The Role of Dissemination in Promotion and Tenure for Public Health

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Public health scholars are often driven by a desire to impact their field, but what is impact? For many years, impact in the scientific and academic disciplines has been limited to metrics such as impact factor and h-index, both of which are dependent on journal citations, which are produced by a small segment of the population (ie, other researchers).1 One might argue that “academic impact” is but one imperfect way one's work can impact the world we live in, but what does that world encompass? More pointedly, what matters most beyond academic impact? The traditional promotion and tenure process has largely cemented the prominence of academic impact, with the majority of emphasis at top-tier universities focused on research productivity, and to some extent teaching, with dissemination to nonresearch audiences documented as part of the service component.
It can be argued that academic researchers are overly dependent on the passive diffusion of knowledge to practitioners, policy makers, and the general public, relying on word of mouth and earned media to spread news of their work. Dissemination “is an active approach of spreading evidence-based interventions to the target audience via determined channels,”2(p118) which requires planning, tools, coordination, and motivation.4,4 This effort is warranted, as it can hasten the transfer of knowledge and evidence-based practices to a greater extent than passive diffusion. As such, it should be nurtured, supported, and rewarded by institutions that employ public health researchers such as governmental and nongovernmental public health agencies and universities. As annual reviews, promotion, and tenure for faculty are often motivating factors, dissemination activities and results should be formal components in performance reviews, including those that inform promotion and tenure decisions. Although not sufficient, dissemination is an increasingly necessary component of one's portfolio if she or he is to have an impact on not just the field but also population health in general.5
Dissemination can occur through a number of channels, both traditional and nontraditional. Scholars can share their work by traditional means such as public forums, grand rounds at health departments, or at “open houses” for members of the community. Education of the latest research findings to elected and appointed officials can also be done in 1:1 meetings, in committee hearings, and through formal testimony. TV, radio, and newspaper interviews can also be used to share information to a broader audience of nonjournal readers and viewers. Blogs and podcasts can serve as excellent direct-to-consumer vehicles. Finally, social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram can be effective channels of communication. The great value of the so-called “new media” is that tracking of views and interactions is becoming increasingly easier, which is why collecting these data is paramount. These alternative metrics of impact can tell scholars not only how many individuals encountered their content but basic demographic information about the audience as well. Scholars can also ascertain how much individuals interacted with their content by accessing how long they stayed on an article they wrote, listened to their podcast, or viewed a video. These data can be captured and utilized to gain an appreciation of the breadth and depth of one's impact on the scientific community, practice community, and the public's knowledge.
If dissemination is important and can have measurable impact, then what is the role of the university or health department in helping the scholar in these endeavors? First, it is paramount for employers to provide training on the various channels available and guidance on the best fit for the target audience.
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