Objective: To apply social science theory so as to define more explicitly the pathways that influence policy makers' use of health services research.
Methods: The analysis builds on a literature review and the author's observations. It identifies important social science concepts relevant to use of research in policy and organizational decision making. It integrates and expands upon existing frameworks to differentiate and analyze 10 pathways that can lead to the use of health services research by policy makers.
Principal findings: The process through which research is applied involves many factors, only some of which are amenable to influence by researchers. Within these constraints, multiple pathways can drive research use; no one of these is likely to perform better in all circumstances. Successful uptake is more likely when these pathways cause findings to be converted into messages meaningful to policy makers. Various intermediaries play an important role in creating effective pathways, while users also can influence them.
Conclusions: The pathways open up what too often is an unexplored "black box" that mediates between health services research and its use by policy makers. Such pathways can help stakeholders to bridge different perspectives in ways that strengthen the possibility that effective research will be supported and used.