Ambiguity surrounding the effect of external engagement on academic research has raised questions about what motivates researchers to collaborate with third parties. We argue that what matters for society is research that can be absorbed by users. We define ‘openness’ as a willingness by researchers to make research more usable by external partners by responding to external influences in their own research practices. We ask what kinds of characteristics define those researchers who are more ‘open’ to creating usable knowledge. Our empirical study analyses a sample of 1583 researchers working at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC). Results demonstrate that it is personal factors (academic identity and past experience) that determine which researchers have open behaviours. The paper concludes that policies to encourage external engagement should focus on experiences which legitimate and validate knowledge produced through user encounters, both at the academic formation career stage as well as through providing ongoing opportunities to engage with third parties.