Research “consumers”, know your rights!

I’m not claiming to be the first person to spot some problems with applying models of supply and demand, and consumption and production to research. But I wonder if I’m the most obsessed?

I’ll admit, part of it is personal. I’m a Chartered Marketer working in development and I’ve observed (and experienced) some quite aggressive reactions to suggestions of applying marketing theories or business thinking to encouraging development research to be used more. The unethical marketing behaviour of certain large companies is no doubt partly to blame for this. But I’m a bit bemused to see how avidly the language of manufacturing and selling has been adopted by people working in research communication, without any interrogation.

I love a good metaphor as much as the next woman, especially if it helps me make sense of something intangible. But in this case, it doesn’t work. Using the notions of “research consumers” and “research producers”, of a research supply chain complete with intermediaries, and of stimulating research demand, creates many more problems than it solves. Here’s just a few:

1) the words already mean something and these meanings are different to the way they’re often used in the context of research. For example, a consumer is an individual who gives to the seller something the seller values, in exchange for a product or service for their own personal use, or as a gift to someone else. And it stops there. Strictly speaking, this means if I’m a research consumer, I’m someone who commissions someone to do (produce) some research for me. It doesn’t mean I read anything they write. “Organisational customer of research” would be a closer approximation to what I think is the intent behind the phrase “research consumer” but I don’t think that’s going to catch on.

2) the notion of research producers and research consumers suggests two different types of people – often consumers are seen as policymakers, and producers as researchers. But really these are behaviours which the same person can display or roles they can take up and drop as needed. Based on the way the term is used in research communication, aren’t researchers, research consumers? (I just made myself dizzy thinking about academics subscribed to the Journal of Consumer Research; are they consumer research consumer research producers?!).

3) the language of demand, supply, intermediaries, push, pull and products (linear) is often used within writing about complexity, systems, non-linear thinking and all things wiggly and swirly. The two sets of ideas are at loggerheads.

I sense some more posts in the pipeline – on intermediaries, for example. But for now, I’d like to propose (with only half my tongue in cheek) that research consumers be given the same legal protection that consumers in the UK enjoy. This means that anyone “selling” research has to follow the same rules as other producers and sellers, such as:

  • not using a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention (CAP Codes).
  • not providing material information “in a manner which is unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely” i.e. writing in Plain English (Unfair Trading Regulations, 2008).
  • only providing research that is of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose (Sale of Goods Act, 1979).
  • making consumers aware of how much it will cost them to “purchase” the research over the internet (e.g. downloading).
  • not promoting research by email to people who haven’t said they want to hear about it.

Research consumers, stand up for your rights!