The myth of ivory tower versus practice-oriented research: A systematic review of randomised studies in medical education

Med Educ. 2020 Sep 15. doi: 10.1111/medu.14373. Online ahead of print.


Context: A long-standing myth in medical education research is a divide between two different poles: research aiming to advance theory with little focus on practical applications ('ivory tower' research) and practically oriented research aiming to serve educators and decision-makers with little focus on advancing theory ('in-the-trenches' practice). We explored this myth in a sample of randomised medical education studies using Stokes' four-quadrant framework for the classification of research perspective.

Methods: We searched MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, PsychINFO, ERIC, Web of Science and Scopus for studies in medical education using a randomised design that were published between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2018. We used Stokes' four-quadrant framework to categorise the studies according to their use of theory, concepts and their justification for practical use. We compared medical education research published in medical education journals and clinical journals.

Results: A total of 150 randomised studies were included in the analysis. The largest segment of studies (46.7%) was categorised as use-inspired basic research (Pasteur's Quadrant), closely followed by pure applied research (40.7%, Edison's Quadrant). Only a few studies were categorised as aiming to advance knowledge with no thought for practical educational application (2.0%, Bohr's Quadrant). The proportion of studies that included educational concepts and theory differed according to publication in clinical journals or medical education journals: 40.5% vs 71.8%, respectively, P < .001. There were no differences between journals with regard to the proportion of studies that included a practical educational or clinical rationale (P = .99).

Conclusion: In a large sample of studies using randomised designs, we found no evidence to support the myth that medical education research divides between two singular poles represented by 'ivory tower research' and 'in-the-trenches practice'. We did confirm prevailing assumptions regarding an emphasis on non-theoretical medical education research in clinical journals.