Attribution – Is It Really a Big Deal? / L’Attribution – faut-il en faire un cas?

David Phipps, RIR-York

Many people worry about attribution.  How much influence did we have on an outcome? Many people except York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit, that is. This post starts some thinking that arose with the help of the Knowledge Brokers Forum… and some time by a pool.

Nombreux sont ceux qui s’inquiètent à propos de l’attribution. Quel degré d’influence avons-nous eu sur un résultat? De nombreuses personnes, mais pas au sein de l’Unité de mobilisation des connaissances de York, cependant. Ce billet présente une réflexion qui a surgi grâce au Forum des courtiers de connaissances… et au temps passé sur le bord de la piscine.

Attribution [John Mayne, CDN J. Prog. Eval. (2001) 16(1): 1-24] is the degree to which research as well as other inputs informs a decision. If an impact happens a long time after the research is completed then it is harder to attribute impact to the research study. In a networked and complex environment there are multiple inputs into any decision confounding the ability to attribute impact to a particular study. This is generally agreed to be true. Or is it?

On November 18, 2012, I began a discussion on the Knowledge Brokers Forum listserv:


“A colleague and I were discussing the issue of attribution in knowledge exchange and I thought I would read up a little about it. So I turn to my usual sources when I want to read someone else’s work instead of do it myself (!):

  • Nutley et al: Using Evidence
  • Bennet & Bennet: Knowledge Mobilization in the Social Sciences
  • Strauss et al: Knowledge Translation in Health Care

“Attribution” is not to be found in any index in these books.

A search in google or google scholar isn’t much help because the word “attribution” usually comes up as part of a Creative Commons license.

So I am wondering… is attribution really a big deal or do we talk about it without much of an evidence base (for more on this see my earlier blog Knowledge Hypocrites)?”


I received 30 comments from around the world – for detail on comments see the compilation of comments- Attribution: KBF Responses

In York University’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit we rarely see attribution as an issue. As described in a recent book chapter our work has helped inform the cooling policies for the City of Toronto, a new funding program for United Way of York Region, a sustainability program for rural businesses and a new way of delivering immigrant settlement services in York Region as examples. When we are able to demonstrate non-academic impact of our work it is often directly attributed to the collaboration we supported. When speaking of the Green Economy Centre, Valerie Ryan, CEO of Nottawasaga Futures, said, “We could not have done this without the Knowledge Mobilization Unit”.

So what’s the big deal about attribution?

I think the role of a particular actor in knowledge mobilization/research utilization is important – see table below:

Actor Does it matter Why or Why Not?
Academic research institution No In a REF world institutions will create good news stories about any impact, no matter how small, no matter how little research contributed to the impact.
Researchers Maybe Depends on how the researcher is being measured which might depend on if they are employed by a university or a think tank or a community based researcher.
Think Tank/NGO Yes Think Tanks and NGOs are often funded based on ability to demonstrate impact and the attribution of their efforts.
Funders Maybe Private donors want to understand what impact their funding made. Academic research funding councils are beginning to care about impact but they are concerned with narratives more than attribution.
Knowledge brokers No If the goal is to broker successful collaborations or access to knowledge then the impact arising from those collaborations is nice but anecdotal.
End users No They got an impact. Attributing that to research or any other input is less relevant than the impact itself.
Evaluators Yes This is what they do. They are employed by those who care about impact and attribution.

Academic institutions routinely deal with attribution in technology transfer and commercialization. When an academic institution grants a license to a patent the attribution issue is dealt with up front by agreeing on a royalty rate. The royalty rate acknowledges there will be other inputs en route to market; however, the academic institution will create a REF case study regardless of a small or large royalty rate.

But that’s not the whole story.  A KB Forum response from Larysa Lysenko connected me to an article from Annette Boaz and colleagues. Only a portion of the article discusses attribution and in that discussion were two little sentences:

“The process by which the research is done might also have an impact on policy. For example, research in collaborative projects may have an impact prior to the production of research outputs.”

This was my “Aha Moment”. As described in a recent paper, York works almost exclusively in a co-production paradigm where the decision maker partner is an active participant in the research endeavour. The decision making process for our research partners occurs continuously during and after the collaboration. Decisions may be informed during the research process, not solely after the research is concluded.

The Knowledge Brokers (No – above) in York’s institutional (No – above) Knowledge Mobilization Unit promote a co-production method in which impacts may precede outputs. Attribution is therefore not a big deal for us. This certainly doesn’t deny the importance of Attribution in other contexts and the role of methods such as contribution analysis and productive interactions to address the issue. It’s just not a big deal for us.

And I was sitting by a pool in Ft. Lauderdale reading Annette’s paper when I had my “Aha Moment” underscoring the need to get away and just think.

David showing off his ResearchImpact T Shirt in Ft. Lauderdale

David showing off his ResearchImpact T Shirt in Ft. Lauderdale


Social Media for Knowledge Mobilization / Les médias sociaux au service de la mobilisation des connaissances

David Phipps, RIR – York

Blogs, presentations on Slide Share, videos on you tube, twitter, Delicious bookmarks, Linked In but not facebook. These are our social media tools and now we have published a book chapter reflecting on these tools and their application to knowledge mobilization.

Blogues, présentations sur SlideShare, vidéos sur YouTube, signets Delicious, LinkedIn (mais pas Facebook), voici les outils que nous utilisons sur les médias sociaux. Nous avons publié un chapitre de livre qui présente ces outils ainsi que leurs applications pour la mobilisation des connaissances.

A few weeks ago Krista Jensen, David Phipps (both from RIR-York) and Gary Myers ( published a book chapter titled “Applying Social Sciences Research for Public Benefit Using Knowledge Mobilization and Social Media”. This was published by the open access publisher, In Tech, in a book titled “Theoretical and Methodological Approaches to Social Sciences and Knowledge Management” that was edited by Asunción López-Varela.

The chapter didn’t attempt to review the literature since this is a large body of work and has been done elsewhere. The chapter started out with these elsewheres by presenting three perspectives on knowledge mobilization: 1) Knowledge To Action cycle (Ian Graham and colleagues in Ottawa); 2) Collaborative Entanglement (Bennet & Bennet) and 3) Research Use by Sandra Nutley and colleague from the Research Unit for Research Utilization, University of Edinburgh. We challenged each of these three perspectives but chose them because they each built on the other conceptually drawing the reader into deeper and more contextualized understandings of the subject but concluded that there were three take away messages from these literature reviews:

  • KMb is a social process
  • Efforts to enhance KMb need to be interactive and focus on the relationships between researchers and decision makers
  • KMb happens at the level of the individual and is only beginning to emerge at the organization and the system/sectoral level

Word cloud of key words in profiles: Followers of RIR

These three messages were then illustrated by citing the practices of Institute for Work and Health and PREVNet, both of whom promote the use and uptake of research into policy and practice. In addition to these two Canadian networks these principles were illustrated by three international examples of university based knowledge mobilization activities: Community University Partnership Program of the University of Brighton, Research in Action Project of the Institute for Health Policy at the University of Texas and the Centre for Families and Relationships at the University of Brighton.

The chapter then presents in detail the knowledge mobilization services of York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit. Drawing on our “recipe book” published in Scholarly & Research Communications in December 2011 we go further to present some success stories arising from our work: United Way York Region Strength Investments, Parkdale Activity & Recreation Centre Heat Registry, Green Economy Centre of South Simcoe and Evaluation of the Inclusivity Action Plan of the Regional Municipality of York.

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