• Open Access

Was it good for you too? Impediments to conducting university-based collaborative research with communities experiencing disadvantage

Authors


Correspondence to:
Dr Sarah MacLean, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, 54–62 Gertrude Street,Fitzroy, Victoria, 3065. Fax: (03) 9416 3420; e-mail: sarah.maclean@turningpoint.org.au

Abstract

Objective: Collaborative and participatory research (CPR) models are increasingly recognised as methodologically, ethically and practically appropriate to conducting health and welfare research involving disadvantaged communities. This paper identifies impediments to CPR and proposes measures to support and encourage future CPR in Australian universities.

Methods: This paper draws on a small qualitative study of university-based CPR projects in Melbourne. The study involved a literature review and interviews with 23 participants, comprising university-based researchers and community liaison officers, and community representatives involved in university-based research projects.

Results: The paper outlines four main difficulties encountered by university-based researchers and community liaison staff in conducting CPR. These are: managing community sensitivities, the time-consuming nature of the work and diverse tasks involved, difficulty securing adequate research funding, and a concern that CPR was detrimental to academic careers.

Conclusion: CPR in universities might be supported in the future through providing CPR training for researchers, employing additional community liaison staff, recognising community reports within the Australian research quality evaluation system Excellence in Research for Australia, adopting supportive policies within universities and provision of dedicated CPR funding.

Implications: In the current Australian university context of competitive funding, further research into CPR nationally, alongside dedicated resources and policies are required to maximise the benefits of this approach.

A growing amount of literature discusses collaborative and participatory research (CPR) projects and methods. Much of this writing emerges from North America.2–10 This literature often focuses on promoting the benefits of collaborative methodologies or on outlining how such research should optimally be conducted. Scant attention has been paid to difficulties encountered by researchers and university based community-liaison staff in their efforts to conduct CPR within institutional and professional contexts in Australia or indeed other countries.

This article draws on a small study of research projects involving collaboration between university-based researchers and representatives of communities experiencing various forms of disadvantage in Melbourne, Australia. It aims to provide a synthesis of some difficulties experienced by university-based staff in conducting CPR and to offer suggestions on how CPR might be supported in Australian universities in the future.

We define collaborative CPR as any project where collaboration and participation of communities or their representatives (beyond simply being involved as research subjects) is critical to the conduct of the research, and where the aim of research is to achieve some benefit for communities concerned.11 Universities engage with diverse communities, from industry to policy and professional groups. The focus of this article is on difficulties experienced by university-based research staff engaged in collaborative health and welfare research involving communities that experience disadvantage or disenfranchisement; for instance Indigenous communities, same-sex attracted young people, homeless young people or people living in areas of socio-economic marginality.

CPR is believed to be particularly suited to contexts of social and economic disadvantage where its benefits have ethical, methodological and practical dimensions. Broadly, CPR approaches foster and sustain participation of disenfranchised communities in the processes of research. A significant ethical advantage of CPR is that it can be used to empower communities by offering opportunities to influence the design of research, to develop skills and to become involved in developing strategies to address social and health inequality.3,4,8,11,12 Methodological advantages of CPR include ensuring the relevance of research and the appropriateness of measurement tools.13 On a practical level, CPR may also be a useful way of accessing populations that are marginalised and hard to reach such as Indigenous communities who have previously had negative experiences of involvement in research.11,14 Collaboration also facilitates knowledge exchange and uptake of findings.12,15

Research funding bodies in Australia encourage projects that will benefit the community, and community participation is seen as an important way to enhance the relevance, conduct and dissemination of research.16 Since 2005, for instance, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant applications require researchers to stipulate and report on how consumer or community participation will be incorporated into their projects.17 Nonetheless, Australian health research is primarily investigator-driven and structured community involvement remains relatively rare.18,19

Optimal practice in collaborative participatory research

The literature describes a range of elements common to successful research collaborations between communities and researchers (see ref 2, 4, 11, 12, 20–24). Developing and maintaining research partnerships requires major investments of time from both community and university-based participants. Research partners should be involved from the very beginning of the project so they may contribute to the project's design. Trust is essential to any research partnership and must be earned over time by sensitive and considerate interaction with the community. Extensive negotiation and consultation is likely to be required prior to the commencement of any project to formulate and agree on common goals. A meaningful role for community participants in the research should be established and maintained. Roles of all partners should be clearly defined and funds should be available to recompense community members for contributions. All parties must maintain an awareness of the political context of any research project. Partners must be sufficiently flexible to renegotiate arrangements where necessary and decision making should be democratic. It is important also that research be conducted in an ethical manner if all parties are to remain committed to the process. Projects should also aim to build the research and advocacy skills of community participants. Finally, feeding back research findings to community participants and working to ensure the project results in health and welfare benefits for communities concerned are also essential elements of effective CPR.

Method

The research project on which this paper draws used a critical reflexive methodology.25–27 Two of the investigators were included as key informants and their experiences as community researchers have informed the analysis. Ethical approval to conduct the research was acquired from the University of Melbourne, School of Population Health Human Research Ethics Committee and participants provided informed consent. A project report was disseminated outlining case studies of CPR involving disadvantaged communities and strategies utilised to facilitate community engagement.1

Twenty-three participants took part in research interviews, each selected because of recent involvement in CPR involving partnership between universities and communities experiencing disadvantage in Melbourne. Seven researchers and seven community liaison officers, community development or project staff employed at universities (all referred to as CLOs) were interviewed, alongside nine community members or representatives of community-based agencies.

Interviews were of 30–70 minutes duration and utilised a conversational approach.28 Theme sheets were used to focus interviews. Interview transcripts and research notes were coded using the qualitative software package NVivo. A thematic analysis29 was used to structure the coding and identify findings.

Challenges encountered by university-based research staff

Significant differences emerged between optimal approaches to CPR outlined in the literature and the projects undertaken by participants in our study. For instance, very few studies involved communities from the project instigation stage: the majority were investigator-driven and decision making, while generally consultative, was not always democratic. Some projects with which participants had been involved did not entail developing clear goals or project agreements with community participants. Few projects had funding to reimburse community participants for their contributions to research. Only a minority of projects actively endeavoured to empower and upskill members of disadvantaged communities.

Equal input from all participants in research is not a pre-requisite for achieving positive outcomes for disadvantaged communities and limitations on community partner involvement do not necessarily negate the value of CPR projects in the study. Nonetheless researchers and CLOS participating in the study frequently voiced disappointment that the institutional and funding settings within which they worked restricted their capacity to conduct research that met their own ethical or procedural standards for community engagement.

Research and community liaison staff involved in the study described four main difficulties they had experienced in conducting CPR. These were: managing community sensitivities, the time-consuming nature of CPR and diverse tasks involved, difficulty securing adequate funding and concern that engaging in CPR was detrimental to academic careers.

Managing community sensitivities

Researchers working in communities experiencing disadvantage invariably encounter complex ethical and procedural issues. For instance, the literature identifies determining who is able to represent the views of community members as a key concern for CPR.4,22 Researchers in the study struggled with conflicts within communities over who ought to be consulted or who was qualified to represent whom. As a researcher told us:

“You have competition within the community as to who should represent the community.”

This was particularly problematic in instances when university requirements such as securing ethical approval required that researchers demonstrate community involvement, yet researchers were aware also that some peak bodies or organisations were not actually representative of those individuals likely to participate in the research. They felt that some community group members’ lack of understanding of the research process occasionally leads to unrealistic expectations and dissatisfaction with research outcomes or time-frames. Researchers were also wary of providing too little or too much information to communities, fearing insulting them by oversimplifying findings or alternatively presenting material in language that was too obtuse. At times researchers found dealing with the complex politics of community work stressful and distressing.

Time-consuming nature of CPR and diverse tasks involved

CPR is notoriously slow work.4 Extensive time for consultation and negotiation is required from project conception to implementation and eventual research dissemination. Other researchers have noted that the significant investments of time that goes into CPR approaches are borne by community members, academic researchers and other stakeholders.30 Similarly, in this study, researchers described how CPR involved many demands on their time in attending community meetings, dissemination activities and other engagements. One researcher spent six months attending a community group before some of the more socially isolated members felt comfortable to participate in research interviews with her.

Researchers engaged in CPR must be prepared to respond to diverse community needs. Some participants noted that to gain entry to a community in order to negotiate research collaboration they often needed to offer whatever expertise they could. This might include, preparing grants on behalf of community-based organisations, delivering professional development workshops for community-based staff and volunteers, writing press releases for local media and a range of advocacy work.

Working with communities can entail significant administrative workloads. Non-academic tasks included identifying and contacting community groups, arranging meetings, issuing invitations, maintaining databases and mailing out reports. In the absence of administrative capacity within research centres, researchers and CLOs frequently undertook these roles themselves. Researchers also found they spent significant time providing input to policy processes, giving advice to community partners subsequent to conducting research, or on research dissemination. One researcher observed of his time spent on the project: ‘it was a lot of non-research work; it was actually political work and policy work’. Another requirement of CPR is to produce plain language reports for communities and policy professionals and reports to funding bodies. These reports take time to write and, as we shall discuss, count for little within current systems of academic performance measurement.

Difficulty securing adequate funding

Adequate research funding for CPR is difficult to secure. Funding bodies may be reluctant to provide grants for less established research methodologies, such as CPR with long lead-times, uncertain outcomes and additional resourcing requirements.4 The benefits of CPR and related approaches are often diffuse and hard to measure. Perspectives on the effectiveness of any collaboration are likely to vary and few rigorous evaluations of research collaborations have been undertaken12,31 Time-limited competitive grant funding of research projects also makes sustained community engagement problematic.20 Funding bodies, furthermore, encourage research involving corporate or industry partners. Researchers find less incentive to work with local or disadvantaged communities that cannot contribute financially to research projects.

It was widely argued by our research participants that Australian research funding rarely provides sufficient resources to enable academics to engage with community research partners and to disseminate research findings to communities, as two researchers observed:

“Funding is a key issue obviously. Funding rarely is sufficient for time taken. Funding needs to recognise the time taken.”

“It's very hard to get money and when you do it's typically underfunded. It doesn’t recognise time for relationship building and relationship maintenance … That's totally not recognised or appreciated in the funding. Research transfer is also time-consuming and frequently involves travel.”

CPR projects have a tendency to extend beyond set research funding periods. For instance, researchers in the study reported receiving ongoing requests to provide presentations for community groups. Furthermore, the timelines of funding agencies are seldom sufficiently flexible to accommodate the often necessarily vague and indeterminate ending phase of a CPR project. A university-based CLO commented, furthermore, that building ongoing relationships with communities was difficult because so many university staff are employed on short contracts due to time-limited funding: “How are people going to be committed to doing knowledge transfer from work when [they’re] not going to be around?”

Academic career disadvantage

Under the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations publication system Australian universities are required to report on four kinds of publications: authored books, chapters in research books, refereed journal articles and refereed conference papers, but not community reports. Reportable publications are valued by universities because they are counted in funding allocations and are likewise an important measure of success for academics.

Closely related to concerns over the time-consuming nature of non-academic CPR activities was concern among researchers about lost opportunity to produce peer-reviewed academic publications and lack of recognition of CPR activities within their workloads. Anxiety about the impact on academic careers of time spent on community engagement or writing community reports was frequently raised through interviews conducted for this study. Although researchers often felt that CPR was valued within their research centres, they were keenly aware that outputs from this research were not counted in academic performance metrics, are often difficult to publish in prestigious ‘high impact’ journals and, as some perceived, are poorly valued within the university:

“We really suffered in terms of publications in doing this [CPR]… There's a huge personal cost for me and for some of the other members of staff.”

“We do our booklets, our posters, we have all of our time out in the field, which we feel is just as important as the research but we have no incentive to do that at all — it doesn’t count. That's the biggest impediment to doing community work.”

“Places where you can publish reports on community work have very low impact factors.”

Nonetheless, a couple of researchers also argued that CPR brought recognition if researchers were able to actively promote their work within the university. One way this had been done was by tracking numbers of unique users downloading community reports from internet sites.

Discussion

Suggestions for supporting CPR

Drawing on ideas proposed both in the literature and by our research participants five key suggestions emerged as to how CPR involving disadvantaged communities might be better supported in Australia. These are: providing CPR training for researchers, employing community liaison staff, recognising community reports within the Australian research quality evaluation system, adopting supportive policies within universities and dedicated Australian CPR funding.

CPR training for researchers

Some researchers have far better skills in community liaison than others.32 In North America, it has been argued that education should be provided for researchers on the benefits of collaborative approaches to research and how to initiate and conduct it.3,6 Participants in our study also advised that some researchers require training in effective CPR and particularly how to negotiate community politics. Some community representatives also suggested that researchers would benefit from training in communicating research findings to a non-specialist audience. Two Indigenous participants suggested that researchers should do some background reading to save community partners time informing them of the community's history or of particular sensitivities around research within that community. Another community worker advised that researchers should be advised to approach agencies with clear and concise written statements of their aims when seeking support for research.

Employing community liaison staff

In Australia, Mitchell and Walsh33 argue that academic staff face institutional and professional impediments to establishing and maintaining relationships with community partners. They recommend therefore that dedicated intermediaries such as CLOs are required to maximise the value of social research. While some difficulties in relation to employment of CLOs were observed by research participants,34 many advocated strongly that dedicated and skilled staff are able to forge and maintain co-operative relationship with communities and to ensure that research findings are presented in accessible formats and actively disseminated. CLOs may also have the time and expertise to navigate some of the complexities of community engagement that research staff find challenging, particularly in cases where liaison officers are selected due to their membership of or identification with communities involved.

Adopting supportive policies within universities

Universities must also adopt supportive policies if researchers are to be encouraged to conduct CPR. For instance, university promotion committees must recognise the challenges of CPR and the different kinds of research outcomes (such as community reports and training materials) produced through community engagement.6 Policies to support CPR in universities might include awards schemes for CPR3 and, as we shall discuss below, measuring CPR as academic activity and output.

Various mechanisms for providing a focus for CPR within universities were recommended by research participants. These included funding CPR fellowships for researchers who are developing expertise in this approach and providing additional administrative assistance for researchers engaged in CPR. Another recommendation made by one participant was that CPR offices be established in universities to provide a focus for expertise in the approach. Less expensive suggestions included instigating support networks for CLOs, and providing a database of research partnership agreements that might be adapted to meet the needs of specific projects.

Recognising community reports within the Australian research quality evaluation system

Butler has argued that metrics for funding and administrating the tertiary sector are influential in shaping academic research.35 Decisions about what kinds of publications may be counted as academic output have important implications for the viability of CPR. Participants in our study argued strongly that they should be able to record community reports and information resources as academic outputs.

The federal Labour Government announced in early 2008 that a new system for academic research quality assessment, titled ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’ would be introduced.36 Specific indictors of ‘research activity and intensity’, ‘research quality’, and ‘success in applied research and translation of research outcomes’ are being developed for each of eight discipline clusters.37 It is timely to argue for the importance of including community reports, and other knowledge translation activities that engage communities, as possible indicators of success within all ERA discipline clusters where CPR is conducted, and particularly within the Public and Allied Health and Health Services cluster.

Since February 2009 the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK has highlighted the importance of research impact in making funding decisions. The ESRC views research impact broadly, arguing that it ‘can take many forms, become manifest at different stages in the research life-cycle and beyond, and be promoted in many different ways’.38 CPR projects appear to offer diverse benefits for communities, albeit that these benefits are difficult to predict and quantify. As a predominantly metrics-based system, the ERA focuses on counting and assessing the quality of recognised publications. Academic assessment mechanisms which recognise research impact broadly (such as the ESRC) are likely to capture outcomes of CPR more effectively than those (such as the ERA) which do not.

Dedicated Australian funding for CPR

Both funding and grant assessment procedures may need to be adapted to ensure a fair evaluation for CPR projects. Some commentators propose that community members should be included as reviewers on grant applications for collaborative research9 or on funding decision-making bodies.39 Others have argued that funding bodies should report how many successful grants incorporate community collaboration in order to track the proportion of research funding going to support CPR,9 or that community members without academic credentials should be recognised by funding bodies as legitimate principal investigators on research projects, and that funding should be made available to train and mentor community members in grant writing and research.5,9 Seifer and Green-Morton9 also propose that the usual funding periods of two to five years are insufficient for research involving community partners. They note that the American National Institutes of Health National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities provides three-year planning grants, five-year implementation grants and additional three-year dissemination grants.

Participants in this project offered recommendations for Australian research funding bodies. One researcher suggested that NHMRC and Australian Research Council (ARC) submission forms might include a section asking whether the project will require additional funding for any particular reason due to requirement for community engagement or the sensitivity of the research environment. This could be used to justify requests for funding to employ a CLO, to explain the need for payments for participants or for longer than usual research time-frames.

Conclusion

Community-university research partnerships present important opportunities to involve disadvantaged communities in developing strategies to address social and health inequalities. CPR approaches promote the meaningful participation of communities in research, and maximise the benefits and value of research for disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities and populations. An extensive and committed scholarship explores and documents the value of CPR approaches but key tenets remain difficult to adopt as usual research practice in public health research. This paper has drawn attention to some of the impediments to its practice that are linked to the academic settings in which much research is undertaken. Community-university partnerships are likely to be further strained in environments of scarce research funding.40 In this context, as Winter and colleagues20 have observed, ‘there is a risk that the educational, social and economic benefits of community engagement will be undermined by higher education policies which emphasis competitiveness, commercialisation and cutbacks.’

This paper draws on a small Melbourne-based exploratory study. Despite the challenges, the findings suggest ways in that CPR approaches are practised in everyday public health research. A wider audit of CPR in Australian universities, involving not only researchers and the communities with whom we work, but also managers of university research and representatives of funding bodies, would determine the resources and policies required to maximise the social and health benefits of this approach.

Acknowledgements

The project was funded by a small grant from The University of Melbourne's Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, with additional funding from the McCaughey Centre: VicHealth Centre for the Promotion of Mental Health and Community Wellbeing. The paper draws on a project report published by the McCaughey Centre at the University of Melbourne.1 Dr Warr and Dr Pyett were supported by VicHealth Public Health Fellowships. We would like to thank the all the interview participants for their generosity in sharing experiences of research collaboration with us and the anonymous reviewer for his or her constructive engagement with the paper.

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