Research productivity and the medical radiation sciences: what do we want?

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This is a blog mash-up! I usually talk about EdD stuff on here, and over on the #MedRadJClub we host guest blogs that relate to the monthly paper up for discussion. This month’s paper (A Review of Individual and Institutional Publication Productivity in Medical Radiation Science by Ekpo, Hogg & McEntee), looks at research productivity in the medical radiation sciences (MRS) and who is doing what and where. The paper draws some important conclusions from this data – and the accompanying blog (by Peter Hogg) speculates about the paper as well as the role of doctorates (among other things) to encourage productivity. I had a few thoughts that ran more than 140 characters – both the blog and the paper resonated with many of the themes from the last few months of work in my EdD so here we go….

Is “productivity” all we want?

Ekpo et al’s paper and Peter’s blog both start from the standard viewpoint of most papers dealing with MRS research and one that we usually take as an irrefutable truth – that medical radiation technologists/radiation therapists/radiographers “must develop our evidence base for practice” and, conversely, that our practice must be “evidence based”. I have been thinking about this lately – and while I don’t disagree, I might point out that what we usually mean by evidence (and research itself) and the idea of a unique MRS evidence base are concepts that merit further discussion. When we talk about research, we almost always mean that which is influenced by the prevailing ideology of the natural sciences. What we read, value, publish and discuss is almost always quantitative. There is no doubt that this improves patient care in the long run, but the journey to where the impact is felt for the individual patient may be both protracted and convoluted and this is currently a very hot topic! There is also the contentious issue that EBM itself is not value free. As for our “evidence base” – it has long been a source of complaint that this has traditionally been developed by other professions. In fact, it is hard to pinpoint what it is we mean by our own research base.  In my field (radiotherapy) for example, there is a lot of detailed and useful research in highly technical aspects of radiotherapy that is indistinguishable in many ways from that being carried out by radiation oncologists (physicians). Does that matter? Isn’t it all evidence? So “productivity” is an easy metric, but is it a meaningful one?

Go Canada!

From my local (Canadian, radiation therapy, ex-University of Toronto) point of view – what struck me about this paper was that in the top 10 highest impact authors – all but two are based (and presumably teaching) at higher education institutions (HEIs). This is significant and welcomed – but publications from such authors are often an overt expectation of the role (albeit one that has to be balanced with classroom expectations etc.), and many HEI faculty members collaborate with/mentor/supervise their students which increases their output, usually without the requirement for them to actually organise and perform the research itself.  The top Canadians, however, are both clinically focused but have/had academic appointments. These appointments also come with an expectation for regular research and publication but balanced with a (usually) full time clinical role. Academic appointments for therapists in Canada are relatively new, centred mostly at the University of Toronto and based on the criteria for physician appointments. It’s fair to say that there is some tension between the traditional medically based definitions of “clinician-scientist” or “clinician-educator” (with reserved time for research, administrative support etc.) and the reality for the radiation therapist clinical researcher.  A group of us at Princess Margaret Hospital (Toronto) looked at what makes a “scholarly” therapist a few years ago. Scholarly perhaps indicates more of an academic, not practical, focus but we were trying to fit what we saw happening with the broader definitions of “scholarship” (for example, Boyer’s definition of the scholarship of integration and application). The conclusions then were that encouraging research in clinical practice is a complex mix of factors that include overt leadership support and organisational embeddedness, the development of integrated expert clinical-research roles (where possible), a link to an educational institution/university and the fostering of ongoing discussion and debate about what type of research is needed for the department and the profession. Peter’s research unit (mentioned in the blog) probably contains elements of all of these.  What we also saw more anecdotally was research success/productivity also meant working your butt off, staying late, taking grant applications home and generally putting in a lot more hours than the usual 9 to 5 clinical role.

The great doctoral debate

Peter’s blog also looks at educational preparation for research. In my experience, Masters level education is often where the lights come on for many people, the research is a little deeper, the learning a little broader and the focus of the work is usually issues with clinical practice. Doctoral level work is perhaps trickier. About 10 years ago there was a flurry of UK papers discussing the educational expectations for a consultant role concluding that they needed a doctorate. The “level playing field” argument (parity with other professions at a similar level) was used quite a bit, as well as the thought that PhD preparation would lead to research.  However – as Peter says, it doesn’t seem to be panning out this way. A doctorate can take many forms. It can be a longitudinal series of focused published papers, based on previously published academic work, entered directly from a baccalaureate level (skipping the Master’s degree) in education (EdD), a professional doctorate (DProf) and more. From my own (highly biased) perspective – a PhD is a long hard lonely slog, and the work is designed to dig deep into a tiny, really specialised, area of practice which may, or may not, lead to significant publication let alone continue after the PhD is complete. As Peter also points out “within our profession this post doc development opportunity is pretty much devoid.” For someone who isn’t based in a HEI – what use is a PhD for career development?  It’s early days yet for me but my vote is for the underdog – the professional doctorate where there is an expectation that findings must “have an impact on a professional setting as well as making a contribution to knowledge” which is what its all about in my book.

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5 thoughts on “Research productivity and the medical radiation sciences: what do we want?

  1. Great blog as always. Yes it is biased- but that makes it all the better! As a fellow DProf student I am with you on this one. Here is a good article in THE this week: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/phd-v-professional-doctorate-which-better

    Really glad someone has mentioned about the PhD, DPhil, EdD, DProf debate. Sometimes it feels like you are a second class citizen not completing a PhD. However as I am finding out it is just as hard to complete (i.e. number of words as the PhD) and just as demanding. I spoke to a fellow AHP who is on the PhD route and when I outlined the 60 credits of taught M level modules (12,000 words of writing) over six months, the 10,000 word portfolio and stage 1 progression interview prior to starting the 60,000 word thesis they said I would be better off doing a PhD!

    Someone once likened doing a Phd to the Stanford Marshmallow test. As the child that would eat the first marshmallow and not wait for the second they said I would be doomed on a PhD programme. As you note it is a long road with the reward being along way off from the starting point. (Especially for a lot of radiographers who study part-time). I have the deepest admiration for anyone who can wait along time for the second marshmallow. At least on the DProf the marshmallows are little and often.

    That is the beauty of having a choice with Doctoral level studies- there is something for those in clinical, those in academia and those who are “half and half” as we say in Wales.

    Janice

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would also eat the marshmallow Janice! Love that analogy! I looked at A LOT of alternatives for the doctorate and an happy I have a cohort model, course work and deadlines to guide me and a real focus on improving my practice. But…horses for courses and choice is always good 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks (as always) for the insightful blog, there are so many facets to improving the research capacity and capability of the profession. My own journey Prof doc through taught element over 2 years and then realising that I was struggling to manage a PgDip in ultrasound clinical lead for a large multi centre RCT as well as a full time job (oh and a husband and 2 kids) so stepped off with another masters. That’s when I realised that I was already research active and publishing a lot, so the PhD by published work made sense.

    Doctoral study whatever the route is not easy but does give us a greater understanding of a small area of research study and it is hoped makes for a more research active (and publication productive) radiographer. They key is going to be for the future in whatever branch or country is how we develop evidence for our own profession, as you say our identity does not come through all research and the radiography evidence base is not explicitly.

    As you state few clinical Radiographers do manage to be research productive, research is a lonely place sometimes, although much of my research has been collaborative and that has helped develop skills as well as resilience. But how are those partnerships built and nurtured when many academics are struggling to build their own research identity, building clinical academic partnerships helps all and cannot be underestimated in terms of personal and professional growth. They do not have to be exclusive and indeed these days are more likely to be supporting others rather than ploughing own furrows.

    I await with interest the #medradjclub chat on Monday. And thanks to the power of SoMe work around doctoral radiography profiles for uk, Canada and Australia/NZ will soon be emerging.

    Liked by 2 people

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