Mark Bisby, research advisor and advocate

Mark Bisby is an ex-professor, ex-civil servant. He ran his own lab in physiology and neuroscience for 25 years, and then joined the Medical Research Council of Canada just before it transitioned into the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), where he became VP Research. There, beyond his own specialty knowledge, he learned a great deal about the importance of other approaches to health research such as population health, and health services research.  Mark retired six years ago, but like so many people seems to have been just as active since!  We asked him how he’s using his broad knowledge and experience.

I’ve had a variety of interesting and unexpected assignments. About half as a paid consultant, half as a volunteer member of several governance and advisory boards for research organizations. At the moment, for example, I’m working on projects related to stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases of aging, as well as health services. Quite a lot of what I do is small-p “political”, so I don’t have an affiliation with any university. That gives me freedom to be more objective — but comes at a cost.

How do research papers help you in your work?

Access to original research papers and scholarly reviews is important. For example, If I want to argue that telestroke services in Canada should be expanded, I need access to the latest papers on cost effectiveness of telestroke to make the case. If I’m reviewing the impact of a particular research funding program, I want to be able to check the assertions that particular publications were truly ground-breaking. If, as a board member, I have to approve research priorities, I need to know if, and where, Canadian research is at the cutting edge.

Could other sources of information, like Wikipedia, stand in?

For some of the work I do, some important information is found in annual reports, government discussion papers, company websites, or strategic plans of research organizations. Compared to the research literature, these “grey” sources are easy to access. Some news alerting services are also very useful. And, yes, I do use Wikipedia as a starting point for topics I know nothing about (i.e. frequently!). But more often than not, these sources don’t give me the same assurance of credibility as reading the original research publications.

Do you have the access you need?

Not to the original research literature. Only about one in five of the original research papers I need is available through open access journals, PubMed Central, or the author’s own or institutional repository. I expected things to improve dramatically with the implementation of the NIH and other funding agency policies on access, but it hasn’t. Of course, the most recent papers are still embargoed, and many of the older papers haven’t been entered. (I should say that when I contact an author asking for an electronic copy of a paper, I usually get a helpful response, but this takes time.)

Could you do more if you had more access?

Of course: I waste a lot of time on search engines trying to find copies of research papers or final manuscript versions hidden away on obscure websites. It can be very frustrating, especially if the abstract suggests that a paper has the answer I’m looking for.

Are there things you wanted to do but couldn’t because of lack of access?

I’m particularly stymied in my ability to evaluate, in the most informed way, funding applications and the achievements of funding programs. When I had access to the research literature I was keenly interested in trying to assess research impact. Now I would hesitate to take on that type of project.

How widespread is this issue in your experience?

Some of the other consultants I encounter use mainly secondary sources, perhaps because they can’t get the real information. But I am concerned that there are people in government or health authorities, or even curious and educated laypeople, who want to, or should, read crucial original research, and certainly critical reviews and syntheses, but can’t. It’s unbelievable that even some articles that address the issue of knowledge translation (how health research can be translated into improvements in practice and policy) are published where the target audience can’t openly access them.

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