Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 2
18 June 2013 1 Comment
He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it.
As mentioned in Part 1, these posts are a personal account based on things that went awry in my experience of community-based research. I have listed a couple of dot points on practical steps readers might consider to manage the risks I encountered, in case you are contemplating or currently working in a community-based research role.
I’m also keen to hear other experiences and perspectives of this form of research practice, either in the comments or by e-mail. A quick note: I never write or blog about my current place of work, and I’d encourage commenters to de-identify your own places of work.
Points 1-3 cover supervision, ethics and discipline, and they appear in Part 1.
This is an extremely vexed issue in community-based research practice. In a community organisation the board will have a policy on who can speak on the organisation’s behalf. This is typically restricted to senior management.
Senior managers in some organisations misuse these policies, and require their staff to publish articles and submit conference abstracts in the senior managers’ names.
In this situation, working in that role will damage your career by creating a publication gap, and it will doubtless corrode your motivation as well.
- Prevent: negotiate before starting – Who owns the work and end products? Who can put their name to it? What happens when you leave? Can you publish from it?
There is a desperate need for a forum for community-based research workers to discuss methodology, to keep ourselves honest and for professional development.
Many projects with good intentions, interesting data, and thoughtful analyses are let down by shoddy methodology. I’m not judging; I’ve done it myself.***
Some adopt an empowerment based approach, but anonymise key informants so they don’t get credit for the knowledge they contribute to the report. Only the authors and the organisation do.
Some use constructivist methods to make probabilistic claims: ‘X are experts in their own lives and they think Y is a serious issue so this proves Y is prevalent in Victoria.’
Some use statistical analysis of numbers from tiny, non-random samples, or report percentages of agreement among focus group participants.
- Prevent: if the problem is as serious as you think, don’t rush into action. Reflect on it: what kind of research can most credibly put this on the agenda? Am I really the person to do this work? What’s my ego investment in ‘helping’ here?
I’m certainly not saying ‘don’t do it’, though. In the competitive environment of the academy, it can be tricky to interest researchers in studying certain kinds of problem, like the ‘rare events in small groups’ scenario described in the introduction.
As it happens, these kinds of issue are made for community-based research.
Although ‘lack of evidence’ is often cited as an obstacle to action, there are plenty of issues with a rock solid ‘evidence base’ that receive little or no policy traction or program funding. Sometimes a good story, fairly told, is a better policy lever than any randomised controlled trial (RCT) study.
It’s a challenging read, but I recommend Yoland Wadsworth’s magnum opus, Building in Research and Evaluation, to anyone interested in an epistemology for research-in-practice.
There’s a basic assumption in research that you’ll report on what you ‘find’ (in a broad sense, including the outputs of interpretivist analysis). On this basis, you might be a bit surprised to be given a page of talking points your findings need to support.
If you’re contracted to undertake an independent evaluation or a comprehensive review of an issue, it can come as a surprise to submit your draft findings and be told to take something out ‘because it makes us look bad’.
Of course, these things happen in academic research as well. It requires negotiation. The challenge for community-based research employees lies in opening up space for it to be a negotiation in a hierarchical relationship.
- Mitigate: is there a wording we can agree on that communicates the substance of the concern without the words or associations that are causing concern?
In one project, I had been told any evaluation finding critical of the project would be censored (those were the exact words). Thankfully, I had access to guidance from two academic researchers – one a well-known action learning expert and the other an experienced program evaluator.
The former told me I was failing as an action learning facilitator if I didn’t put the issue to the reference group to resolve. The latter gave more practical advice – just write two sets of findings and keep the uncensored one for internal learning purposes.
Congratulations, you’ve won funding for a research project! Now the fight begins to keep it.
In a financial crunch, community organisations may view line items for catering, transcription and conference attendances as discretionary funds, subject to transfer across programs to maintain services and avoid (or pay for) redundancies.
- Prevent: negotiate with your manager to keep project funds under a separate line item; agree with your funder to provide monthly or quarterly financial acquittals; list dissemination activities as nominated deliverables in your service agreement.
Another essential resource is a quiet space to work from or the flexibility to work from home, as well as the ability to install software tools for data analysis or reference management.
Subject to the ‘practical dominates theoretical’ dynamic I mentioned above, some organisations take pride in treating research like any other output – you get the same cubicle, working hours, and programs as any other employee.
- Mitigate: if you’re not getting the resources essential to your work, it may be time to cut your losses and move on.
For each theme, I’ve outlined steps an individual could take to avoid the pitfalls, and I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on these and their own experiences in the comments.
Several of the issues I’ve raised would benefit from a higher level response. There is an immediate need for an ethics committee that understands the context, as well as a clearinghouse for community based research outputs, professional development opportunities and resources for practitioners.
Organisations need to develop appropriate ethics, privacy and data retention policies, and to address unconscionable practices around authorship/ownership. All of these issues would benefit from a wider conversation about research outside the academy.
*** Rapid review – never again!