank you for your insights. In working to find sources, for researching academics. I encounter this “closed world” on a daily basis. The model you have suggested, would only enhance published research, and the work required to complete it.

  • If in future you could highlight an example or two of social sector organizations who successfully follow the model you describe above, that would be quite helpful.

  • BY Laura Deitrick, Ph.D.

    ON February 9, 2012 11:06 AM

    It seems that the advice given could easily be applied to “nonprofit” consultants too…a group that certainly not giving anything away for free either. Nonprofit leaders must be savvy consumers and understand up front what to expect from their consultants.  In terms of academics, I would caution that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.  Suggest interested parties look at what is going on at the University of San Diego Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research.  Graduate student research projects conducted on behalf of nonprofits (over 600 completed projects in the last 10 years) are shared at no charge through its online library hosted by IdeaEncore and on the USD website.  Through the Institute’s Caster Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research, nonprofits are connected to affordable, high quality research lead by faculty and doctoral students. (Full disclosure- I am the director of that center.) All Caster Center research projects are available at no charge online too (unless conducted for a private client).  If anything, the Caster Center has suffered on the academic side of things because research conducted for nonprofit clients does not often lend itself to scholarly publication.  This innovative model of bridging theory and practice, and academics and nonprofits, drives the work of the Institute and is intended to reshape how academics approach nonprofit research and share information to benefit the nonprofit sector.

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.

The Power of Simple

By Lisa Benenson 1

How the Natural Resources Defense Council effectively unearthed and reframed compelling research to raise public awareness and effect policy change around food waste.