The need to develop a track record of meaningful, quality research outcomes has never been greater for nurses and midwives. A strong track record is absolutely essential for attracting increasingly competitive research grants but, despite best intentions, there are many factors that limit our ability to produce these quality research outcomes. These include (but are not limited to) time limitations and lack of confidence, knowledge, experience and resources.
In addition to developing a research track record for competitive purposes, there are many other pressing reasons why nurses and midwives now need to acquire research skills and produce tangible outcomes from their research. We need to develop and extend the contribution of nursing to health care; develop the evidence base for our practice; fulfil the expectations attached to being a university-based discipline; and, at the personal level, enhance professional development, career progression and promotion.
But how do we improve research productivity in working environments that, for many, are characterized by inadequate and diminishing resources within organizational cultures that too often are unsupportive of nursing research? Many nurses and midwives are working under continual organizational restructuring, resulting in constant pressure to deal with rapid, imposed change. Working in conditions of ongoing uncertainty and disequilibrium can be stressful and disorientating, and is not conducive to the facilitation of an active research culture. Restructuring is not only affecting the health care system. Nurses employed in the university sector are also experiencing major changes. Furthermore, the demands of teaching in a practice discipline are unrelenting and exhausting. So here too, ironically, there are many pressures that detract from the potential to be research active and productive.
One solution is not to expect individuals to battle against these pressures but, instead, to build a community of researchers. A ‘research community‘ is simply a group or cluster of researchers who employ supportive community-type processes to enhance the research productivity of its members. At the same time, this brings the benefits of enhancing work environments, fostering more positive interpersonal relationships and providing learning and development opportunities for all involved.
Developing cohesive programs of nursing research, rather than a continuing proliferation of disjointed projects, is the best way to develop strength and depth in nursing research. A community of researchers would naturally choose to operate in that way, adopting a shared focus for their research: for example, concentrating on an area such as family or community health or in a particular field of clinical practice. The focus needs to be broad enough to attract members and resources but, at the same time, narrow enough to build expertise and develop a track record in a particular area of research.
Members of a nursing research community can be drawn from the education, clinical and community sectors, and can include individuals with different types and levels of research expertise. Members are bound together by a common interest in the particular area, and through shared values and aspirations, rather than by any particular skill type or level. The community should not be too large, but it needs a dynamic mix of compatible people with shared interests, but with varied skills (particularly in terms of methodological orientation and expertise) to enhance the research capability of the group as a whole. Each member needs to make some level of serious commitment to the community. Everyone must bring something to the table: the basic ingredients needed to sustain a research community are energy, ideas, enthusiasm, expertise, and a willingness to share and to learn.
Once the community is formed, members need to agree on the values and processes to manage and sustain the group. Personal and professional integrity, collegial respect, and a willingness to work with other researchers are key to ensuring a productive and creative milieu for community members. Processes such as mentoring, peer support, and inclusivity contribute to the creation of an environment in which members feel supported to take risks, step outside their comfort zone and, as a result, develop new skills. The ‘skill mix’ in any community means that novice researchers and research students are supported by research-experienced peers but, at the same time, they can make a crucial contribution to the creative synergy of a research community. In this way, everyone benefits by the ‘division of labour’ in group-based research, usually resulting in greater productivity and efficiency and, at the end of the day, the outputs – and the credits – are appropriately shared by all members.
The current working context requires that we find new ways of achieving the goal of making nursing a truly research-based profession. Supportive, collaborative processes are more likely to strengthen our research activity, nurture future researchers, and generate increased research outcomes. The time has come for nurses, whether in practice or academe, to stop trying to battle single-handedly with research but, instead, to embrace the community spirit, and start working together.