Research brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners – how similar are they?

Jennifer Watling Neal, Zachary P. Neal and Brian Brutzman

Brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners facilitate communication between researchers and practitioners but are these various terms simply different labels for the same role? We spent the last year reviewing published articles in health, education and the environment to explore how each of these terms is defined. In short, we found that, when these terms are used, most of the time they aren’t defined. But, when these terms are defined, there are key differences in what they mean.

There’s increasing recognition that brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners play a key role in connecting researchers and practitioners. However, inconsistencies in whether and how brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners are defined make it hard to understand, evaluate and leverage these roles.

In our Evidence & Policy article, ‘Defining brokers, intermediaries, and boundary spanners: a systematic review’, we searched the published literature for articles that mentioned brokers, intermediaries, or boundary spanners and the transfer of research evidence. Our search yielded a pool of 277 relevant articles that contained 430 separate uses of the terms – brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners.

Figure 1

Our systematic review resulted in three main findings:

  • First, there were key differences in the use of terms across sectors, with health articles disproportionately using the term broker, education articles disproportionately using the term intermediary, and environment articles disproportionately using the term boundary spanner.
  • Second, we found that only 37.2% of uses of the terms – brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners – included explicit definitions.
  • Third, when terms were defined across all three policy areas (health, education and environment), there was meaningful variation in who brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners are and in what they do. Brokers were commonly defined as people engaged in multiple functions, including research dissemination, relationship building, and capacity building. Intermediaries were commonly defined as organisations that engage in research dissemination. Finally, boundary spanners were commonly defined as people or organisations who were engaged in relationship-building.

Based on our findings, we have four recommendations for future work in this area:

  • The frequent failure to define brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners makes it more difficult to conceptualize and learn from these roles. Therefore, literature invoking these terms should explicitly state their definition (Recommendation 1).
  • Consistent use of already existing definitions can help minimise confusion and establish a common language. Therefore, individuals invoking brokers, intermediaries or boundary spanners should rely on an already existing definition of the term and provide a citation (Recommendation 2).
  • Because there are important distinctions between different terms, we caution researchers against using these terms interchangeably. If individuals wish to conceptualise brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners as synonyms, they should explicitly identify this (Recommendation 3).
  • Future research should compare and contrast brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners based on meaningful variation related to who they are and what they do. In particular, individuals should aim to build a theory of brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners by testing the extent to which definitional distinctions have implications for these entities’ effectiveness (Recommendation 4).

Variation and lack of clarity in definitions reduces our understanding of brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners. However, by following the four recommendations, we can start to build a common language and a better theory of these roles, which often seem so critical to the transfer of evidence between researchers and practitioners.


Jennifer Watling Neal and Zachary P. Neal are Associate Professors of Psychology at Michigan State University. Brian Brutzman is a Ph.D. student in Psychology at Michigan State University. All have broad interests in leveraging social networks to improve communication between the research and practice communities.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Neal, J.W. Neal, Z.P. and Brutzman, B. (2021). Defining brokers, intermediaries, and boundary spanners: a systematic review. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X16083745764324. [Open Access]


Image credit: Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Knowledge brokers or relationship brokers? The role of an embedded knowledge mobilisation team

The role and contribution of an intermediary organisation in the implementation of an interactive knowledge transfer model

Brokering research in science education policy implementation: the case of a professional association

‘Maybe we can turn the tide’: an explanatory mixed-methods study to understand how knowledge brokers mobilise health evidence in low- and middle-income countries [Open Access]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s