We are excited to release our special collection of concept papers exploring the history, boundaries, and future of research co-production – what we in Canada call integrated knowledge translation (IKT). It is well known that the application of research findings in health care and policy is less than optimal. Up to 50% of patients do not receive treatments proven to be effective and as many as 25% receive care known to be ineffective and even harmful. Co-production holds enormous promise as an approach that increases the relevance and potential impact of research evidence. Research co-production is a relatively new and developing health research approach, and we are still grappling with its full implications. Our series attempts to pose the questions that need to be answered to grow the field and realize its promise.

Co-production holds enormous promise as an approach that increases the relevance and potential impact of research evidence

What is research co-production?

Research co-production is a research approach where researchers work with knowledge users (e.g., point of contact workers, system leaders, community members, policymakers) throughout the research process. Knowledge users identify a problem from the field or policy setting and are invited to become research team members or advisors because they have the authority or influence to apply the recommendations generated from the research. As equal partners, researchers and knowledge users share decision-making through all stages of the research process, from proposal writing to dissemination. Research co-production sits with other partnered research approaches like engaged scholarship and participatory action research.

Why the push for research co-production?

Research co-production is being taken up across multiple disciplines, from environmental studies to education. Many organizations, including research funders, governments, and professional associations, are promoting and supporting research co-production as a means of achieving greater research impact. By including knowledge users in the research process, research findings are expected to be more relevant to a problem, timely, useful for users, and ready for application. These factors should accelerate real-world impact. Another motivation to engage in research co-production is to improve the quality of research. It is believed that the inclusion of knowledge users increases researchers’ understanding of the issues, solutions, and context. The approach is also advanced for fostering mutual learning and understanding between researchers and knowledge users, which may lead to better partnerships and future collaborations.

By including knowledge users in the research process, research findings are expected to be more relevant to a problem, timely, useful for users, and ready for application. These factors should accelerate real-world impact

How is it supposed to work?

Researchers share their methodological expertise. Knowledge users bring their lived experience and expertise to the research endeavor, which, among other things, is helpful when identifying meaningful outcomes. They also bring their intimate knowledge of the context, which can be helpful when making decisions on things like data collection instruments, trade-offs with respect to research costs, or understanding the best ways to support application of findings post-study. Involving knowledge users can also be seen as the ethically right thing to do, with more citizens demanding the democratization of science.

What prompted the BMC cross-journal IKT collection?

The evidence-base about research co-production facilitators, barriers, effective strategies, and theories is emerging. To support this development, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research funded a seven-year foundation grant (2015-2022), the objectives of which are described here. Researchers, knowledge users, health-related organizations supporting research co-production, trainees, and other stakeholders associated with the research program have been brought together as the Integrated Knowledge Translation Research Network (IKTRN). In late 2017, wanting to advance thinking and discussion on the science and practice of research co-production, we invited the network members to write critical concept papers to advance the science of research co-production.

Involving knowledge users can also be seen as the ethically right thing to do, with more citizens demanding the democratization of science

What is in the collection?

The papers in the collection cover theory, ethics, methods, evaluation and the impact of research co-production. More specifically, readers will find papers on how co-production relates to research methods (e.g., ethnography, community-based participatory research, evaluation of IKT); indigenous health research; global health governance; patient engagement in research; and creating impact. Other papers include: a protocol for five scoping and systematic reviews on areas of research co-production; a review of what research funders around the world do to support knowledge translation and research co-production; and a multiple case study of knowledge-user participation in cancer health services research.

While the focus of the papers in the collection is on health research co-production, we believe that the topics and issues discussed apply to any field grappling with what research co-production means and how to do it.  We hope that these papers will enlighten, provoke thought and discussion, and generate interest in the concept and practice of research co-production.