Brilliant Club

The challenges of collaborative research

04 Dec 2017

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk about my experience of collaborative research with a group of students and researchers, as part of a series of seminars on public-facing research organised by The Brilliant Club. Concepts like ‘coproductive research’ and ‘participatory research’ have become buzzwords in academia and we wanted more critical reflection on what collaborative research is and what the challenges are.

Why do collaborative research projects?

Collaborative research is about doing a study with participants who take an active role in shaping the research agenda and the research process. There is increasing distrust towards expertise in public life, where people claim we have had enough of experts. Collaborative research is a way of democratising knowledge production as we re-connect high-level scientific problems to the very real needs of communities.

Co-creating knowledge, through an iterative process of defining, refining, generating and implementing evidence with a range of different stakeholders can really broaden our understanding of issues, helping generate novel insights. Knowledge, particularly when it comes to complex issues, is hardly ever certain and is often contested. Opening the research process to public input can help demystify research, increasing peoples’ understanding of the academic process and therefore trust in it.

How do they work?

At The Brilliant Club’s seminar, I explained a couple of different projects I have been involved with.

Before starting my work at UCL, I was involved with Whitley Researchers, a collaboration between a group of residents from South Reading and the University of Reading. This was a community-based participatory research project. It was community driven, starting with a research topic of practical relevance to the community. It was participatory, as community members and researchers shared control of the research agenda through active involvement in the research design, implementation and dissemination. Furthermore, it was action-oriented, which meant that the process and results promoted positive change in the community.

In my current role at UCL, I am a Researcher-in-Residence (RiR) in East London, evaluating the integration of health and social services. This project uses a model of embedded research, where the researcher (me!) is embedded in the organisation he or she is researching, and becomes a core member of an operational team. This kind of academic project aims to narrow the gap between academia and practice. The different types of expertise of all the partners are acknowledged and there is strong emphasis on influencing through dialogue.

Although these two projects took different forms, they were based on common principles of collaborative research: collaboration across the full range of stakeholders; emphasis on solving practical problems; shared learning; and a focus on addressing power imbalances.

What are the issues?

For all its benefits, collaborative research is not easy to do and can do more harm than good without adequate reflection on a number of challenges:

Any collaborative research project raises new ethical issues, adding complexity to traditional aspects of research ethics. It entails complex interactions and potentially unequal power relationships. By aligning research with specific individuals in an organisation or community, academics may also influence others’ engagement with the research or their perception of the findings. Other times, academics may wish to motivate some form of political or social action which other research partners in a community might not want.

There are also real questions about how academics can demonstrate the impact of collaborative research projects. When career progression in academia is measured by the number of articles published, papers delivered, and grants received, the time-consuming and resource-intensive nature of collaborative research can be problematic. Academic papers may well be a low priority for other partners involved in the project as well, who might be more interested in problem resolution or the creation of a new programme.

How can universities and academics get involved?

There are a number of ways that universities can promote collaborative research:

In the meantime, there are already some great participatory research hubs online (i.e. University of Durham; University of Reading; Public Science Project). These sites offer resources and share case studies. So let’s get together and learn together!

Dr Sonia Bussu presented at The Brilliant Club’s seminar series about public-facing research, as part of our Impact Network. The seminars are open to all PhD researchers, early career academics and practitioners. The next session is Wednesday 6 December, 5pm-6pm.