Is it time to drop the 'knowledge translation' metaphor? A critical literature review

J R Soc Med. 2011 Dec;104(12):501-9. doi: 10.1258/jrsm.2011.110285.


The literature on 'knowledge translation' presents challenges for the reviewer because different terms have been used to describe the generation, sharing and application of knowledge and different research approaches embrace different philosophical positions on what knowledge is. We present a narrative review of this literature which deliberately sought to highlight rather than resolve tensions between these different framings. Our findings suggest that while 'translation' is a widely used metaphor in medicine, it constrains how we conceptualise and study the link between knowledge and practice. The 'translation' metaphor has, arguably, led to particular difficulties in the fields of 'evidence-based management' and 'evidence-based policymaking' - where it seems that knowledge obstinately refuses to be driven unproblematically into practice. Many non-medical disciplines such as philosophy, sociology and organization science conceptualise knowledge very differently, as being (for example) 'created', 'constructed', 'embodied', 'performed' and 'collectively negotiated' - and also as being value-laden and tending to serve the vested interests of dominant élites. We propose that applying this wider range of metaphors and models would allow us to research the link between knowledge and practice in more creative and critical ways. We conclude that research should move beyond a narrow focus on the 'know-do gap' to cover a richer agenda, including: (a) the situation-specific practical wisdom (phronesis) that underpins clinical judgement; (b) the tacit knowledge that is built and shared among practitioners ('mindlines'); (c) the complex links between power and knowledge; and (d) approaches to facilitating macro-level knowledge partnerships between researchers, practitioners, policymakers and commercial interests.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence / standards
  • Diffusion of Innovation
  • Disease Management
  • Evidence-Based Practice* / standards
  • Evidence-Based Practice* / trends
  • Exploratory Behavior
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination
  • Knowledge
  • Metaphor
  • Philosophy, Medical
  • Translational Research, Biomedical / trends*
  • Translations