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The multiple meanings of translational research in (bio)medical research


Translational research is a buzzword which dominates discussions about the quality, the utilization, and the benefits of (bio)medical research. Yet, although translational research has become a prominent topic, no commonly agreed definition of this terminology exists. Instead, experts from different contexts such as biomedical research, clinical practice or nursing discuss translational research in multiple ways depending on how they define the problem that translational research is supposed to be the solution to. In this paper, we do not seek to find a ‘correct’ definition of translational research, but instead ask how actors using this terminology for describing their own research make sense of it. To do so, we asked three questions: Which actors are engaged in the debate about translational research? What kind of different meanings of translational research exist? And, which actors refer to which meaning of translational research when using the term? In answering these questions, we highlight the role this terminology plays in defining what medical science is about today.

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  1. 1.

    For a critical view see Mittra (2013).

  2. 2.

    For more information on the knowledge-to-action cycle see also and Straus et al. (2013).

  3. 3.

    See for an overview of definitions of translational blocks and phases van der Laan and Boenink (2012).

  4. 4.

    They highlight that words can be both, either a graphic depiction or spoken sound (Czarniawska and Bernward 1996, 20).

  5. 5.

    It is important to note that Czarniawska and Joerges also use the term ‘translation’. However, they use it as an analytical concept for understanding the process of diffusion instead of as a particular empirical phenomenon in the field of medicine.

  6. 6.

    MEDLINE (Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System Online) is a public bibliographic database that is provided by the U.S. American National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and contains citations for international literature of all kinds of subspecialties of medicine from about 5.600 journals (see

  7. 7.

    MAXQDA is a software for computer-based qualitative text analysis (

  8. 8.

    The aim of Q-Methodology is to explore opinions and attitudes, to reveal and to understand the predominant viewpoints within a group regarding a topic of interest, i.e. how people think about a specific topic such as translational research (Stephenson 1953).

  9. 9.

    We do not distinguish between biomedical and clinical research because in the majority of the cases it was not possible to tell if people were doing basic laboratory research or rather clinical research in patients.

  10. 10.

    The number of mentions was then normalized, i.e. the mentions for each domain were recalculated in such a way that they comprise a ‘portfolio’ of relevant topics within this domain. The maximum for each column represents the highest number of domain representations. All other values were recalculated as shares of this maximum value.

  11. 11.

    Both cell shades and vertical lines show the same information.

  12. 12.

    In order to account for differences in respondents for each domain, the distance matrix calculation prior to the cluster analyses were based on cosine distances.

  13. 13.

    We furthermore found that social scientists care about the evaluation of the translational research concept and its meaning as we do here in this article.


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We thank Jonas von Beckerath and Nicolas Rüffin for their support in the data collection process, the working group on translational research at Humboldt University Berlin and Elizabeth Toon and Michael Worboys for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

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Correspondence to Anne K. Krueger.

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Krueger, A.K., Hendriks, B. & Gauch, S. The multiple meanings of translational research in (bio)medical research. HPLS 41, 57 (2019).

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  • Translational research
  • Medical science
  • Nursing
  • Translation
  • Diffusion